Monday, February 7, 2011

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss: Part 1

The relationship between the Toronto Maple Leafs and their obsessively rabid fan base is a little bit like being married to an abusive alcoholic; one has chronically self-destructive personality traits, and the other is hopelessly dependant on their spouse, no matter how many times they get smacked around, publicly humiliated, or occasionally pushed down a flight of stairs. The dysfunctionality is so embarrassingly obvious to the rest of the world and those who watch closely shake their heads and say "how pathetic"...but they just don't understand. This is what true love is about.

The state of affairs have grown increasingly out of hand in Leaf Land ever since the lock-out, and with each passing season one may think they certainly must have bottomed out. Astoundingly, the Leafs continue to strive for new lows in their perpetual quest to master the art of sporting futility, and over the last few weeks massive strides have been taken in the search for rock bottom. Unfortunately Toronto doesn't seem have a rock bottom to find. Welcome to the abyss.

Where to begin... An overpaid, overrated new captain, a goalie-of-the-future who can't maintain any semblance of confidence or consistency, one of the most expensive blue lines in hockey allowing a pitiful goals-against average, woeful special teams units that are among the worst in the league, a slew of high-priced long-term contracts shackling management, a laughable selection of centres and bonafide scorers, and the least-likable coach in hockey who evidently doesn't communicate with his snake-bitten star sniper. A star sniper who helped his team get a public smack in the face by rightfully being selected last in the all-star fantasy draft. Let me catch my breath.

To understand this monolithic cluster funk one must first examine the route this team has travelled to arrive to where they are today. This will shine a light on the problems of today and the potential solutions of tomorrow.

Part 1: The Past

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs were associated with respectability was the last season before the lock-out. A collection of seasoned veterans put together a 100+ point season before being promptly bumped off by a Jeremy Roenick wrister in the second round of the playoffs. When the lock-out ushered in the salary cap era, the way the Buds do business was drastically affected. No longer would they be able to throw money at high-end star veterans in their attempts to contend. This was the beginning of the John Ferguson Jr. experiment.

JFJ was a rookie general manager in the most pressure-laden market in the sport. His hiring was mistake number one. He promptly threw big-money, long-term, no-movement contracts at players he deemed to be the back bone of the future. Players like Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Jason Blake, Pavel Kubina and even *ahem* Jason Allison. He traded away a blue-chip goalie prospect in Tukka Rask for a walking, talking, fail named Andrew Raycroft. When Raycroft flopped he brought in an even bigger fail named Vesa Toskala, and signed him for big dollars. This pattern of handcuffing himself to poorly performing players, and neglecting the most important position on the ice, the goaltender, began a downward spiral of epic proportions.

Perhaps the biggest bumble of all was allowing Toronto's all-time leader in points, Mats Sundin, to walk away in free agency for nothing, receiving no return via trade for their greatest asset.

To his credit, JFJ was a scout by trade, and drafted some solid players during his tenure, like current Leaf bright spots Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, and James Reimer. His failures were not in finding new, young players, but in handling the one's he currently had and properly assessing what his squad needed.

Under Ferguson's regime the Leafs went from being one of the top teams in the east to missing the playoffs a franchise record four straight seasons. Upper management finally got the hint and fired Fergie before the season was out, bringing in former Leaf GM and current somebody's-great-grandfather Cliff Fletcher, but the damage was already done. The franchise had been tied in an unimaginable knot that is to this day still being untied.

As the team transitioned into the interim Cliff Fletcher phase, there were several questionable moves made. The mandate was to set the table for the new GM, and although seemingly addressing the problems at hand, Fletcher lacked the foresight needed to truly allow the new manager to make the team his own. For example, trading a top asset in Alex Steen was, in retrospect, a failure as the return of Lee Stempniak paid little dividends. The hiring of Ron Wilson as the new head coach was also ill-foreseen. The move was viewed as a strategic form of enticement for the team to land their coveted GM-to-be Brian Burke. Burke and Wilson are long time friends, former college room mates, and Wilson is even the godfather of one of Burke's children.

Eventually the Leafs did land the highly-regarded Burke, but in their efforts to woo him, they had unintentionally shackled him to a coach who has drastically under-performed, and because of their deep ties to one another, Burkie is far less likely to give Wilson the desperately needed axe.

This is only one of many problems plaguing the 2010-2011 edition of the Maple Leafs, and I'll dissect this and many more aspects of the current state of Leafs Nation in part 2 of my mini-series: The Present.

Stay tuned for the next installment, and if you're a die-hard Leafer like me, try not to succumb to the suicidal urges that are forced upon our fragile psyches. The one trademark of blue & white fandom is blind, loyal and utterly unsubstantiated hope. No reason to change that now.

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