The Toronto Maple Leafs sit quietly in the bottom of the NHL Eastern Conference. But unlike previous seasons, there are no calls for the head coach to be fired, underachieving players traded, or management spend money on free agents that will end up turning into underachieving players that we want to see traded. Instead, there is hope and optimism in Leaf Nation. This is what having low expectations can do to a hockey mad city like Toronto. Compare that to the turmoil happening in Montreal.
The development of young players is progressing and the Leafs have jettisoned enough contracts to open up cap space to sign free agents this off-season. But I wouldn’t go after just any player, unless you want another Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf. There is a certain type of player the Leafs need. Someone who can put up offensive numbers, be a force at both ends of the ice, and provide leadership. But perhaps most importantly, he must be able to take the situation by the horns and run with it.
When the Blue Jays acquired Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics in 2014 we knew we were getting a great player. But we had no idea what a huge impact he made the following season. Gold-glove calibre defense, clutch hitter at the plate, and excellent baseball IQ. Add to it, he woke up a sluggish baseball town and brought it to its feet. These qualities enabled Donaldson to help lead the Blue Jays to the American League East title and become the American League’s Most Valuable Player. The Maple Leafs need to have that type of guy in their locker room if they seriously want to win the Stanley Cup. In other words, the Maple Leafs should be looking for their own Bringer of Rain.
So who will that player be? Steven Stamkos? William Nylander? Mitch Marner? Auston Matthews? Whoever that player is, he will need to be much like Donaldson: someone who lets his actions do the talking. Not only will this player have to make spectacular plays but he will need to do it in the clutch. When the spotlight is on him, he will raise his level another 3 or 4 notches. You can’t be that kind of player with talent alone. The Edmonton Oilers have found that out the hard way over the past few years much to the dismay of those who believe grit is overrated.
If there is a hockey version of Donaldson right now it would be Jonathan Toews. The last player the Leafs ever had that came close to the likes of those two is Doug Gilmour. So if you do the math, that is about 20 years. In fact, when did any Toronto team during than span had that kind of impact player? Vince Carter? Carlos Delgado? Mats Sundin? All three were close.
If Lou Lamoriello or Brendan Shanahan can find that player, the Leafs will win the Stanley Cup. Perhaps not next season or even the one after that. But you can bet whoever the Maple Leafs acquire that fits that bill, they will one day be hoisting the Cup in Big Smoke.