Now that the dust has (mostly) settled after free agent frenzy, and we’re fully into the summer lull of having almost nothing to discuss, the time has come to bid adieu to those who, for one reason or another, will no longer be playing for the Leafs. Some leave on good terms, others on not-so-good terms, but regardless if they were adored or vilified, this is a tribute to all of them. You will notice that there’s no mention of either Nazem Kadri or Patrick Marleau, the reason for that is I’ll be writing separate pieces for those guys soon to talk about their contributions to the team in a way that will hopefully pay proper respect. Similarly, players that are no longer in the system who didn’t have much impact on the NHL roster will be skirted over as well.
Jake Gardiner’s ultimate fate has not yet been confirmed one way or the other, but as of right now, he is not expected to return. Speaking personally, I feel like the reason he is still unsigned even now, close to the end of July, is that there is a deal in place to bring him back, assuming the Mitch Marner negotiations go as planned. I am not against another year of Jake Gardiner (assuming he’s the 3rd pair LD), but I can understand why many would prefer to see him move on. He’s made plenty of costly mistakes throughout his years, and he’s gotten his fair share of criticism, but he’s also been treated extremely unfairly by some in the fanbase (the booing epidemic around the midpoint of this past season was when it hit the point of ‘too far’ for me).
If he returns after all he’s been through, he’s a bigger man than he gets credit for, and I will welcome him with open arms (especially considering some of the other options for the bottom pairing right now), but if he moves on to a new team, then I wish him the best of luck.
Best moment as a Leaf (in my opinion): I’m gonna cheat here, simply because Jake was the longest tenured Leaf of any of the guys mentioned in this piece. I think it’d be a little unfair to single out just one moment that sticks out as a highlight, instead, here’s an excellent video by Drew Roger that shows off the best of Jake’s time with Toronto.
Not much to say here really, except the man showed up and did his job. He was overused at many points of his tenure, but that’s more a reflection on the coaching staff and the lack of better options than on him. For two seasons, he was a stabilizing force on the back end, a great mentor to the younger members of the defence core, and a hilariously blunt interview subject on those rare occasions when he was made available to the media. Best of luck in Ottawa Ron, and thank you for being a better defensive coach than DJ Smith was.
Best moment: It’s a small thing, and nearly impossible to find video of, but one thing I always took note of and appreciated were moments of him ‘coaching’ young defencemen like Travis Dermott before a puck drop. Whether it was before a penalty kill or just a regular d-zone draw. If he felt like it needed to be done, he was there: showing him where to stand and what to do. Honourable mention: Ron Hainsey scored the only Leaf goal that I’ve witnessed in person so far, in a 3-1 loss to the Panthers back in January.
This one kind of hurts, I’m not gonna lie, but we all knew it was coming. Connor “Brown cow” as Babcock liked to call him, is a good player and a hard worker, a rare example of a grinder with some raw skill. One of the reliable guys who Babs trusted to play in all situations, sometimes even more so than the more skilled options. Unfortunately, his contract no longer fit the role he was assigned, and he’ll be missed by me. I hate to see guys who are true blue Leaf fans be traded, but hockey is a ruthless business and it had to be done.
Best moment as a Leaf: The goal he scored against Pittsburgh. You know the one. His 20th of the 2016-17 season, the game-winning goal that brought them firmly into the playoffs. Everything about the clip gives me life; his reaction, the fans going nuts, the commentary by Joe Bowen, chills.
A ‘buy low’ experiment that paid off in spades, Ennis the Menace was a strange but welcome signing last summer that paid off in spades. It was a deal that made sense for both sides, giving the Leafs another excellent piece of forward depth and for Ennis, a chance to rehabilitate his career with one of the best sports science divisions in the sport. I would have liked to see him return, especially at the cap hit he signed with Ottawa, but I can understand him wanting to go to a team where he’ll assuredly get a chance to play further up in the lineup.
Best moment: The hat trick vs. Calgary. This was just one of those nights where the team was rolling at full steam. I don’t think anyone expected Tyler Ennis, in a fourth-line role, to ever record a hat trick, and he proved us all wrong. Sure, Calgary had shaky goaltending that night, but you can’t take away his great accomplishment.
A polarizing figure for the lion’s share of his Leafs tenure. In his rookie season, Zaitsev showed flashes of greatness, but most agreed that he needed to improve in the defensive end to become a legitimate top 4 defenceman. The coaching staff followed that up with… *checks notes* two seasons of thrusting him into the role of defensive specialist lined up primarily with Jake Gardiner. A bold strategy that ultimately did not pay off. I believe there’s a solid player to be salvaged with Zaitsev, he was improving at a steady pace while playing alongside Jake Muzzin, but he’s 27 years old, he kind of is what he is now, very little chance that his game can further develop, so it was a smart move to move on from his long-term contract.
Best moment as a Leaf: Zaitsev showed flashes of personality at times in his tenure, a low-key spitfire if you will. This goal against the Capitals on November 25th 2017 was one of the nicest moves I can remember him making, and then he lets the personality shine through for a second:
Lastly, perhaps the most polarizing ex-Leaf of them all. A seventh-round pick in 2011, it’s amazing that he even made it this far. I’m not going to rehash the ‘should have kept McElhinney’ argument again, it’s been beaten to death at this point. Sparks did everything the organization asked of him, he survived in the ECHL, became the #1 goalie in the AHL, was instrumental in the Marlies winning the Calder Cup. On those merits alone, he earned his opportunity to play in the NHL and in the end, threw it away. Maybe things will be different with the Vegas Golden Knights, but after some of the comments he made in interviews (both during his time in the NHL and just after the trade), I agree with the decision to move on from him. Hopefully, it doesn’t come back to haunt us…
Best moment: Gotta throw it back to his first start with the Leafs in November 2015, in which Sparks made history as the first goalie in franchise history to record a shutout in his NHL debut. The sky was the limit for him at the time, it’s unfortunate that it had to end this way, and despite that sour parting, good luck in Vegas, Garret.