The one thing Maple Leaf fans have wanted to believe, since Cliff Fletcher, then Ron Wilson, then Brian Burke and his team (Nonis, et al) came on board was this: the bar was going to be set high. The expectation standard was going to be where it should be, up with the elite teams.
But in truth, right now, the standard is not even where it was when Pat Quinn came along before the 1998-’99 season and took what was thought to be a mediocre, offensively-challenged team to the "final four" in his first season.
What do I mean?
Well throughout Quinn’s years (and yes, I realize there was much criticism to be heard about his coaching and later his skills as a General Manager, when the organization had lots of money to spend) getting to the playoffs was not even a point of discussion. It just always happened. It was assumed.
Yes, Ken Dryden and Mike Smith and then Quinn had more money to spend and it was the pre-cap era. But other teams (the Rangers, for example) spent as much or more, and were awful through those years.
The Leafs built a good, never quite great team, but they were solid enough to have some playoff success (they reached the “final four” twice in the Quinn years, before a new GM came in and dismantled the team) and take part in some truly memorable playoff series. It was fun to be a Leaf fan. That wasn't forty years ago, or even twenty.
Those Leaf teams had Cujo, then Belfour, in goal. So we couldn’t moan too much about that.
Since the team was actually pretty good overall, Leaf fans were able to focus more on individuals they didn’t like. Up front we moaned and groaned about Hoglund and Reichel, for example. On the back end Lumme was our whipping boy for a time. McCabe was always a fun target for fans, though under Quinn, he developed into a bonafide, end-of-season NHL All-Star. (Imagine, now, being able to complain about a guy who is an actual, legitimate All-Star not being good enough…)
In other words, fans could carp about relatively minor annoyances (as in, why is Mogilny so lazy? And why is Kaberle so weak in front of his own goal?), particular guys we didn’t like (see above) and why we couldn’t ever find anyone to play with Mats Sundin.
Now, while we have a very young team, and a squad with some emerging talent (Schenn, Kulemin, Kessel, Versteeg, Kadri), a boistrous captain and a relatively young goalie in The Monster who just might be a real player, it just feels like every win is like pulling teeth, a big deal.
I was just looking at some headlines from a few games back, when the Leafs beat
. “Leafs dig deep”, read one headline. New Jersey
My goodness. Digging dip to beat a team that looked, that night, like an AHL team? That’s what it has come to?
So when people want to say Burke has just celebrated his second anniversary, I am more of the view that he actually is well into his third season with the team. He was here for the better part of the 2008-’09 season, all of the 2009-’10 season and of course he is already well into the 2010-’11 season.
We can argue over semantics, I suppose, but this is his team. Full stop. There are no excuses. What’s that expression we always hear in sports? “You are what your record says you are.”
Injuries? C’mon. Virtually every team has to overcome all kinds of serious injuries. The Rangers have this season, as just one example.
As I’ve posted many times, I like a lot about the Leafs. If you’re an optimist, there are good things to cheer about. If you’re a pessimist, you can make a case that things are still lousy. Just look at the standings.
Like most everyone else, I believe Burke has made some nice moves since he took over the reins. But all good GM’s do. There’s nothing special about what he has done. Other lousy teams have signed players, made trades, improved their goaltending. Some of those equally struggling teams have jumped ahead of the Leafs in the same time-frame Burke has led the Leafs. (See what Rick Dudley, in far less time, has done to resurrect
, as just one example.) They just do their work a lot more quietly, with less ballyhoo and public fanfare—and yes, less money to spend, even under a cap system. Atlanta
So celebrate the management team if you want. I, too, think this group with Burke, Nonis, Poulin and others is a smart one. And this is, most nights, a hard-working team that competes.
Nowadays, however, working hard and competing in a parity-filled Eastern Conference is the minimum expectation, eh?
Results is what matters, and we’ve heard a lot of bluster about "no more entitlement" and "truculence" and "toughness" and how to "build a team from the back end" and all that other stuff.
Now is the time to see the difference, on a steady, consistent, regular basis. Fans don’t much care how it gets done, only that it get done.