This Mitch Marner Play Just Defibrillated Leafs Nation’s Cold, Dead Heart

The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently sitting dead last in the NHL right now. It’s the first time the club’s dipped this low in the standings since 1997. They are, objectively speaking, the worst damn team in the league.

And yet, Leafs Nation is drunk with hope today.

The reason: Mitch Marner, the Buds’ top pick in the 2015 draft, made an assist last night that would turn the most rational of physicists into goggle-eyed believers of magic. While his London Knights were shorthanded, the 18-year-old broke away at centre ice with co-captain Christian Dvorak trailing behind him. As Marner went in alone, he had the very gentlemanly — and Canadian — foresight to lob the puck behind him, between the legs(!), to his teammate. That Dvorak would score was a given — Marner already had the netminder completely undressed. Fairies are real.

Of course, Marner — who’s notched 105 points in just 49 games this season — is but one of many reasons Leafland is feeling optimistic these days. After 12 months that’ve seen GM Lou Lamoriello unload a surfeit of grumpy players, bad contracts and a pylon in favour of draft picks, prospects and cap space, there’s been renewed faith in president Shanahan’s Shana-plan. And this week, the club’s added Marlies hopefuls to the big team en masse, giving us flashes of what’s to come. Sure, they’ve been losing as per usual, but it’s hard not to watch these young Buds — William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, et al. — setting the tone against the Lightning, Capitals, and Wild and not wonder how long it is before they start owning these games. Consider: the Leafs have three recent top-eight picks who could all be in the regular line-up next season — Morgan Rielly, Nylander and Marner — and another coming in June.

Then again, it doesn’t take much to feel the cold, hard slap of reality across your starry-eyed mug. Sure, the Leafs are in the midst of an aggressive rebuild, but they’ve also been “rebuilding” for the last decade. Since 2004, the team’s been through two CEOs, four GMs, five head coaches, 18 starting goalies, one major ownership change, a plethora of blockbuster trades, and, lest we forget, a cursed playoff run — and they haven’t been any closer to winning a championship than they were in the ’60s. After all, these are the Toronto Maple Leafs — the worst sports franchise in North America. Want to see how an aggressive rebuild can go terribly wrong? Check out the Edmonton Oilers.

To be fair, however, these Leafs seem poles apart from the Oilers. Part of what’s plagued Edmonton for so long — they’re set to miss the post-season for the 10th year in a row — is that they’ve only added high-scoring forwards at the top of the draft, either missing out on later picks or trading those prospects early. The Leafs, though? They’ve been stocking their cheek pouches full of 2nd and 3rd round picks like player-scouting chipmunks. There’s also the small fact that they’re currently in a prime spot to draft top prospect Auston Matthews.

We know: this glass half-full perspective is mostly just another excuse for an excitement-starved fan base to get excited about something again. But hey, what’s so wrong about believing in magic? It’ll free your soul.