Zone Time: The pros and cons of being an NHL contender

Whilst some Toronto fans fear jinxing their team and risking another playoff disappointment, it's impossible to argue that the Maple Leafs are not a Stanley Cup contender, but what does that status actually mean?

On Zone Time this week, Julian and the crew debate whether the Toronto Maple Leafs are a juggernaut or just a regular NHL contender. They ask when Canucks fans will see change after the Canadiens blew up their own front office, and try to make sense of 'Lemieux-Tkachuk-Quick-Gate'.

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Video Transcript

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Let's not waste time and get to these topics and talk about the best team right now in the National Hockey League or at least the hottest team in the National Hockey League right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs, winners of 14 of their last 16. They swept through their California road trip, which as I understand, I think it's like the third time that's happened in their team history.

They're doing really well. They didn't even trail at any point in any of those games against California. And apparently, I have an apology to make.

OMAR: Yes, yes.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Less than a week ago, Omar had put out a tweet saying that he thought Tim Horton's, they have these picks you can make you can get points from them. You can get coffees and stuff like that, whatever.

Michael Bunting apparently wasn't available as an option for him, it looked like at the beginning. And then I told him to get over yourself. And then he said, I'll come back to this if he scores that night.

OMAR: Well, then, what happened, Julian?

JULIAN MCKENZIE: He scored. He scored that night, which by the way, wasn't even an actual goal. It was a fluke one that went off Phil Danon, wasn't it? OK, whatever.

OMAR: They don't say how. They just say how many, Julian.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: So then Omar quote tweeted my get over yourself tweet and put out a video of Stone Cold Steve Austin just doing the damn thing that he does. So I'm sorry I doubted Michael Bunting. Yes, I will eat humble pie and crow. Is that what you want? Is this what you want?

OMAR: Yes, yes. Listen, man, everyone called me a madman. Everyone called me crazy for--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: You still are.

OMAR: --loving a player, for buying his jersey. Ripping on me, saying, I have Michael Bunting boxers or Michael Bunting pencils. And Michael Bunting has 6 goals on the season. Michael--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Don't get the bedspread.

OMAR: Not yet, maybe in like a month or so, all right? Maybe I'll have my own little tweet. You know what? Maybe one day I'll be hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs to do something. And I'll put out my own tweet in Michael Bunting sheets, John Tavares-style, and say it's good to finally be working for my childhood team. This is great. This is sweet.

And then Michael Bunting will say, hey, weren't you that one person who supported me from the beginning? And I'll say, yes. And he'll say, weren't you that also that person that dunked on Julian McKenzie on Twitter? And I'll say, yes, I did. And then we'll walk off into the sunset and get a coffee while he's holding the Stanley Cup.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Do you listen to yourself?

OMAR: Yes, 1,000%, a lot, actually.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Well, let's-- OK, here's a serious question I have about the Leafs. And I'd like your perspective, Omar. And then I'd like Arun and Sam's perspective because they also, just like myself, don't live in Toronto.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: I live in Toronto.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Oh, sorry, my bad. You do live in Toronto, Arun. I'm sorry. But you're not as deranged as our friend Omar here with your Leafs fandom or whatever Leafs fandom you might have or none of that. I don't even think you have that, actually.

Anyway, the fact that the Leafs are so good right now, right? They've won as many games as they have, it's the end of-- well, we're in December right now by the time everyone sees this. Is it OK to be a Leafs fan and enjoy all of this? Because a lot of people were like, oh, well, you know it's going to happen in April. You know what's going to happen in the playoffs. Is it OK to enjoy this?

OMAR: Yeah, I would say so, just because I think there have been times in the past the Leafs have had hot streaks where they've looked solid, where they rip them, like 6 wins, 7 wins or whatever. But this just looks different. The way that they're winning these games, the way that they're playing, their commitments to the all-round game-- and they're getting the goaltending to back it up.

It just looks and feels different. So I don't know. Maybe I'm just shooting myself in the foot once again. But just watching them play, it's allowed me to bring my wall down. And I tweeted it. I said, I'm all in. I'm ready. And if I get hurt come April or May, hopefully it's at least May, maybe the end of May, hopefully, then we'll see how things go then.

But honestly, this Leafs team just looks and feels different. They just look like they're on a mission. They look more mature. And it looks like they understand all the things that Sheldon Keefe was saying last year about the best ways to win and how you have to play.

And whether it's a depth player or a star player like Matthews, they're all up in the crease. They're all up in the net. They're getting deflections. They're trying to tap in rebounds and stuff. So this is the style that wins in the playoffs. And I think they finally understand that.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: See, I think there's two schools of thoughts too. And it's not necessarily even resistant to Omar's point because these two schools of thought are necessarily not rooted in objective reality. And this is what I mean by that.

