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I never thought I’d say this but have the Leafs—and I mean almost everyone there—really given up?

I remember back in, what was it, the early 1990s, when the Flyers were a young, emerging—but still not a very good—team.  (It was either the spring of 1993 or ’94…) They had Eric Lindros and some other young guys and good vets but were way out of the playoff race.  Despite a relatively poor record, they didn’t give up, didn’t focus on a “draft choice” and float through the end of the season to ensure a high pick (though it may well have been traded in the deal to acquire Lindros...).  In fact, they went on a late-season run, had quite a winning streak to end the season.  At one point they waxed the Leafs, really hammered them at the old Gardens—the Leafs own rink.  And we have to keep in mind, this is when the Leafs were pretty good, with Gilmour, Clark, Potvin, etc. and Burns behind the bench of a pretty tough team themselves.

Even though the Flyers did not make the playoffs until the 2004-’05 season, you could just feel they were building a good team.  Lindros was a hugely important player, of course, but they built with other pieces, too.  (Though never quite obtained, which has carried on to this day, the elite goaltending that might have put them over the top.)  They were fast, skilled and tough.  They were becoming, in short, a very hard team to play against. Some of you well remember the “Legion of Doom” line, for example.

But I’ll always remember that game at the Gardens, and how the Flyers ran over a good Leaf team.  The Leafs were on their way to a “final four” run; the Flyers were heading to the golf course.  But that game—and that winning streak—was a harbinger of things to come.  For a few seasons the Flyers were very good, getting to the finals in ’97 against the Red Wings, I believe it was.  (And the Flyers fired their coach, because losing in the finals wasn't good enough...)

Fast forward to the present.  Like the Flyers about 20 years ago, the Leafs are coming through a tough time.  They’ve picked up elite skill (for a big price, mind you, much like the Flyers had to give a lot to get Lindros in the early ‘90s) in someone like Kessel (and Phaneuf?) to build with and/or around.  Though it’s been clear for some time that the Leafs would not make the playoffs in the mediocre Eastern Conference this season, I did kind of think that the coaching change a few weeks ago would (whether it was the right long-term move or not; hopefully it will prove to be…) at the very least act as a catalyst of sorts in the short term—whether they made the playoffs or not.  It looked like a move that would maybe inspire the team to come together through adversity and end the season strongly so, next fall, they would have something to build on.

Do we look at all like the early '90s Flyer team I described above?

While there were glimmers of hope in the “early” Carlyle days, that short-term feeling was just gas, apparently.  It faded quickly—and resoundingly.  Even at home (and with some individual “stats” on the line, for what that’s worth), the team looks dispirited, discouraged, as though the season cannot end soon enough.  (Hey, Grabovski scored a nice one against the Flyers, at least…)  And this is with a new, demanding coach behind the bench.  I thought everyone was trying to "impress".

Given the supposed era of “no complaints, no excuses”, I’m left almost speechless after the loss to the Flyers at the ACC.

We throw terms around like “pride” quite a bit in sports.  Those of us who were not elite athletes, who never “played the game” at the highest level should perhaps be cautious in using the word, especially if we use it in wondering about whether a particular team is indeed displaying sufficient “pride”.  Maybe it’s not for us to make that judgment. 

That said, I will say this:  I am absolutely baffled by what I am continuing to see with this Leaf team.

I’ve said here and said it often:  I do not believe teams “tank”.  Recognizing that many will cite the pre-Mario Lemieux-draft Pittsburgh Penguins as an example of that very phenomenon, I otherwise don’t buy it in this day and age.  We are talking about superbly conditioned, mentally tough and unbelievably well-compensated individuals who don’t want to give anything less than their best, for future contractual reasons if nothing else.   With every game on television and—in this market—every individual mistake highlighted, there is ample motivation to play hard every night, regardless of the team’s position in the standings.

But what, then, is going on?  How is it that the team looks so miserable, so unhappy on the ice?  There is no joy in their game.  They are almost all playing as if they have a piano on their back.  Yes, the team’s fragile confidence somehow was lost along the way, and that is huge, for sure.  But usually, a team will eventually rise from the ashes and rebound, fight through slumps and play hard and determined hockey—at least at home.

I don’t think we’re seeing that.  Thankfully, the season ends next week.  This isn’t worth the investment of emotion—or time.

Which makes me ask the question:  does even the management team want them to lose right now, to help secure that much-discussed (and possibly over-hyped) draft pick?  I don’t know where the Leafs will pick—the way they are playing, it could be a very high choice by the time the season is over.  And I understand why many fans see that as the only way to salvage yet another unfulfilling season in Leafland.

The Leaf front office is filled with super-competitive people.  Forget just Burke.  Guys like Poulin and Dudley, two fiery ex-NHL players, and Carlyle (another tough ex-player) behind the bench, are incredibly intense guys.  They played hard throughout their NHL careers and they want to win just as badly now.

