BROWNE: Why This Year Will Be Different For The Toronto Maple Leafs

Leafs Nation is a land of many, and one where loyalty has been put to the highest of tests.

The source of said loyalty – the Toronto Maple Leafs – currently holds the longest active Stanley Cup drought, and the second longest ever, at 53 seasons – dating back to 1966-67. They also own the 7th-longest championship drought in North American professional sports.

On Wednesday night, the newest incarnation of the blue and white begins its quest to end those ominous streaks as they kick off another unprecedented season against their longtime rivals from La Belle Province, the Montreal Canadiens.

They have had their chances to snap the skid in the last five-plus decades. Multiple heartbreaking postseason oustings were a theme of much of the 1990’s through the early turn of the century. Then, of course, came one of the bleakest periods in team history. This time was marred by a huge lack of success which included but one postseason appearance from 2005-2017 – that one appearance being in a lockout-shortened, 48-game 2013 season and that infamous third-period, game-seven collapse in Boston.

In recent years, success has been marginally easier to come by. Since the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and other members of the youthful core emerged, they have made four straight playoff appearances. The problem? Finishing the deal – or even part of the deal. They have fallen in the opening round each time – in the case of last year, even before the first round, in the best-of-five qualifiers held due to the pandemic.

So, while there has been a measure of success – at least comparatively speaking – in the last four years, the loyalty of fans I spoke of off the top has continued to be put to the test. “When will this team truly win?” fans continually ask. “Is this finally the year?”

I argue the answer to the latter question is: yes.

Now, before everyone starts screaming foul, I am by no means saying this Leafs team will win the Stanley Cup in 2021, or even that they are in a position to contend for it. If everything goes right, can it happen? Sure. Is it an extraordinarily likely proposition? Not in the slightest.

What I do predict of the 2020-21 Leafs: they will advance beyond the opening round of the playoffs, and – in so doing – win their first playoff series in some 17 years.

The simple reason? Actions against inadequacies.

Three of the most glaring deficiencies on this Leafs roster over the last four seasons have been defensive-mindedness, grit and veteran leadership. Those three attributes – either separately or simultaneously – have proven to be the club’s demise in each of its four failed postseason runs. This past offseason, general manager Kyle Dubas finally – finally – addressed each of those areas in a series of moves.

First, he traded Kasperi Kapanen back to the Pittsburgh Penguins – the team by which he was originally drafted – along with two others, in exchange for Evan Rodrigues and two others. He then dealt Andreas Johnsson to the New Jersey Devils for Joey Anderson. These deals opened up the necessary cap space to sign T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton.

Brodie and Bogosian are two defensive defencemen, who are responsible in their own end and can move the puck. Brodie can also chip in offensively, while Bogosian plays with the type of brute and physicality the team has been missing on its blueline for several years.

Up front, the additions of Simmonds and Thornton serve the purposes of the other missing ingredients: grit and veteran leadership. Simmonds has always played a gritty, in-your-face type game, not afraid to get in the dirty areas to win puck battles and create scoring chances. Thornton, 41 and entering his 23rd NHL season, is definitely not the elite player he once was. He has found ways to adapt his game to the faster pace, playing a more rugged and defensive game. He will also be that source of veteran leadership for a team whose core pieces were infants and newborns when ‘Jumbo Joe’ entered the NHL.

Are these star players? Guys that will put this Leafs team over the top? By no means. What they are, though are serviceable pieces that will make an impact on a team looking to take the next step in its development. Scoring and goaltending are there – we know that. These adds fill some gaping holes on the roster, and, on paper, make this team better.

These acquisitions are why this year is different. It was abundantly clear the status quo, ‘we’ll get em next year’ mentality wasn’t going to cut it. Dubas knew this, and he acted upon that knowledge. It’s not easy giving up good young players, but sometimes that’s what needs to be done to make your team better.

They did it not as an indictment on the now-departed Kapanen and Johnsson, but in the spirit of improvment and, ultimately, winning. That is, after all, what sports is all about.

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