Why I root for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Auston Matthews represents a new era for the Leafs

Why I root for the Toronto Maple Leafs

With the Toronto Maple Leafs full of young talent and viewed as a top contender to win the Stanley Cup, fans have a lot to be excited about.

This feeling of enthusiasm is an unfamiliar one, as adrenaline-filled moments for Leafs fans prior to this year were few and far between.

Nevertheless, this has made the moments that were cause for celebration even more memorable.

Growing up as an avid Leafs fan, one of my first moments was watching my hero, Leafs centre Mats Sundin, net his 500th career goal in dramatic fashion.

With the game tied 4–4 in overtime, Sundin, already with two goals on the night, picked up the puck at the Leafs blue-line, raced down the ice, and unleashed a slapshot over the shoulder of Calgary Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and into the back of the net.

A fitting entrance to the exclusive 500-goal-club for a Toronto sports legend.

A more recent memory that stands out is Leafs star Auston Matthews’ unforgettable first game.

In the 2016–2017 season opener, all eyes were on the rookie phenom. After scoring two goals in the first period, Leafs fans around the country erupted in celebration of our newest star.

But then, the unthinkable happened.

Matthews continued his offensive explosion, scoring a third goal early in the second period for the hat-trick. Already breaking records as the first top-ranked draft pick to score a hat-trick in his debut, Matthews scored another goal in the second, making him the first player in league history to score four goals in their regular season NHL debut.

Although these memories are great, nothing would be more memorable than the Leafs bringing Lord Stanley home to Toronto.

Could it be a Stanley Cup season for the Maple Leafs?

John Tavares looks to spark a deep playoff run

Could it be a Stanley Cup season for the Maple Leafs?

With the start of the 2018–2019 NHL season only days away, it’s time to make one thing crystal clear: the Toronto Maple Leafs are good — in fact, they are very good.

After the team broke the record for franchise wins and points in the 2017–2018 regular season, the Leafs again lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Boston Bruins in game seven of the first round of playoffs.

The offseason saw the departures of Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and older General Manager (GM) Lou Lamoreillo. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Leafs history, with the promotion of 32-year-old Kyle Dubas to the GM chair and the acquisition of homecoming superstar centre John Tavares.

Leafs fans will undoubtedly be hoping for this new chapter to end with the hoisting of the Stanley Cup in June, and a parade down Yonge Street.

Tavares joins a team with high hopes for the upcoming season. Auston Matthews is a budding superstar of the league, who, despite dealing with nagging injuries last year, managed to score 34 goals in 62 games. Nazem Kadri is coming off consecutive 30-goal campaigns, and with the majority of opponents focused on shutting down Tavares and Matthews, we can expect Kadri to dominate any matchups he faces.

While the Maple Leafs forward corps is among the most dangerous in the league, their defense is more of a question mark. Boasting 50-point defensemen Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner, who is in the final year of his contract, the Leafs have two players who can put up points from the back end.

In the second year of a seven-year extension, Nikita Zaitsev is looking to bounce back after a disappointing sophomore campaign. Ron Hainsey will presumably play as a dependable defenseman as always. The final two spots on the blue line are less clear.

Travis Dermott, Calle Rosén, Connor Carrick, and Igor Ozhiganov are all vying for the the last two spots in the opening lineup. Dermott played in 37 regular season games last year, as well as all seven of their playoff games. He appears to have a leg up on the competition, but as we know with head coach Mike Babcock, nothing is certain.

That leaves one spot up for grabs, and it will likely go to Ozhiganov. The 25-year-old Russian will be an NHL rookie after spending the last few years in the Kontinental Hockey League. Babcock was heavily involved in his recruitment and was happy with his performance in camp this year.

When it comes to goaltending, every Leafs fan’s favourite Dane will be looking to continue his winning ways. Posting 38 wins in the regular season, Frederik Andersen has had historically shaky starts in October. He will no doubt be aiming to change that narrative this season. The backup position will likely find Curtis McElhinney resuming his role as Andersen’s deputy.

So, what should Leafs fans expect from this team? With a handful of players genuinely talented enough to win the scoring race, one of the best coaches in the league behind the bench, and a young GM determined to think outside of the box, the Maple Leafs should find themselves with one of the most potent power-play units — a terror to match up against in a five-on-five and above average in league goaltending.

Seemingly one of the most talented in the entire league, this team has genuine cup-contending aspirations.

