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Florida doldrums and where Burke may have sent the wrong message

That Toronto power-play about mid-way through the third period Wednesday night perhaps best symbolized the recent difficulties facing the Leafs.  They were skating hard, making plays, but the puck simply refused to go in the net. You can't really say it was a poor power-play effort.  In fact, they did everything well, except put the puck in the net.  They created several clear-cut chances, saw rebounds bounce just out of reach, hit a goal post. 

I don't know that breaks really even out, but there will come a time soon when goals won't be the issue.  As I mentioned in my last post, what you hope is that they won't waste their break-out in one game, then go back to struggling to score goals.  You'd like to see relatively consistent production.

The Leafs should play a good game on Saturday night.  Vancouver is rolling these days, and they are a well-developed, playoff-tested team.  But Toronto will be at home, on a Saturday night.  There are a number of guys just ready to bust out.  Kessel, for one, but also Bozak, Versteeg, Grabovski.  Kulemin had been scoring a bit but has more to give, and like a lot of Leafs, just needs to keep working and the breaks, and goals, will come.


Having watched the good ship Maple Leaf for 15 games now (and for about 50+ years before this), I don’t get too excited when things go well for a while, or become too discouraged when the team stumbles along.  After this long, surely I should know to expect things may not end as I have hoped for, going on 44 years, eh?

After all, though I haven’t followed the Peanuts cartoon for many years, I assume Lucy still pulls the football away from Charlie Brown at the end, each and every time that story line arises.  Each time he hopes, he wants to believe, that she will hold it for him this time.  Each time the ball is pulled away and he falls on his back.

This is the life of the longtime Maple Leaf fan.  Still, it’s a good life.

So when mainstream media or fellow hockey bloggers and writers post their thoughts, I enjoy and appreciate their point of view.  Everyone has their own views, their own unique perspective and life experience to share as a sports observer.

My ‘click here and there’ radio-listening style over the last day led me to some Maple Leaf talk radio. The host and listener reaction was, predictably, all over the map.  Some want the coach fired.  Others think Burke is the guy responsible for the current distress.  Many see the Leafs as simply lacking talent, while others point to a recent lack of effort and a refusal to "get dirty".  Many seemed concerned that even Giguere was perplexed after the loss in Tampa Bay.

I can’t deny that, at times of late, they have become easier to play against.  But most teams who are middle-of-the-pack squads go through that.

My perspective may be a common one, I don’t know.  I’ve written about this for the past few days.  The players are what they are.  Making them try to be something they’re not likely won’t yield long-term results.  So my thought is, find the small, personal keys, the good traits, that make each player on this team an NHL’er, and at the same time find the best ways to motivate each guy to be ready to play hard more often than not.

That sounds simplistic, but coaching is often about finding the edge that others can't find that can make a group of guys with mostly ordinary talent a really good team.  It is very do-able.

Two or three wins and things suddenly look better in Leaf-ville.

Now, this is not to sound Pollyanna-like.  I just don’t see the point of railing about each and every loss, if the team is, by and large, giving a workmanlike effort.

Most of us agree (I mean, we have discussed this very issue in this space for ages) that on a pure elite talent level, there is not a lot of that on the current roster.  Some nice players, a few pluggers, some hard workers. More talent at the back end then up front, for sure.  All are NHL’ers, but most of the forwards are third and fourth-line players.  Now, we knew this going into the season.  A few wins at the outset created some heady feelings and a lot of hope, but we also knew that could not last.

I do think they are better than their recent results.  And I’ll keep saying it: in the East, no one is out of it.  On paper, this team is not much less able than many of those clubs they are competing against.  But they need the confidence to play to their individual capabilities (and beyond), and if they can find some togetherness in that dressing room, and the coach spends more time nurturing them than fencing with the media, they may make progress.

But I want to address, without being unfair, where some Leaf fans may be frustrated.

Brian Burke is now in his third season.  I realize he came on board part-way through the 2008-’09 season, so he can’t be held “responsible” for moves made by his predecessors.

But the reality is, this is his third season in the job.  He is a veteran, experienced, ultra-confident hockey man.  When he says things like, as he did before the season, that “we have the best top-six defensemen” in the league, fans take that, to a certain extent, as hyperbole.  But they also want to believe he really believes that.

The Leaf “top-six” is indeed fine.  Pretty good at times.  But to say they are the best in hockey, well, that seems a stretch just now, especially when you also claim to be thrilled with your goaltending.

Maybe more important is his oft-repeated claim that “I don’t want to wait five years” to turn the team around.  Well, as I have posted in the past, it will take him at least that long to get the Leafs to be a really good team, probably longer to become a legitimate Cup contender.

And that’s fine.  Most fans would be fine if it took five or whatever years to become consistently good and competitive with the league's best teams. 

After all, that’s, in truth, where the Leafs already were in the Pat Quinn years.  They were in the playoffs every season, except his last year when he had long lost the GM portfolio and it was no longer the team he built.  They were a very good team most years and often went deep into the playoffs. Those teams, with few exceptions (a notable playoff game in New Jersey where they managed maybe ten shots on goal aside), were hard to play against and gave the opposition just about everything they could handle.  Those playoff series against the Islanders, but especially Ottawa and of course the Flyers were truly gruelling, exhausting series—for the fans, not to mention the players.  Those were battles and Leaf supporters were driving the streets with Leaf flags everywhere on their car.  Those were good times. And it was the same under Burns and Fletcher in the early ‘90s.  Great hockey.  Wonderful memories, indeed.

So to create that winning atmosphere now would just getting back to where we were when the finally soon-to-be-departing Richard Peddie decided in 2004 to set the Leafs back for years by changing a management team that did not need to be changed.  Sometimes Burke unfortunately sounds like we haven’t had a good team here for 40 years.  Not so.

And it comes across as a bit triumphant-sounding, without the triumphs to go along with it, when he suggests he has no patience for a five year re-build.  He’s not the only GM in hockey that wants to win now.  They all do.  And  yes, in this “new” NHL, there is precedent for team turning things around fairly quickly.  But at the end of the day, Leaf fans will likely have to wait a bit longer (hey, what’s another couple of years).  There’s not a lot in the pipeline and not a lot of draft choices to look forward to.

Those same fans, though, may be a bit more patient right now if they had not been served the speeches about truculence (this is not a truculent team), the best defense in the NHL (it is not) and the “no time for a five-year re-build” mantra.

Sure, sometimes fans need to hear the talk, just so they know management is not asleep at the wheel.  But no one thinks that about Burke.  Everyone knows he is committed to making this team really good.

So maybe we just need less talk and concern about a few fans booing, less about acquiring Tavares before that draft (and it doesn’t happen), or moving up in this past year’s draft (and it doesn’t happen) , a Kaberle deal (and it doesn’t happen).  And less about how there’s no time for a five-year re-build (when we know it will take that long) and more of that great ‘no-talk’ stuff and just making it happen— like acquiring Phaneuf, a move that caught the hockey world completely off-guard.     

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