Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why So Naive "Leafs Nation"?

I live in Toronto but I am not from Toronto. I’ve been here for three years and it is my first time living in a hockey town. The fact that I now roam in the land of the Leafs has brought mixed emotions. I grew up loving the Montreal Canadiens and I still do. When it comes down to it, I am not a fan of the Leafs – I grew up hating them. But, living in a city like Toronto that lives and breathes hockey, there is now something fun about when the local team does well. That is not happening this year.

The Leafs were terrible last year too. To be completely fair, they haven’t been good enough since 1967. Either way, after some shake-up in the front office the Maple Leafs ended up signing Brian Burke at the helm, Mr. Congeniality himself. This is the point where the expectations for the 2009-2010 NHL season started to swell (coincidentally also when Leafs fans inexplicably started calling themselves “Leafs Nation”, my rant on this will come another day).

The praise for Brian Burke was unheralded and a shocking amount of faith was put in a guy, who when you really dissect his track record, had not achieved that much success. However, the media had a field day. Burke ended up making what seemed like decent moves bolstering the blue line significantly. Of most significance, he got Francois Beauchemin (Stanley Cup winner), Mike Komisarek (All-Star) and he kept Tomas Kaberle (All-Star).

Also, he signed “The Monster”, Jonas Gustavsson, “the best goalie in the world not in the NHL”. I have a problem with this tagline. To me, that means, once in the NHL, he could be “the worst goalie in the NHL”. I realize that is a stretch, but it stands to reason. Every local paper, every website, every television and radio show, everywhere, all that was heard or read was “The Monster… The Monster…” It was sickening really, I had no idea a backup goalie could turn a franchise around. I also felt bad for “The Monster” as his nickname (with help from the media) set the expectations upon him unreasonably high. The funny thing is, his nickname comes from his stature, not his record – he is 6’3”.

Alas, the big move was yet to come. When Brian Burke traded the future for Phil Kessel, you could see people in the streets of Toronto pouring champagne over their heads. I think a parade was even scheduled but it interfered with a protest (in Toronto, it’s chic for protesters to randomly block streets). I would not have been surprised at all if at the introductory press conference they had Kessel part Lake Ontario, just because he could.

So there we had it, the major pieces of the overhaul from the top-down were in place. Then the media took over. And not to blame the media entirely, it had been a while since Toronto fans had anything to be excited about. The Leafs have amazing fans and knowledgeable fans. Why were they so naïve?

I went to my first game last week, against the, surprising, Colorado Avalanche. The Leafs lost and were badly outplayed. It put the record to 0-5-1 (after last night's loss, 0-6-1). The worst start in franchise history. I heard many boos and saw many empty seats well before we heard the final horn.

So what is happening in “Leafs Nation”, why so bad?? Well, Kessel is yet to play. Vesa Toskala is injured (his ego maybe) and was not good before the injury. “The Monster” is also injured. But, the answer is: what is happening is exactly what should be happening. The chalk Ron Wilson uses for the win column is still in the box, and perhaps, this is underachieving (for any NHL team), but, here’s the thing, the Toronto Maple Leafs just are not that good.

The defencemen have yet to get it going, but could and should turn it around, although it seems like Komisarek is desperately missing Andrei Markov, similarly Beauchemin may be longing for Scott Niedermayer. Up front, the Leafs are looking weak. The savior, Kessel, had 60 points in 70 games last season (his third) on a talented team in Boston, often playing alongside Marc Savard. There is no Savard in Toronto, the Leafs leading scorer last year had 63 points (Jason Blake).

Expectations this year swelled due to a few things: A new straight-shooting GM. A couple of solid defencemen. A backup net-minder with a cool nickname. Normally knowledgeable fans yearning for some playoff hockey. The media.

I read an article last week in the Toronto Star by Kevin McGran, the title was “Five Leaf failings and five solutions.” Here are McGran’s five “failings”:
1. Goaltending 2. Leadership 3. Toughness 4. Defense 5. Offense.

I’m not even joking. I took the liberty of using McGran’s idea and writing my own article, here it is:

One Leaf Failing” by Peter Durant

1. Hockey

In 2008-2009, the final playoff spot in the East went to my beloved Montreal Canadiens with 93 points (in an 82 game NHL season). The Leafs now have 75 games remaining – they really have taken the fork in the road for the long way home.

Informed media have noted that Burke has had contact with other general managers about a trade to improve the Leafs this season, but nothing has been palatable. This is puzzling as it is difficult to fathom adding an NHL player to an AHL caliber team with an 0-6-1 record and not improving – but, we’ll trust Mr. Burke.

The salt on the wound is that there isn’t even a silver lining to this year’s poor start and season ahead. The Leafs shipped their first and second round draft pick in 2010 and a their first rounder in 2011 to the Boston Bruins to get Kessel. So finishing in the basement will net them nothing. It is also worth noting that Boston plays in the same division, so the big benefit of losing goes to a rival.

The good fans of Toronto deserve more, if any city on the planet deserves a Stanley Cup parade in June, it has to be Toronto. If there’s still some champagne left from the celebration for the Kessel trade, let us raise a glass and say “Here’s to hoping the fans are as patient as they are passionate”, there’s a long road ahead.

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