By CATHAL KELLY
Saturday, December 1, 2018
TORONTO -- It seems an awful long time since Conn Smythe bought King Clancy in part with money won on a 100-to-1 long shot at the track.
That's not just because Smythe, Clancy, horse racing and the romantic notion that the Toronto Maple Leafs have anything but bad luck are long gone.
It's now impossible to imagine an NHL team shot-caller looking at the numbers and thinking, "I'll stake my career on that guy."
That is the cramped situation Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas finds himself in as regards the William Nylander Crisis (formerly the William Nylander Question, William Nylander Watch and the William Nylander Saga).
The Leafs have until 5 p.m. ET on Saturday to sign their reluctant staffer. If Nylander still refuses to agree to terms at that point, he goes back on the NHL slush pile and can't be retrieved until next July. That won't stop anyone from recommencing talking about this mess all over again on Sunday.
At this point, the Leafs' problem isn't getting Nylander into a Toronto uniform. It's how to get him out of one.
Nylander gambled that the Leafs would be worse off without him this year. Instead, they've been better. In game-of-chicken terms, he hasn't flinched; he's been flattened.
His talent is undoubted, but in the strange way of sports, adding someone to a high-performing group sometimes turns into a sort of subtraction.
The situation has been made worse because any deal with Nylander creates an erratic knock-on effect.
Every dollar you give him is one you can't give Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Jake Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and so forth. You know, the guys actually playing winning hockey.
With the salary cap hovering somewhere around US$80-million next year, you can only have so many eight-figurea-year guys on the payroll.
In short order, the Leafs will have three of them (Matthews, Marner and John Tavares), and a few others looking for something just south of that.
The napkin math doesn't work. The Leafs have become your poorly though out auction-draft fantasy team. You take who you like for the first couple of spots, and that makes completing the roster impossible.
The Leafs are feeling the pressure so acutely not just because they're oversupplied with young talent, but because they're the Leafs. The expectation based on history is that they will find a way to get all their Sophie's roster choices wrong.
God help the man who chooses Nylander over Kapanen, Kapanen over Nylander, Gardiner over Kapanen or any one of dozens of other either/or permutations and pooches it.
As such, the most important player in the Leafs org chart over the coming year and a bit doesn't wear skates. He's the guy who presents the contracts.
If Dubas is responsible for all the bookkeeping to come, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has already done the evangelizing.
"When I get together with some of my old mates from the Cup years in Detroit, we talk about winning together and growing together," Shanahan said in the preseason.
"We all found a way to fit with each other so that we could keep adding to the group. That's obviously what we are asking some of our young leaders to do."
The codicil to that well-travelled quote is rarely mentioned: "It's not for everyone."
When you're 21 years old and still dreaming of buying your mother a house, it's probably not for anyone.
Most of the stars on Shanahan's Detroit teams, including Shanahan, were veterans who'd made their money. Trading a few bucks they already had for a ring was a fair bargain.
It should seem like less of one to the Matthewses of the world. In the entirety of his career, Matthews has earned what Shanahan used to make in a few months.
And the only dollar you can count on is one that's sitting in your bank account.
There will be no discounts from the top-tier guys. They've already seen how effectively a holdout can dominate the Toronto news cycle, even when the Leafs are winning. It's all anyone wants to talk about.
Imagine if a great player had done it?
They'd have had to cancel all media leaves and created a TV-camera tent city outside Scotiabank Arena.
In the best spirit of missing every shot you don't take, Nylander gave it a whirl.
But in so doing, he has turned himself into Dubas's and Shanahan's long shot.
Unlike Smythe, they don't need this bet to pay off.
Even if it does - if Nylander comes back, becomes the good company man no one will ever again believe he is and produces - it will still blow up on them.
Once this distraction ends, we will move seamlessly into the next one - trying to figure which guy or guys have to leave because Nylander stayed. You might be able to slip that one by in Columbus.
You can't in Toronto.
In short order, this stops being a problem of tactics and becomes one of messaging. From now on, every stumble the Leafs take is put through the lens of how they handled the Nylander thing. It's the first hard choice this management group has had to make. If everything goes wrong, this will be looked back upon as the initial mistake.
In business terms, it would be called premature scaling - spending too much on one aspect of what you do, to the detriment of others. It kills more start-ups than any other single cause. What are the Leafs right now but a century-old start-up?
Leaning hard on the positive, coach Mike Babcock said this week that he believes Nylander will be "a career Leaf."
It's a nice thought.
A more nuanced one is that since Nylander didn't want to play for you, which current Leaf(s) are you willing to give up so that that can happen? And how are you going to explain it if the end result of that decision falls anything short of a championship?
Short answer: you can't.
That should make the Leafs' decision simple. Nylander will play for someone next year. He can have anyone he likes, as long as it isn't Toronto.
William Nylander of the Leafs walks to the dressing room before a 2017 game. He's been in a protracted contract dispute with the team this season.
MARK BLINCH/NHLI VIA GETTY IMAGES
The pressure on GM Kyle Dubas, left, and president Brendan Shanahan is amplified by the team's status.
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES