Friday, September 16, 2011

By Divine Right: Why Leafs Nation Wants all the UFAs

john tavares islanders leafs
John Tavares' new six-year deal with the Islanders solidifies a major piece of their future and affirms his desire to stay on Long Island and build a winner that will make the Islanders' legacy proud.

But Tavares' deal also represents something else. Something far less rational. Tavares' commitment to the Islanders represents a betrayal; a betrayal to the team he grew up rooting for, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Well, at least that's what a certain delusional faction of Leafs Nation will have you believe. 

You see, there's a belief, at least among some, that the Leafs have some sort of divine right to every superstar about to become a free agent. These people were photoshopping Steven Stamkos into a Leafs uniform earlier in the summer with the thoughts of offer sheets dancing in their heads; these same people have already pencilled Shea Weber into the line-up for 2012.

The thought is once these players hear the Leafs' offer they will jump at the chance to sign with the blue and white. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite.

Can you think of the last time the Leafs signed a marquee free agent? The closest I can think of are Gary Roberts, Curtis Joseph, and Alexander Mogilny in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And those players, except for perhaps Joseph, had already played their best hockey. They were good players, but hardly marquee.

The fact is, as much as I hate to admit it, Toronto just isn't the ideal destination for many of the top free agents. The pressure is relentless, the media coverage is overwhelming, you're recognized everywhere you go, and the team's history is so patently brutal that the failures of previous squads get wrongly bestowed on the current players. Disagree? Every team has to hear about 1967 as if they played for the last 40 years worth of Leafs teams. If you're a big name free agent coming to Toronto you're the one everyone expects to end 40 plus years of failure. No pressure!

The star players that have spent considerable time with the Leafs are almost exclusively brought to the organization through trade or, in the rare circumstance (unfortunately), through the draft. Think Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin, and Wendel Clark.

I'm not saying that Toronto is unlovable; there are a large group of players that absolutely adored playing in Toronto. But the fact is that, for the most part, these players did not initially choose to come to Toronto. Some of the players who loved playing in Toronto, some so much that they refused to waive no trade clauses, were players like Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, and Mats Sundin. None chose the Leafs. You can argue Pavel Kubina did, but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't waive his NTC to support the other four, rather than based on his own personal affection for Toronto.

Despite the historical evidence, there are those who anxiously await the day that certain players hit any sort of free agency and happily run to the Leafs.

The latest being John Tavares, who people are mad at despite the fact that he's still an RFA and won't become a UFA for a number of years.

Another example is Rick Nash, who everyone assumed would string the Blue Jackets along until he became a UFA, at which point he would join the Leafs, his boyhood team (note: I readily admit I was all about this fantasy). When he signed with the Jackets for 8-years, some members of Leafs Nation took it as a slap in the face (note: I did not, however, take it this way).

I'd love Rick Nash on the Leafs, but by staying in Columbus he isn't refusing his destiny. He isn't stabbing Leafs Nation in the back. He's actually just doing what most logical people would do.

Realistically, why would any star born in the GTA want to play for the Leafs? it sounds like a great time - friends and family close by - but it actually isn't. Playing for your hometown team assures you're forced to focus on everything but hockey. For home games you'll be constantly nagged for tickets and will be hounded everywhere you go. It's just a hassle. That's the truth.

The assumption that these players want to play for the Leafs and are ruining their legacy if they don't is foolish. Do these players lack all loyalty and sense of belonging? Why turn your back on the organization that has developed you and put their fate in your hands? Those are the people you should reward. I'm sure there is a much stronger affinity for the team that drafted and developed a player compared to the one they cheered for as a child.

So keep on hoping that the next big thing will sign with the Leafs. It's nice to dream. Maybe start thinking about Zach Parise. Just don't be upset when it doesn't happen. History says it won't.

As Rick Nash told Michael Landsberg on Off the Record when questioned about these expectant Leafs fans: remember, he'll still be a young 34-year-old when the contract is done. And that's about the age the Leafs are accustomed to signing their free agents anyways.

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