The Leafs have failed to make it out of the first round of playoffs in the past two seasons, losing to Boston in seven games last year, and to Washington in six games the year before that. The team was pardoned, chiefly due to their youth and how unexpected their success was. But a first round exit this year would be considered a failure, and rightly so.

The 2018–2019 Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to compete for the Stanley Cup and bring a level of success and excitement that this city has not seen in years.

Why we root for our favourite teams

Students detail their paths to fandom

Why we root for our favourite teams

 

When I told my mother I was writing an article about sports, she paused. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I thought you just said you were writing an article about sports.”

It’s true that aside from brief stints in soccer when I was younger — and a dictatorial turn as captain of my middle school dodgeball intramural team — I’ve never been much for sports. I enjoy the citywide support when one of Toronto’s teams makes it to the playoffs, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as someone who follows sports closely.

But if there’s one aspect of sports that has always fascinated me, it’s team loyalty. More precisely, how do fans pick their team allegiances, and how do they come to feel so strongly about them?

With many fans I’ve observed, the connection was clear. They rooted for Toronto teams because they were from the city. But with others, the reason for their allegiance was less apparent. I was curious to investigate the reasons these fans backed the teams they did, whether personal or arbitrary.

A recurring theme I discovered among students I spoke to was the influence of parents or other family members in picking a team.

My colleague, Aidan Currie, roots for the Buffalo Bills and Montreal Canadiens, though he has never lived in either city. Currie explained that his mother lived in Buffalo for nine years and actually worked for the Bills during that time, while his father is from Québec. When he first became interested in football, he wanted a team to root for, and his mother suggested the Bills.

I asked Currie if he had ever experienced ‘anti-Habs prejudice,’ rooting for Montréal’s team while living in Toronto. He told me about an incident in which a Leafs superfan grabbed his Canadiens toque and threw it into the snow, in what can only be described as the most Canadian incident of bullying ever.

Lila Shapiro, a McGill University student and friend of mine from middle school, was responsible for a period where I rooted for the Montreal Canadiens, having been a fan since about 13. “That’s going to be what gets me into heaven,” said Shapiro.

Shapiro’s parents are both from Montréal, and before she lived there, they would frequently visit her grandparents for holidays. But the main reason she cited for her loyalty to the Habs was the influence of her older brother Josh. “If he was a Leafs fan, honestly, I probably would have been a Leafs fan, but thank God that’s not the case,” she added.

Other students also cited personal attachments to a specific city as reason for rooting for their sports teams. Joe Gluck, a U of T student who used to live in Vancouver, said that he became a Vancouver Canucks fan when he started collecting hockey cards at the age of 10, although his family was living in New Jersey at the time.

When his family later moved back to Vancouver, however, he was no longer as invested, and he was also disappointed by the team’s loss of the Stanley Cup in 2011.

I asked Gluck if he had considered becoming a Leafs fan since starting university in Toronto.

“I have too much self respect to root for the Leafs,” he said, but he did add that he enjoys the feeling of the whole city rooting for one of its teams together, such as when the Blue Jays made it to the playoffs in 2016.

One of the more interesting rationales behind team allegiances I heard came from U of T student Robbie Raskin. Raskin follows several sports, including hockey, Canadian football, and soccer. He noted that, especially in European soccer, some teams have certain geopolitical backgrounds, which affected his likelihood to support them.

“In Spain I’d cheer for Real Madrid over Barcelona because Barca is historically associated with separatism, which reminds me of Montréal’s teams here and turns me off,” said Raskin.

York University student Eitan Cohen — no relation — became a fan of the New England Patriots in high school at the encouragement of his brother-in-law, who took him to a Bills vs. Patriots game.

I knew that due to their success, the Patriots are known for having an abundance of bandwagon fans, which refers to those who jump on board with a team when they’re doing well. I asked Cohen how he felt about people referring to him this way.

“I usually just laugh and play along with it, because there’s no use in arguing,” he said, adding, “it’s not my fault they’re so good.”

Currie supported the idea of jumping on the bandwagon, noting that it gives sports fans a chance to get involved when their team doesn’t make it to the playoffs. “If a team’s doing well and your team isn’t in the playoffs, then go ahead, cheer for the best team,” he said.

Others were less approving. “I think it kind of flies in the face of what being a fan means,” said Raskin. “I think loyalty is the main aspect of supporting a team.”

Disclosure: Aidan Currie is The Varsity’s Deputy News Editor.

 

How good is Auston Matthews?

Answer: really good

How good is Auston Matthews?

