2019 Could Be The Best Of Times For Toronto Teams. And The Worst Of Times.
This promises to be a spring unlike any other for Toronto sports teams. To be followed by a summer unlike any other as well.
Both the NBA Raptors and the NHL Maple Leafs should enter the playoffs as favourites to win the Eastern Conference of their leagues. This in a town where success has been measured by getting eliminated early (Raptors) or how late they stay in the race for a playoff spot (the Leafs).
But both teams are loaded with exciting talent. The Raptors have the brilliant Kawhi Leonard and (when healthy) the dynamic Kyle Lowry. They’ve been the best team in the NBA in the early part of the season, and none of the likely contenders (Boston, Philly, Indianapolis) look capable of beating them for the Eastern title should the Raps be healthy.
With LeBron James now out of the East, the path is clear for Toronto to get a shot at the Western champs come June.
The Leafs, meanwhile, are loaded with a blend of transcendent youth (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner) and excellent veterans (John Tavares, Patrick Marleau). It is not inconceivable they they, like the Raptors, advance to the league Finals in May/ June. Like the Raps, a healthy Leafs squad has to be a favourite.
Twin title parades in June? No one laughs at the possibility anymore.
The problem for the teams is that, like the 20165-2016 Blue Jays, they might be shooting stars that flame out as quickly as they appear. The Raptors have yet to get any commitment past this season for Leonard, who cost them Demar DeRozan last summer in a blockbuster deal with San Antonio.
It could be one-and-done for Leonard. Certainly the American-based media don’t see the L.A. native staying when the bright lights of Los Angles or another major market shine. No one has ruled out Leonard staying in The North, but he’s never done a public embrace of the team since the trade. This could be the Raps Troy Tulowitzki moment.
For the Leafs, the problem is too much young talent and the NHL’s ridiculous salary cap that tears apart good young teams. Having bent to William Nylander’s contract demands following an extensive holdout this fall, the Leafs face equally onerous restricted-free-agent negotiations with both Matthews and Marner this summer.
As RFAs, the players are controlled by Toronto, who can match any offers this summer for the pair. Here’s the rub. If, as anticipated, a number of teams make maximum offers to one, it will be nearly impossible to match that deal and still squeeze the second star player under a salary cap already groaning with big deals for Nylander, Tavares and the club’s young players like Morgan Rielly.
That might force a Toronto team that has won a Stanley Cup to immediately sacrifice its youth to the draconian salary cap beloved by commissioner Gary Bettman. Not pretty. And not a reward for over a half century of futility, either.
So the dilemma facing the two teams— as it did the Blue Jays— do you go all in and wait for the flop to see if you get the cards you need? For the Leafs, do you exercise the prudence the Jays eschewed and make a deal for Matthews or Marner at the trade deadline or the summer that helps you survive longterm?
Certainly the trade market for either Matthews or Marner would attract almost every team in the league. Matthews is a generational player, and Marner is not far behind. Toronto could reap a rich haul of players and draft picks in any exchange that keeps them ahead of the curve. With a premium placed on young players and their more affordable entry-level NHL contracts, a Matthews/ Marner deal could guarantee Toronto a stable succession plan that puts it back in the playoffs with a consistent chance at winning Cups.
As for the Raptors, they are clearly all-in on Leonard even though a trade before season’s end would get virtually every squad involved with offers. With a team ready to win now— and a skeptical fan base— they’re willing to take their chances on wooing him to re-up in Toronto.
If he bolts at season’s end it will be replay of the Chris Bosh exit when the former No. 1 draft pick and star of the team absconded to Miami to play with LeBron’s Heat. But it’s a gamble they’re prepared to take.
So, looking for a story to follow throughout 2019? Watch Toronto’s two winter sports teams. It could the best of times. Followed by the Blue Jays’ worst of times.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.