Sometimes it’s helpful to take a couple of steps back from the hourly hot takes that dominate today’s sports narrative and take a look at the bigger picture. Looking back, many things this blog site has had to say have held true, while changing circumstances have altered the playing field in other areas. I thought now might be a good time for a review.
It’s one thing to make a bold prediction just to make it, it’s another to base that prediction on some insightful observation. Back in December, this blog surmised the Leafs stood a plausible chance of making the playoffs based on unforeseen weakness in the division (thanks to internal chaos in Florida and a historic depth of injuries in Tampa), and a eureka moment against the Penguins in December. Well, here we are with the young Leafs facing Washington in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to a phenomenal March performance. Pre-season, I had pegged Calder trophy favorite Auston Matthews to be in the low 60’s in points, Nylander 55 and Marner 50…all exceeded my expectations greatly – I certainly didn’t expect 40 goals from Matthews. Oh yeah, and Nazem Kadri scored 30 and Connor Brown 20! The trade deadline addition of Brian Boyle also stabilized a shaky fourth line. It’s proof that Mike Babcock can do great things with talent that buys into his system.
In the long run, I think it’s best this Leafs team is facing Washington and not a banged up Ottawa squad. The Leafs could beat Ottawa, but I think it would present a false sense of progress, much like a young talented Colorado team experienced three years ago finishing first in their division. They haven’t approached anything close to that since, and a teardown now appears in order there. Washington is a legitimate Cup threat and will show the Leafs what they need to do to take that next step. The Leafs certainly didn’t look out-of-place in the series opener, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they learn that lesson from the Caps (and maybe teach one of their own?)
I don’t feel they can take the next step without improving on defence, and that includes dealing Jake Gardiner for a comparable D man. Damn the analytics, I believe he’s a zero sum player (that is, his offensive upside is equally offset by his terrible, soft play in his own end). Morgan Reilly needs to be paired with someone who can allow him to utilize his offensive skills to its fullest, and Nikita Zaitsev needs pairing help as well. I expect a very different looking Leafs blue line come this fall.
Aside from resigning Jose Bautista after the departure of Edwin Encarnacion in the wake of the addition of Kendrys Morales, the number one offseason concern was the bullpen. The Jays front office did a decent job restocking the pen, adding veterans Joe Smith and JP Howell. So far the pen has only had a direct role in two of the Jays eight losses. But again this year, cold bats in April have put the Jays behind the eight ball. The unknown duration of Josh Donaldson’s calf injury certainly doesn’t help. Last year, the Jays hit .236 in an opening month where they went 11-14 also in part due to a very leaky bullpen. That combined with September’s hitting swoon almost certainly cost them a second straight AL East crown. The past two springs have featured a lot of down time for the veteran players and you have to wonder if the organization needs to look at its spring approach going forward. That said, let’s put the 1-8 start in perspective. By going a modestly successful 24-16 over their next 40 games (which with their solid rotation isn’t a stretch), they would be back to .500 before the end of May. Being at or slightly over .500 in mid-July means the Jays will be in the hunt for the wild card and will certainly be deadline buyers again this year. So as discouraging as this start has been, there’s lots of time for the Jays to right this ship.
The addition of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the trade deadline certainly changed the outlook for the Raptors for the better. Would be scary to think where they’d have finished without them. But now, this is a team that can play interior defence and also has a lot of scoring options. The lengthy injury to Kyle Lowry was unfortunate, as it allowed the Celtics to overtake the Raps for the division crown. Now as the #3 seed, they face a potential second-round playoff matchup with Cleveland and LeBron should they get past Milwaukee (and they should!). The Cavs, however, are banged up and have many feeling that they’re vulnerable. This year might be as good a chance as any for the Raptors to break through to an NBA final. Going forward, resigning Ibaka would be the best thing this team could do to cement itself as a contender for the next couple of years at least.
Spring 2017 has certainly turned into an incredible time for Toronto sports. Toronto FC appears poised for another MLS Cup run this year, the Marlies can make another strong playoff push, and the much-need front office housecleaning by the Argos which brought in Jim Popp and Marc Trestman can only improve their chances and renew optimism around that team this year.