“At what point do [the] Toronto Maple Leafs have to start playing Matthews one versus five to make it fair for other teams?” asked Brad Marchand, after Auston Matthews, the Leafs’ centre-man and the NHL’s 2016 first-round draft pick, finished on an incredible end-to-end effort against the Montreal Canadiens.

This question is warranted. Matthews has been off to a rapid start this season, netting 12 goals and 21 points in 19 games while leading the Leafs to second place in the Atlantic Division.

If you aren’t already a member of the Matthews fandom, I suggest you join now.

Following his 40-goal rookie season, Matthews has quickly proven himself as a prolific, exciting, and timely goal scorer. That lofty total was enough to tie him for second in the league, a feat comparable only to that of Alex Ovechkin in his rookie season, arguably the greatest pure goal scorer in the league, with 52.

Yet the NHL has taken a dramatic shift since then, with scoring generally on the decline. To put things into perspective, 11 players in Ovechkin’s rookie year had 40 or more goals, while that number drops to just three in Matthews’ year.

In addition, this admirable output is produced in less than ideal circumstances.

Matthews does not skate on the first power play unit, which can often be a dramatic goal boost for many players. Instead, he led the league last year with 32 even-strength goals, which is not only incredibly difficult, but valuable in the playoffs where less power plays take place.

Further, one player alone cannot win a game, despite what Brad Marchand suggests. In the case of Matthews, he plays a majority of his shifts with two very talented and hardworking players, William Nylander and Zach Hyman.

Despite their success, these players are still learning and developing their game, finding their place in a relentless league. In comparison, other leading centers such as Steven Stamkos have the privilege of centering a line with Nikita Kucherov, who has been utterly unstoppable this season. Similarly in Edmonton, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are proving to be a perfect pair.

Respectfully, Matthews plays with very capable players, but they unfortunately aren’t comparable to Draisaitl or Kucherov. Yet this does not stop him from producing goals like he plays with those stars. One can only imagine what his assist total would be if he were passing to players who converted like those two.

Understandably, there are always cases against star players — seeing as they garner so much attention, their inconsistencies are highlighted just as much as their accomplishments. A case can be made that Matthews fails to provide the same opportunities for his teammates as he does for himself, leaving a sub-par assist total and players working for him rather than with him.

Yet, as per Sportsnet, the Leafs’ top line is among the best in the NHL in high danger chances, scoring chances on net, and passes to the slot. Essentially, the chances are there, and they aren’t all for Matthews.

Regardless, it seems that a respective shooting percentage thus far of 10.9 per cent and 6.2 per cent for Hyman and Nylander are not up to par. In comparison to Matthews’ 16.7 per cent chance shooting, he seems to be able to convert on his chances. Still, there is little concern that these players won’t begin converting soon, as their play advances.

Granted, his output is impressive, but there’s another side to the ice, and the defensive play will frequently distinguish the elite from the complete. As for Matthews, he has been superb in the defensive end as Chris Johnston from Sportsnet notes, “Matthews has only been on the ice for one goal against in 128 minutes at 5-on-5 this season”.

That is wildly impressive considering Leafs head coach Mike Babcock refuses to coddle his young superstar, putting him on for defensive zone face-offs more than half the time, where they must battle to shift the direction of play.

The added level of difficulty is not showing, as Matthews currently has the fifth highest plus/minus in the league (+14), and again as Sportsnet notes, “He has been stripping opponents of the puck at the same rate as Patrice Bergeron.” To say he routinely makes defensive plays comparable to former Selke Trophy winners is impressive at the least.

It’s easy to see how Matthews can be ranked among the best two-way forwards in the league and it’s also intangible which can solidify him among the ranks of the best. McDavid and Stamkos may very likely finish the season with more points and gather a surreal amount of attention. However, Babcock refuses to let his star players run amok and rely solely on talent.

He wants a balanced style of play and is molding Matthews in this image of balance. This image is one of consistency, hustle, and intelligent hockey that few will find anywhere else.

In other words, Matthews is elite and on his way to being complete.

A look ahead at the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017–2018

Line changes and new acquisitions in store for the Leafs’ upcoming season

A look ahead at the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017–2018

Soon after the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row, the General Managers (GM) of the National Hockey League (NHL) got on their phones and looked for ways to improve their teams.

The 2017 NHL Entry Draft saw Swiss-born Nico Hischier go first overall to the New Jersey Devils, while Canadian teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who selected Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren, and the Edmonton Oilers, who took undersized forward Kailer Yamamoto, found themselves with later draft positions thanks to their regular season success.

