I don't know if any of you (I'm not even sure if it still exists) ever followed the old "Peanuts" comic. In one of the recurring story lines, if I can call it that, Charlie Brown, the ever hopeful and optimistic central character, would look forward to trying to kick a football, field goal style. Yet every time he did so his antagonist, Lucy, would hold the ball in place for him until pulling it away at the last moment. Charlier would give a mighty kick, but end up kicking air and falling on to the ground, no doubt always wondering why he kept believing things would be any different this time around.
Well, a number of times over the past several seasons, the Maple Leafs have jumped out of the gate fairly well. But as we all well know, at some point (sometimes after just a few games, sometimes in December, on occasion not until the latter stages of the season) things went off the rails.
I even remember some of us here (notably myself) opining at times in the past that “this year, things feel different”. On each occasion, I was ultimately proven quite wrong, much like the aforementioned Charlie Brown.
So this time around, dare I/we believe that, somehow, things will in fact turn out differently for the blue and white? (The Leafs looked to have have a commanding lead against the Jets Wednesday night, but could not hold on for the two points. They still have earned four points in three games so far this young season.)
I’m not into predictions at this point in my life. I have no idea how the Leafs will do as the season moves along. But I will say it, albeit with a bit of hesitation: this year, things may well be different.
Why? Well, we all see the roster: while there are a number of names familiar to us from recent teams that have struggled for the most part, current management has seen fit to keep those players (Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Komarov, Bozak) around. Maybe their patience will be rewarded. Some good players simply need a different supporting cast. Sometimes a change of scenery means going somewhere else. But sometimes you don't have to go anywhere; new players come to you and suddenly it's a brand new environment for everyone.
But as (perhaps more) importantly, it’s the bumper crop of kids that has the Leaf faithful excited. And it's those kids that will likely help pave the way toward future success. The names are already long familiar to us, because they been the central hope of all who are part of Leafworld for years. The youngsters drafted in recent summers (Rielly, Nylander, Brown, Matthews and Marner, to name a few) are now with the big club, with no intention of going anywhere else (i.e. the Marlies).
The loss on the road in Winnipeg Wednesday night was noteworthy (as was the much anticipated Laine/Matthews match-up, which went Laine's way in Round One) because it highlighted how bright the future might be on the one hand, and how far the team still has to go to be a consistent winner on the other.
That said, it strikes me that this is how this young squad (with the aforementioned “vets” providing leadership, along with others like Marincin, Hunwick, Martin, Polak and Michalek) will gain confidence. They'll look great at times, not so good at others. But if they can continue to establish a work ethic, play to a high standard, make plays—and win some games, who knows how good they can become?
Success breeds success, after all, whether you’re a young player or a grizzled old timer.
I don’t know if the Leafs, as currently constituted, have the kind of defense corps that will stand the test of time. Not being able to finish off a four-goal lead suggests we are still lacking some things. Do we have any true shutdown defensemen? Will we have enough sandpaper and grit across the lineup? Guys who can win crucial face-offs with the game on the line? Depth?
Who knows—but small steps, eh?
The goaltending has been mostly just OK with Andersen so far. But there is no reason to suspect he can’t be a very solid number-one guy in net. He has a track record.
So there is hope. The team is largely healthy for now. They’re picking up points. And we know that Babcock certainly won’t let them bask in their modest achievements so far, because while we as fans can be impressed with their relative early season “success”, he knows better than anyone they haven’t really won anything yet. There is indeed a long way to go.
But Leaf fans will take what we're seeing, for now.