But are even they just kind of letting the team play out the string, knowing they have nothing to play for now, and that that draft pick may indeed be a future difference-maker for the franchise (though that’s a big “ may be”…)?

Why do I even raise this notion?

Well, there have been no dramatic pronouncements from a management hierarchy (maybe I’ve missed the missives…) led by Burke, a group of individuals that has never been reluctant to speak out.  When Gustavsson had a bad outing a few weeks ago and the Leafs were still in the playoff chase, Burke went public with the comment that the team needed saves from their goalie.  But these days, no one is putting the Leaf players on notice, with the exception of Carlyle suggesting that the team had to play better at home earlier this week.  But that was tepid stuff, eh?

How has the team reacted since?  In kind.

What we are getting, as I’ve noted here before, is a lot of spin doctoring by Nonis, Poulin and Dudley, all armed with prepared messages to deliver to various mainstream media outlets-  all designed to encourage we Leaf fan faithful not to bail on the Leafs, or their much discussed “plan”.  Things are getting better, we’re told.  The Marlies are great, eh?

It’s easy to poke fun at the Leafs when things go badly and that’s never been my thing here at Vintage Leaf Memories.  There are plenty of other places that like be dismissive of the "woeful" Leafs.  And I’m not interested in insinuating things that aren't there, like "tanking".  But I just don’t understand what I’m seeing on the ice right now.

Fans can dream of a draft pick.  That’s what we do as fans.  That’s fine.

But I don’t like this.  And I can’t imagine any Leaf fans really do either, down deep, (despite the draft thing) because this does speak to character, pride, desire.

I wrote yesterday about the positives I see.  And I stand by everything that I wrote.  But I said that I was not unaware of the obvious—the not-so-positive things that are right in front of us.

While, as we’ve all said, a team is never as good or as bad it seems at its best or worst—and we are admittedly at the end of a long and discouraging second-half for the players—it’s fair to expect more.

And better.

While things can always turn around quickly next season, it sure feels lately like it’s going to take more than an 18 year-old draft choice—as good a player as he may be—to turn this ship around.

25 comments:

  1. The hockey gods were kind tonight. Minny won in overtime so we are one point from 4th...last.

    We could catch Montreal soon.

    Not so long ago I saw a game in Chicago in the season they had 59 points. It was a pre-season game. You could see that they had nothing. Think about that again...59 points!

    They were real bad for a couple more years

    A few years later they are playing Detroit in the conference final...next year the Cup

    Draft choices...our first rounder keeps looking better.

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  2. It would be better, at least to me, if the Leafs could improve without banking on a solitary high draft pick. That's putting a lot of whoever they select this summer- a kid who may be a couple of years away from playing, and even longer in terms of being an all-around contributor.

    We'll see. You may be right, DP. The Hawks had pretty high picks for a few years in a row, I think, just as the Penguins and Capitals did, and now the Oilers have, as well.

    They all got a lot better, but it took a lot of really high picks (just like with the Senators in the mid and later '90s...). They all had to be really bad for a long time....

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  3. I explain what I think is really going on.

    Most of the players just want the season to end. They thought they were putting together a return to the playoffs... now they are faced with this.

    They players are also trying to make an adjustment to Carlyle's systems. They are thinking too much and not playing naturally. This sort of system change is normally done to start a year, when everybody is rusty...not against teams that primed for the playoffs.

    I think the team also misses Lupul and Kulemin. Kulemin is top six...at least on this team and his defense is missed. You can see it now.

    Lupul...his scoring has been huge and keeps teams from keying on Kessel. Plus I think he might be a better leader than Phaneuf. A few times this year Lupul has dragged the team from a loss to a win during a game.

    I think there is a good chance that the team could bounce back and be into the playoffs as early as the next year or the one after that.

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  4. Uuughhh. That is all.

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  5. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 30, 2012 at 6:40 AM

    Oh Luuucy, I think were in trouble!

    I never dream in a million years I would be saying this, "this is more pathetic than when Pal Hal ran the Leafs!" At least you could excuse his general managers for their fertility. Pal Burke has a whole team of Ex-GM under him and look at the "fine mess where in".

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  6. Simple answer. Wrong style of play for this roster.

    I happen to think Ron Wilson is a pretty good NHL coach. And I think it is clear that he was pushing the right style of hockey for this roster. Kessel, Gardiner, Grabbo, MacArthur--the heart of this hockey team--looked about 200% more effective under Wilson. Crabb, Steckel, Komi look better under Carlyle. The results reflect that uneven trade-off.

    I'm not saying that Carlyle is a poor coach, or that he won't eventually succeed. I'm just saying that he doesn't have the players to win with his style. Nobody wins games in the NHL with 16-18 shots a night, much less a team with an error prone defense and shaky goaltending.

