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The Toronto Maple Leafs have gone from financially free to cap-crunched in 12 months
*Originally published on White Cover Magazine...
Last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs had more money than they could ever know what to use it for.
So they spent it. They MC Hammer'd it on David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak, undid the previously outrageous amount of millions they handed to Mikhail Grabovski and bought him out, brought in Jonathan Bernier, and re-invested in the core they already had, adding cheap (but possibly expensive, eventually) pieces like David Bolland and Mason Raymond.
None of those were a terrible ideas at the time. They still aren't.
But the Leafs were, for once, ahead of the curve. And then, over the past year, they did everything they could to return themselves to their pre-2013 equilibrium, when everything was comfortable and familiar – like a socialite running inside when she feels the first touch of rain on her tete. And they blew it. In one summer. They didn't blow it in the sense someone normally means when they say that, but they blew their potential. They blew their climb. They blew their future, frankly, at least the future they currently own.
Now, the Leafs are a cap-crunched team. They're shopping former prized horses like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Nikolai Kulemin, either so they can test the league's temperature or because they really just don't want them anymore.
Clarkson's contract forces the Leafs to commit to him. They don't have a choice. But even Bozak's contract forces them into an area other teams' fans know too well... sure, you love Bozak now, and you love him because nobody else knows how good he is, but he better win now. He better be the centre you think he is now, and he better be that centre for at least five or six years. He better be the right guy for Phil Kessel. Same goes for James van Riemsdyk.
(Trust me, Toronto, we've had those guys in Vancouver, and now you're all laughing at them – and for good reason. Alex Burrows and Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond (you know him, right?) and Alex Edler... they were all the perfect Canucks at one point, and they were eating your lunch from 2004 to 2014. But now? Well, I guess you'll find out on your own very soon.)
Hockey players are bananas. They brown as fast as they ripe, and you need a freezer to keep them useful.
Toronto had a playoff team in 2013. They should have had one this year, too. Injuries took their toll, and so did James Reimer. But the Leafs can't let the team they have now be the only team they think they need.
They're not good enough for that, not yet. At their best, the Leafs aren't Boston or Pittsburgh, or even Montreal. They have to understand that.
If they do, they can overachieve.
If they don't, everything and anything they do from now until the day David Clarkson collects his last paycheque will be a failure.