This is why I so vehemently wanted to say I am living in Toronto. So by doing some man on the street reporting of sorts, it seems like the camp is fractured into two camps. If you were ideologically committed to not being on board with the Leafs this year, then even this-- what was it, 14 and 2 start in the month of November?

JULIAN MCKENZIE: 14 of their last 16, they've gotten in their last 16 games.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: Right. So I feel like this question was posed in various group chats that I've been with Leafs fans today. Hey, it's the end of the month. The Leafs had arguably their best month in franchise history. Are you all the way back in?

And if you were willing to give the leafs another chance, or if you hadn't jumped off the fan base after last spring's collapse against the Canadiens, then you probably are very much on board with the team again. If you aren't, if you did make a firm commitment though, that this is it, I'm out, even that--

I told someone today, Jack Campbell is likely the Vezina favorite at the moment. The Leafs look better. They're not making as many of those what the hell type of defensive mistakes that they were sort of characterized for in the past. And that was just met with, that's nice. Let's go win a round.

I think even that's been reflected some in the bar culture in the West End of Toronto too. I was there to watch the Leafs game against the Penguins, one of the rare losses in November. And you could just see the whole bar. They were either just like-- they weren't even upset. They were just quietly holding the team in contempt. There are some sports bars that are refusing to play the Leafs outright.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Oh, my god. Holy crap. That's incredible. Really?

ARUN SRINIVASAN: I went to bar at King and Bathurst, which is, if you're not from Toronto, it's sort of in the downtown core of the city. And they just refused to play the Maple Leafs over the late "Sunday Night Football" game.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's amazing.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: So yeah, so far, as encouraging as this has been and objectively rooted in reality, the Leafs arguably are the best team in the NHL at the moment. It's going to take a lot more to sort of win back that lack of trust, for lack of a better term.

And finally, I know I've been going on for a while. My Leafs fandom is still there, Julian. It's just, I guess, dormant. I don't know.

OMAR: That's right.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Sam, what do you think?

SAM CHANG: Sorry, I'm trying to wrap my head around a sports bar refusing to play the Leafs game right now because, as far as I know, there are no sports bars in Vancouver who are refusing to play Canucks games. And that's actually a legitimate thing to do right now.

[LAUGHTER]

Like--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I mean, we'll get to them in a second. No worries.

SAM CHANG: That's wild. I think the only sports bar in Vancouver I've ever been to that has refused to play a Canucks game is The Shark Club. And that was because they're owned by Tom Galliardi, the owner of the Dallas Stars.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: The stars. That's interesting.

SAM CHANG: That's the only time that's ever happened to me.

But I think you should enjoy it. The whole point of sports is-- I mean, notwithstanding that all of us have tortured fandoms on this show. The theory behind sports is that it should be there to entertain you and be fun.

And as much as you can dread April and playoffs, why not enjoy it when they're winning? And I realize that runs contrary to my entire fandom theory of being a Canucks fan because I can't enjoy when they win ever right now.

[LAUGHTER]

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah.

SAM CHANG: But I'm not going to begrudge anyone who wants to enjoy it. When you win 14 games, have fun because there's going to be enough misery to come later.

OMAR: Wow.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: The deke! The deke! What a deke!

[CRACKS UP INTO LAUGHTER]

ARUN SRINIVASAN: Wow, that long build-up just for the killer burn.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That was so well done.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: Well done.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: So Sam with the burn. Arun with the research. And Omar, of course, being the fan. But now what I want to know is, the fact that they've done as well as they have, is it also OK to say that they're good, right?

People are saying they're a contender. This team should be good enough to win that series, right?

OMAR: I thought you were going to say another word, sorry. I was about to be like, no, don't.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: What word did you think I was going to say?

OMAR: I'm not going to say it. I'm not going to say it. I thought you were going to say that word. And last year, your boy Chris Johnson screwed us.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: OK, OK, OK, time out. Time out. He called the Canadiens that first. People seem to forget this. He called the Canadiens a juggernaut. And then they started to suck and then they eventually made the Stanley Cup Finals. Why is that--

SAM CHANG: And then what happened?

JULIAN MCKENZIE: And then what happened? Well, we'll get to that too later on in this show. But they still made it to a Stanley Cup Final. People need to realize that the juggernaut-- sorry, I know I said it. But it's not that bad of a word, being called a juggernaut.

OMAR: Yes, it is. Yes, it is. It's like Voldemort.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: It's not that bad of a word.

OMAR: Yes, it is. It's like, no, you can't. It's like, did you watch the "Candy Man?" You said the Candy Man. You say the Candy Man's name five times, the Candy Man appears out of nowhere and kills you. I know.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I played I played "Macbeth" in high school in, like, high school theater and all that. I get the whole thing. You're not supposed to say "Macbeth." But I just said "Macbeth." I get it. I understand there's stuff--

OMAR: I was just waiting. I was waiting for something behind you just like come out--

[LAUGHTER]

I don't know.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Wait till the end of this episode. And we'll all just be eternally cursed with something, I guess. I've had too good of a year, apparently. I don't know, man. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the fact that the Leafs are good. Enjoy the fact that they're actually playing really well. It doesn't matter that it's November or December or whenever that they're having this run. It's good.