    Even during the darkest last hours of the Wilson era, the Leafs still looked dangerous out there. They were losing games, but the games were generally close, and the Leafs usually made it very interesting by the end. Not anymore. The current Leafs are about as dangerous as a bowl of Jello. And they still pretty much suck at keeping the puck out of the net. Bad combo.

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  7. "Thankfully, the season ends next week." Man, back at the beginning of the season I didn't think I'd be agreeing with that.

    I personally don't think teams tank either, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. And I'm torn on what I want this team to do over the final four games.

    They continue losing, yeah, they get a high draft pick and can pick up a potentially elite offensive talent. I'm all for being patient with a rebuild. And despite what Burke told us, most fans should be waking up to the fact that we're not immune to a 5-year rebuild.

    But this isn't the NFL, where draft players arrive ready for the Show from day 1. Galchenyuk (or whomever) won't reach the big team for at least a season.

    And my bigger concern is this: if we keep falling apart, how are we supposed to attract the talent (goaltending or otherwise) that we need over the offseason?

    Maybe I'm over-thinking it. I can settle for another year of rebuilding, but I get frustrated when the fanbase seems to unilaterally agree we need to fail in order for that to happen. It seems more complex than that. But I could be wrong.

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  8. What really bugs me isn't that the team was first overall not too long ago and plays like golfers now, or all our apparent ills in goal. What bugs me is that Burke and Wilson et al crowned Phaneuf as a #1 D man and he's been far, far from that level for, oh, 65 games (how often do #1 D men let guys blow by them on the rush?). A Norris trophy candidate? A long way from happening. THe guy has been physically/mentally whacked for 3 months, he can't handle it.

    And Kessel is a good scorer, no doubt, but when the going got tough he pulled an Ovechkin and raised his game. Oops, guess not. People say his game went south when Lupul got hurt but he did have 7 points in January and a much better February before the March ugliness. A useful piece to the puzzle but don't think he's a Hart candidate, no more of that talk!

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  9. Well said Michael. As another "long-time" Leaf fan, I share the pain and I'm also mystified by this team's disheartened play. DP made some good points, and those were certainly contributing factors. As for Craig's comments about Wilson, yes he let the offensive side open up, but the defencive system was lacking and he was at the lem in all of February when this team collapsed. That being said, Carlyle has struggled to right the ship.

    I heard sports reporter Jim Tatti say something recently that may be true. He said when a team collapses like this one has, that the players collectively know the reason(s). They may not share that with the media, or management, but they themselves know. At the end of this season, there will be a post-mortem done by the coaching staff and management and they'll figure out what went wrong. With time, the media and fans may get some idea what those things were, but they may not want to air all the dirty laundry.

    We all realize there will be changes in the off season. Some of those changes may in fact be specifically to fix one (or more) of the problems that allowed this collapse to happen. Like most fans, we don't want to hear the excuses, just fix this team and get it back on track. This season (outside of Gardiner & Lupul) was a serious setback. Its just going to make Burke's job in the summer that much more challenging. He knows it better than we do.

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  10. Long Suffering...it's not encouraging when the '80s and Ballard come to mind...

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  11. I think Willbur summed it up pretty accurately and succinctly.

    This team doesn't deserve to win games, but as a fan I hate to see my team lose. Always. That said, if there's anything at all to like about this season as it stands, it's that the team is in prime position to get a top 5 draft pick, which would be it's only positive achievement since mid the all-star break.

    For the first time this season, Phil Kessel is below a PPG. That gives me sads.

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  12. Craig- I guess the question now is - will they bring in enough "new" guys who fit Carlyle's "style", or does Carlyle adjust to what he has?

    Right now, despite some hopeful spurts earlier on, it's a bad cocktail...

    Thanks Craig.

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  13. Anon...This will continue to be the debate around both Phaneuf and Kessel, it seems.

    Phaneuf has played way too many minutes this season. Is he good enough or deserving of those minutes? Or have the coaches unfairly pushed him to the point where he is exhausted? I don't know.

    Kessel..well, we will forever, it seems, wonder if he will be more- not a leader, but, say, a better all-around player, or just accept that he is what he is...a really good, if hot and cold scorer.

    Thanks.

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  14. Steve W....I don't think you're mis-reading things at all. It is a head-scratching situation. Fans can cheer for the team to "lose" to get a higher pick, that's fine. I just don't understand what I'm seeing right now.

    It makes me wonder if the organization, including the coaching staff, is just letting things unfold for the worst.

    While we could always have accepted a "five year-rebuild" if honestly stated up front (and even now fans will embrace real progress if it means we ultimately see a Cup contender) I just don't think we figured, three and a half years into this re-build, we would need to "tank" t help achieve the goal.

