I’ll be brief today, as I was not planning to post, given that the Maple Leafs are playing in Florida and with the trade deadline passed, we will mostly be watching for signs of life—and looking for signs of hope for the future.
Most of us have talked for years here at VLM about how the Leafs got where they are: a team that was once, in the early ‘90s and again between 1999 and 2004, a serious contender for the Cup most years- but no longer. Over time, the team has become a collection of talented players and replaceable parts with no seeming ability to play consistently well through a long NHL season.
To me, it all started during and after the lockout of 2004-’05. The roster that had played a grueling series against the Flyers in the spring of 2004 (was that the Roenick overtime goal that ended it for us?) was not at all the same when play resumed, with a salary cap in place, in the fall of 2005. As I recall, we had lost, for example, the leadership of Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, and that team, while it looked good enough in the fall, hit a big time wall by Christmas time that they weren’t able to bounce back from.
Since then, we have longed for success, and have hoped for saviours, a new coach, a re-build, something—anything—that would get us closer to the promised land.
The acquisition of stars like Kessel and Phaneuf, still in their relative NHL formative years, seemed, on the surface, to be part of the answer.
But years after that occurred, we sit here, about to witness another playoff year minus the blue and white. Now over a decade since a playoff series win, fans are naturally frustrated.
As I mentioned here earlier, we’ve had a lot of “good hockey men” go through MLSE as coaches and GM’s over the past decade or so—some pretty darn good players, too. But nothing has worked.
So when Phil Kessel on Tuesday made a point, un-prompted, of defending teammate Dion Phaneuf, I had no issue with that at all. Here, just a couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece that suggested that the Leaf situation certainly can’t all be placed on Kessel’s doorstop. And surely the same applies to Phaneuf.
Most of us would agree that Phaneuf has been a good player for the Leafs. He earned a new contract (all new contracts these days seem outlandish to me, but whatever), as did Kessel, not so long ago. But losing takes a toll on everybody—Coaches, management, players and of course, the fans.
Kessel and Phaneuf have been part of the problem, here, absolutely. You may or may not agree. But it’s hard to believe that if either player was in a different circumstance (Dion in Detroit, say, and Phil in, I don’t know, LA or Minnesota or something) that they would be anything other than pretty successful. Both guys bring a lot to the table.
Have we had unfair expectations of these guys? Sure. But at the same time, it’s not like they offered to play for the Leafs for free. It’s what they signed up for, to a certain extent. They both chose to re-sign with the Leafs, knowing what fans and media in this market are like.
That said, the reality is that management has, for whatever series of reasons, never been able to really surround either of them with compatible talent. Phaneuf has played with good enough NHL defensemen but he was also asked to be a number-one guy, playing with defenders who were maybe second or third pairing guys a lot of the time. And he maybe wasn't really a top-pairing player. But that's what the Leafs needed him to be. (Remember when Phaneuf routinely played 28 minutes a night under Wilson and Carlyle, and always was on the ice against the other team’s best forwards? He still logs significant ice time, and has generally been dependable…)
Same with Kessel. He has at times played quite well with Bozak as his center. We all wonder what Phil might be if he worked just a bit harder on his overall game. But talented players on spotty teams tend to want to do what they do best. Maybe if Kessel ended up somewhere next season where the team holds each other accountable, and a coach actually runs the show, he will quietly fit in, still score his 35 (or more, with a new team) goals and no one will debate his defensive commitment or effort.
We can say that it would be nice for Kessel to show the same passion he showed standing up for Phaneuf during the media scrum more often on the ice. But again, when the team has been winning (which actually has happened quite a bit in his time here—we’ve had a number of streaks where it looked like we would never lose, including earlier this season…), Kessel was a dashing waterbug on the ice with vision and a release that few could match. His offensive numbers have been stellar.
So good for Phil for airing his frustration finally, and too bad for Dion that he wasn’t moved by the deadline, but they’ll no doubt both have new homes next season. They will start fresh, and likely do very well in new environments.
As for the current Leafs, well, as I was shoveling snow today for the umpteenth time this winter, I wished I was in Florida, too.