Toronto sports fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for in recent years, especially when it comes to their beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. The National Hockey League’s most lucrative franchise (listed as one of the top three richest teams in sports,) hasn’t won a championship in forty-three years, with the last one coming in 1967.
That’s before this writer’s time and the same can be said for a lot of the team’s younger fans – some of whom have never even had the chance to experience what it’s like to root for their team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In addition to not winning anything for years, the team also has failed to make it to the post-season in the last several years. Though that might change within the next year or more, as the team is definitely showing some upside under relatively new general manager, Brian Burke. The question is: how do you define success in sports, where winning is everything and losing is nothing?
When Brian Burke took over the general manager reigns from Cliff Fletcher, he promised that he would do a complete rebuild of the team, to make them a much more skilled and tough team. The idea was to have the Air Canada Centre become a tough place to play in for opponents. Sticking to his word, Burke has attempted to do just that and the past few years have seen Burke essentially blow up the entire roster. Only a few players remain from the years before he arrived and the team has been remade in his vision, with the focus on skill and truculence like promised. Some of the additions have fit in very well and have become impressive pieces of the puzzle. Though, as can be expected, there have been the odd misses. Those will always be there though. Nothing is perfect and the same goes for people. Even highly-paid general managers of iconic sports teams.
This past NHL season saw the Leafs make quite a few moves throughout the year. During the off-season, Burke signed Mike Brown (a former Anaheim Ducks enforcer,) 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Kris Versteeg, depth scorer Clarke MacArthur and agitator Colby Armstrong. While, MacArthur, Armstrong and Brown have become fan favourites, Versteeg’s stint in Toronto was a brief one. Marred by a couple long scoring slumps and becoming a target of some rude fans’ graffiti, he made it clear that it wasn’t working in the largest hockey market in the world, and was shipped to Philadelphia for draft picks. The trade filled a need for the Leafs as they gave up their first round draft picks in both last year’s draft and this summer’s upcoming draft, for (hopeful) superstar Phil Kessel. It’s a deal that hangs high over Burke’s head on a daily basis, as fans consistently complain about it even though Kessel has put up two good offensive seasons since coming over from the Bruins.
Then again, we Leaf fans are very critical. Clarke MacArthur’s addition made Brian Burke look good, as the second line winger put up a surprisingly positive season, offensively, and made quite an impact. He, along with Mikhail Grabovski (a member of the team for a few years now,) both had strong offensive seasons though they are paid only a fraction of what the Leafs’ top paid players earn. MacArthur was signed to a one year contract at a fixed one million dollar rate, after Atlanta let him go, refusing to pay the $2.7 million that the judge ruled he deserved in an arbitration hearing held during the off-season.
Around the same time that the team sent Kris Versteeg packing, Brian Burke also shipped two major pieces of the team away. Franchise player, Tomas Kaberle agreed to waive his no-trade clause after more than a decade of service to the team and many people feel that his new suiters, the Boston Bruins, over-payed for his services. Not only did they give up a decent prospect in Joe Colborne, but the Leafs also received Boston’s first round pick in the upcoming draft, as well as an additional lower pick that is conditional on whether Kaberle resigns with his new team (or if they make it to the Stanley Cup Finals this year.) Though it was tough to see Tomas leave the city that he grew up in, many fans felt that it was time, especially since his value will decline as he gets older. In order for the team to get better, they needed to get some assets back for him while they still could and, to their credit, the team played even better without him than they did when he was on their side.
Burke also moved defenseman Francois Beauchemin to the Ducks in exchange for prospect Jake Gardiner and hard-nosed forward, Joffrey Lupul, who has arguably been one of the best players on the team since his arrival. Seeing his two defensive mates shipped out of town seemed to spark new captain Dion Phaneuf, who played his best hockey as a Maple Leaf during the latter part of the year, when the team really started to pick up their play. It’s not clear as to what the catalyst was for this improvement and change in demeanor, but many wonder if it’s the fact that Dion was given the opportunity to pinch up into the play more in their absence. Marlies call-up (and a player who came over in the trade that brought Phaneuf to town in January of 2010,) Keith Aulie, spent a lot of the latter part of the season on the ice as Phaneuf’s defensive mate. Both players are big and physical forces out there, but Aulie is much more of a stay at home defenseman than his counterpart, which seemed to benefit the captain. Instead of having to always worry about being back while being placed in a pairing with another offensive-minded defenseman (in Beauchemin,) he was able to experiment more, which seemed to bring his confidence and abilities back to the forefront. In fact, he started to resemble the player the Leafs thought they were getting in the trade, but had yet to materialize.