Sports are supposed to be fun. You're supposed to be able to enjoy yourself. You could be the Arizona Coyotes right now. And they're not winning a damn thing right now. Be the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least they're a team that's supposed to make it to the playoffs.

We'll see what happens when they make the playoffs. But enjoy it while you can. And hey, you know what? I'm not even mad about the fact that you dunked on me the way that you did. I know at the beginning, I was doing it begrudgingly and all that. But you know what, Omar? I'm actually really happy for you because, you see, Omar, I think very highly of you. And I think that you're allowed to celebrate victories and pull out a Michael Bunting jersey on-camera for the people not watching "Zone Time" right now and listening on to the variety of podcast platforms that were on.

And you should be able to enjoy these little moments in your life. So congratulations, my friend. It's really great to see you be cheering for-- you are cheering for a winning hockey club right now. I'm really happy for you.

OMAR: Yeah.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I really am.

OMAR: Yeah, it's good. It feels good to see your team do well in the regular season. But I just hope that, again, all of these things are-- and it's not just you know this weird little patch where it's like, OK, we're just feeling good, and that's it and that.

And the thing I like about Sheldon Keefe is that any time yet he has his pre and post-game, his talks, he's very-- he doesn't care. Yeah, it's good that they're winning. And it's good that they're playing well. But he understands that this doesn't matter.

And any time he's asked, the one word he keeps bringing up is consistency. We want to consistently be playing like this. We want to always be in a position where we're starting the game on-time, where, if we have a lead, we're not taking our foot off the gas.

And even though the Leafs have been winning their games, there are some moments where they're allowing the opposition to get back in the game. Even their latest win against Anaheim, I think they allowed 21 shots in the third period. So there are still some things that need to be improved on. But I think the big thing is that Keefe isn't letting the team forget it.

I honestly think every time they walk into the locker room, he has the documentary or something on a big screen and then says, you have to stare at the screen for five seconds before you walk to your stall or whatever. Austin Matthews these walks in, looks at Alex Galchenyuk turning over the puck in overtime, walks through.

Mitch Marner walks in, looks at Travis Dermott doing a spin-a-rama in the defensive zone in overtime. William Nylander walks through. You see a whole bunch of clips from game seven and how they were horrible.

So I think Keith and the coaching staff--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: He scored in game seven.

OMAR: [LAUGHS SARCASTICALLY] Yes, he scored when it didn't matter. Oh, anyway--

Yes, so I think the coaching staff is really holding the team accountable and not letting them forget that hey, we were a very good regular season team last year as well. But look what happened. So I think they're really trying to keep themselves in check. And hopefully that continues.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Now is the time.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: Just quickly on Omar's point-- and not to sort of bring it up because I know there's more than the Maple Leafs even though the Leafs are the center of the universe and should be always.

Julian, you said enjoy the Leafs being good and then brought up the word contender. I think it's fine to enjoy the Leafs being good at the moment. But to put the projections of a contender on them is where it stops being fun.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: OK. I guess that's fair, right? Because that brings the weight of expectations and all that.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: That's right.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: But I mean, they have a team that is doing as well as it's doing in the regular season. They're a team that is expected to be a contending team. It doesn't necessarily mean they could win the Stanley Cup. But they're expected to be a contending team.

It was the case last year. It was the case even the year before then too. They've had this label on them for maybe a little bit. They just need to deliver.

ARUN SRINIVASAN: Yeah, I mean, I just think they're two sort of separate ideas because enjoying the least being good and then putting the weight of expectations on them seem to stop making it fun.

You look at it last year. Don Schula's model had the Leafs at 18.2% of winning the Stanley Cup. And so it was just like, enjoy them being good. But I don't want to put any illusions of winning the Stanley Cup on this group because it stops being fun again.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Sam, I'll give you the last word on the Leafs before we move on to the next topic.

SAM CHANG: I don't think there's anything wrong. I disagree with Arun. I don't think there's anything wrong with being considered a contender. I think the problem with the word contender is that people don't realize that, even when you're a contender, you have like a 22% chance of winning it all.

Being a really good team that is in the best position to win is-- like, you still have an 80% chance of losing. It's incredibly difficult, which is why I would much rather be-- as much as I make fun of Leafs fans and the Leafs, I'd much rather be in a position where that team is good and winning 14 games than being a team that goes on a Cinderella run and then sucks after. So have fun with them.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Well, at least you have the Cinderella-- I mean, some people would argue you have the memories, right?

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