    Thanks Steve.

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  15. Great post, TML__fan.

    I think Tatti is correct. Players know what has happened- what was going on before Wilson was fired, what is going on inside the room since Carlyle took over.

    Exit interviews with players at the end of the season may privately reveal some things, but in this instance, given how sour things are, how honest will players be with Burke and Carlyle? So many of them are in-betweener's and on the bubble. They may fear being open.

    There aren't any leaders who can go in and speak up and "tell the truth" as it were.

    I agree on Lupul and Gardiner. But you do have to wonder, looking at a Subban in Montreal, will Gardiner (who, unlike P.K., is not a physical defenseman), suffer from unreasonably high expectations in the years to come?

    Lupul had a career-year. Can he repeat that?
    Hard to know.

    Good stuff, thanks.

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  16. Thanks Darryl. I hear you as well.

    It's a shame it's come to this, hoping for losses to get a pick. Wow.

    Maybe Phil will get it going in the last few games....

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  17. I think somewhere Dr. Frankenstein has taken body parts from graves and revived the monster know as Harold Ballard.

    It's the only logical explanation.

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  18. It is tough enough seeing Sequin playing for Bruins...wait til Doug Hamilton becomes a force on the Beantown D.

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  19. Everybody wants to win just like everyone wants to be healthy, sexy and wealthy but not everyone does what is takes to do that. Leaf employees are just there to get paid just like the on-ice "talent". Why do you think Wilson tweeted about his extension...it was all about the money. Why did Burke come to Toronto...for the $18M in salary. Him wanting to build a cup winner is bull....a cup winning team can't this many overpaid stiffs (on and off the ice).

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  20. Anon (re Doug Hamilton)...if he is as advertised, that will be difficult for fans to see develop in Boston....Agreed.

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  21. The only think I will say, Anon, is I do believe that Burke wants to win badly. But as I've posted here many times, his ego has gotten in the way, as it did in Vancouver.

    Results may be on the way, though it doesn't feel like it now...

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  22. This season appears to be the worst break-out of the Blue and White disease ever. Ironic isn’t it? I guess they will have to try to make trades this summer, especially to accommodate the playing style of the new coach. Given the way that the team has played, you would have to assume that any player on the roster is available.

    I have some suggestions for players they might try to acquire, players who might fit well into Randy Carlye’s system: Nick Antropov, Alex Ponikarovsky, Alex Steen and Juri Tlusty. Oh and according to the TV panel the defense is too lumbering. How about Carlo Colaiacovo then? I am sure that we can think of others with a common pathology. But here comes the million dollar question: If you catch the Blue and White disease once, are you immune to it the rest of your life?

    It seems that a number of players who are suddenly cured of the Blue and White disease the moment they take off the sweater. Here’s a thought, maybe it’s not the players? I am betting that several million jaws dropped when the long line of qualified candidates were passed over for JFJ. I know mine did. One thing I have noticed, almost any failing will be overlooked if you make a lot of money: Say what you want about Dick Cheney’s shooting skills; that man is a magnet for money. Yeah, ok good for him and the shareholders I guess … but Citizen Kane always pops into my mind at that point: (“It's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.”)

    While a lot of money will apparently get Dick Cheney to the top of the heart transplant list, in the world of hockey, a lot of money will not buy your team a heart transplant. Only time patience and a coherent plan will do that; and one free of excessive corporate meddling I might add. Now, with the worst breakout of Blue and White disease in recent history, we all want to know when the bleeding will stop. Let’s just say that the patient is being readied for major surgery. Anything can happen now I guess.

    Let's just hope that “not being interested in a five-year rebuild” did not mean a penchant for a ten-year rebuild. Isn't that we are being told that the new standard for judgment is -- ten years? I wonder what the team would look like if management gave the players that kind of time?

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  23. Hate to keep coming back to this but I really feel that Carlyle is not the right guy for this team. I would suggest that a young team needs a teacher and communicator, not a taskmaster. too late for that now.

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  24. I always appreciate a good Orson Welles reference, Bobby C. (not to mention a U.S. political figure)

    You will know, instinctively, that I like your ironic reference to the dreaded "blue and white disease". I've never bought the oft-stated Wilson/Burke premise in that regard.

    And yes, isn't it something that the very affliction they were brought here to ostensibly "cure" has emerged, worse than ever.

    Heart matters, indeed.

    Five-year rep build. Ten-year re-build.

    Lesson not learned in the halls of the ACC: if you set expectations high, you best deliver on your words.

    Thanks Bobby C. Great stuff.

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  25. cbh747...

    That's a really good point. But as you say, the die is cast on that decision. Three more years for Carlyle.

    Usually a GM goes from tough coach to player's coach, not tough coach to toughest coach.

    We'll see where this takes us....

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