The team’s long-suffering fans can be quite pessimistic and rightfully so. The team generally plays their best hockey when they’re just about out of it. It’s been that way for years and this year was no different. Though, to their credit, they did come quite close this season. Unfortunately, a great run for the remaining third of the regular season (starting after January’s All-Star festivities in Raleigh, North Carolina,) wasn’t enough to propel them into the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Though they captivated the hearts of a lot of fans (including yours truly,) and gave it their best shot.
For a young team, that’s something to be happy with. Right? Rookie goaltender James Reimer played outstanding after being called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. His call-up was a result of injuries to both the team’s starting goalie, Jean-Sebastian Giguere and their back-up, Jonas Gustavsson. Though he outplayed both of them and had better stats than each in less games played. Who knows what would’ve happened if he would have had the opportunity to play the entire season. Hopefully this year’s results can be continued into next season.
The Maple Leafs finished their 2010-2011 campaign with a loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, April 9, 2011. It was their second loss in the same amount of games and unfortunately forced the team to end a strong final third of the season on a low note. Their season record of 37-34-11 (85 points) was not good enough to get them into a post-season birth, though it was much better than the abysmal record they posted last year, when they were the second worst team in the NHL. That’s progress. No matter what people say, the team is definitely showing improvement and it’s evident in many ways, including on the standings sheet. Though a lot of sports fans won’t call any season a success (even a mild one,) unless a team makes the playoffs. For a rebuilding organization, is a mild success not related to an improvement on the score sheet and in the standings? Moving from fifteenth in the Eastern Conference (out of fifteen teams) to tenth is a huge improvement. A record of three games above five hundred is also an improvement. Even if it’s not enough to get into the post-season glory.
For a second consecutive year, the team shot themselves in the foot early on with inconsistent play, mediocre goaltending and a nine game losing streak. This meant that they had to spend most of the year playing catch-up, which is tough to do. If some of those occurrences hadn’t happened, the team would probably be in the playoffs right now, since they only missed out by eight points, which is the equivalent of four victories. Some fans were planning a Stanley Cup parade after the Leafs went four and oh to start the campaign, but it was premature to say the least.
Curiosity and hindsight are funny things because it’s interesting to think of what it would have been like if James Reimer had been given the chance to start the season in net. Though he wasn’t proven and nobody could have known he’d play that well at the NHL level, despite his strong performance in the pre-season over the last two years. Fans will be waiting for next year with abated breath to see how James Reimer performs for a full 82 game regular season schedule. It’s obvious that he has a lot of promise, skill and potential though. He did a great job of jumping into the line-up and out-played his competition at the most stressful part of the season, where teams are almost always playing their hearts out, game in and game out. Hopefully number 34 will be a mainstay in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ crease for a long time to come.
At the beginning of the season, the Maple Leafs were ranked as one of the NHL’s youngest rosters and they got younger throughout the year due to the aforementioned trades. For a young roster, coming that close to making the playoffs seems like a success. When the team were sellers at the trade deadline, many thought it was over because they traded away integral parts of their roster such as Tomas Kaberle. However, the players who remained seemed to play better than ever after those trades, which is a testament to the group. With the trades that Brian Burke made to get important draft picks (even if they’re late in the first round of this year’s draft,) the team seems to be on the right track.
There have been rumors that those picks may be traded together for a higher pick, but that has yet to materialize. Hopefully Burke has something under his sleeve that will allow the team to either do that, or use those picks to get a much-needed first round centre. If there was one major piece missing throughout these last few campaigns, it was definitely a top-tier centre who can play well consistently, on a line with highly-touted sniper, Phil Kessel. It’d be nice if they can find that piece of the puzzle over the off-season, but it’ll be easier said than done.
Though a lot of fans and media will not admit it around this fair city, they have to at least be somewhat impressed (deep down,) regarding how well the team played at the end of the year. It showed a team that has more confidence than they used to. A team who wouldn’t give up, which is a core value that good hockey teams possess. Also a team who respected their new goaltender so much that they played even harder in front of him because they wanted to help him out as much as possible. Something that wasn’t evident when the team played with a lack of confidence in front of both J.S. Giguere (who battled groin injuries all year,) and Jonas Gustavsson (who had confidence issues and also had to undergo a third minor heart operation to control a racing heartbeat.) Perhaps the new goalie’s confidence and even kilted demeanor was the major difference in instilling a sense of calm and confidence within the team’s locker room and roster. Whatever it was, let’s hope it continues into next season and the future. This long-suffering city and its surrounding area need something to cheer about.
Go Leafs Go!