The Leafs got to work in free agency, signing veterans like Dominic Moore, recent Cup champion Ron Hainsey, and a 37-year-old Patrick Marleau. Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock kept his players busy over the summer, regularly checking in on them wherever they were training. Babcock even called his top defenseman, Morgan Rielly, telling him to start preparing to play with Hainsey.

With a year that saw them make the playoffs and push the Washington Capitals to six games last spring, as well as a summer of prepping behind them, the Leafs are looking to improve upon their last season. The boys in blue are hungrier, more confident, and better prepared to skate with the best of the best in the NHL.

Calder Trophy recipent Auston Matthews is centring Toronto’s top line in between Zach Hyman and William Nylander. That line will play against the NHL’s top shutdown pairings and defensive lines, but with the firepower of Matthews, Nylander, and Hyman’s brute strength and shot, the top line is expected to produce well.      

Leafs fans can also look forward to seeing Marleau on a line with Nazem Kadri and possibly Connor Brown, whose 20 goals as a rookie were only overshadowed by virtue of being on a team with rookie phenoms Matthews, Nylander, and Mitch Marner.

For what seems like the first time in a long time, the Leafs have a solid top four on the back end. Jake Gardiner seems to be playing with Nikita Zaitsev in Reilly’s old spot, while Reilly plays with Hainsey. Hainsey, a serviceable defenceman, is over 35 years of age, which begs the question of whether he can keep up with this young Leafs team.

Around the league there are plenty of storylines to follow. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets just have a fluke season, or are they the real deal? Can Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers go all the way, seeing as they’re the Vegas favoured team to win it all? Speaking of Vegas, how will the Golden Knights do in their inaugural season? Is it possible we will see a Penguins three-peat?

But the most important question on the minds of Toronto sports fans will always remain whether or not the Leafs are good enough. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Into the maw of victory

Basketball through the eyes of an ignoramus

Into the maw of victory

I have seen more live sports in the past two years of my life than in all the years preceding them. When I came to Canada, I came with a checklist of sorts: I made it my goal to see as many quintessentially North American sporting events as possible.              

Last weekend, I was able to check basketball off the list, which joined ice hockey and baseball. The game I attended was between the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics — I was quickly corrected when I attempted to pronounce it with a hard ‘c’.              

While I do not care for playing sports myself, I love watching them and participating in the rituals of the game, including singing the national anthem at the beginning. I even had a hat to remove when prompted to do so by the announcement.

Knowing everyone else would come dressed in some manner of team swag, I had anticipated feeling out of place, so I had done my best by wearing my OVO cap in homage to Drake, the Raptors’ patron, and a jumper with ‘Toronto vs. Everybody’ emblazoned on the front.

I picked up a sense of the rules of the game fairly quickly: players may move anywhere on the court, the perimeters of which are clearly marked; the further away a player is from the basket when they take a successful shot, the higher the number of points they score; and fouls may result in a penalty shot or two.             

After the game began, the first thing that surprised me was the speed at which it was played. The players moved with such fluidity, and it was a delight to watch.

I lack sufficient understanding of the game’s technicalities to appreciate the players’ strategic manoeuvres, but I enjoyed what I saw for its aesthetic merits.

This proved to be a problem when I came to see the beauty of the opposing team’s playing too. I exclaimed, “Wow! Nice shot!” when Boston scored with seemingly effortless grace. I began to applaud in appreciation but realized that nobody around me was doing the same.

As the game went on, I heard Toronto fans buzzing and howling in attempt to throw Boston off their game. I thought the lack of applause and hooliganism distasteful, but I accepted it as part of the experience, even if I did not wish to partake in it myself. When I tried to politely clap for Boston I was cowed out of my attempts by the silence of Toronto fans around me.

The entertainment during time-outs and breaks was also something I considered to be more North American than British, with the t-shirt cannons being a particular highlight. I did not try to catch one, but watching the cannon firing into the stands was a novel experience.

Aside from that, I was not particularly fond of the commercialization and would have preferred some game commentary or replays of impressive shots. Still, it was entertaining and I did benefit from the sponsorship in the end; the Raptors broke 100 points, meaning that I was entitled to a free slice of pizza the following day.

The end score was 105–91 for the Raptors. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, my criticisms notwithstanding. I had the fortune to see two slam-dunks, one by each team.

A slam-dunk is a wonderfully flamboyant gesture. It is testament to a player’s confidence in their ability to pull off the move and their team’s capacity to comfortably forgo a higher scoring shot. I truly appreciate the sacrifice of a larger victory for pure theatrics.