Saturday, February 12, 2011

*Staring Into The Blue & White Abyss: Part 2

Part 2: The Present

Where were we? Ah, yes, we left off with the Toronto Maple Leafs having been mired in a vicious cycle of underachieving teams that are constantly overestimated in their proximity to competitiveness. John Ferguson Jr. led the charge as Leafs GM through the first four and a half post-lockout years, bumbling his way through a series of awful roster decisions en route to getting politely asked to F-off in January of 2008. Brought in to pick up the pieces was senior citizen discount card holder Cliff Fletcher, who did his best to help set the table for eventual predecessor Brian Burke but ultimately helped compound the team's problems rather than address them.

The one move with the most lasting effect on the current edition of the Leafs was the hiring of Ron Wilson. It's common practice for a team in a period of transition in the front office to allow the incoming GM to hire his own coaching staff. It's his team, why shouldn't he get to hire the staff he thinks best suits his intended style of play? In their desperation to land the established GM, the Leafs hired Burke's close friend Ron Wilson in the hopes that it would lure the burly cup-winning executive. Whether it did or not is a mystery, but Burke did resign from his post in Anaheim for the "plum job" in Toronto.

I'm not suggesting that Ron Wilson is a bad coach, but it put Brian Burke in an awkward position going forward, no matter how good an idea it seemed to be at the time.

Burke came into Toronto like a pimp comes into a whore house. With swagger, self-assured confidence, and promises of a better future if you'll comply with his style of business. Like noble prostitutes we gave him every bit of our trust, and he knew exactly how to handle us. He allowed us to believe his spiel about us not being far off from success, but in a few short months Burke had decided the charade was over and began to clean house.

At the top of Burkie's shit list were the unreasonable contracts on the roster, like Jason Blake & Vesa Toskala, both of whom were promptly shipped out (Burke employed a similar strategy in Anaheim, ridding the team of bulky contracts like that of Sergei Fedorov). Shedding contracts that bad is a win in itself, but Burke really branded the team with the Dion Phaneuf deal.

In one foul swoop Brian Burke changed the face of the Leafs for years to come, by acquiring Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie, in exchange for four pilons. They had shed a few underachievers with bad contracts, for a possible stud defenseman, a solid penalty killing specialist, and a prospect who looks and plays like Chris Pronger's illegitimate love child, faster than you can say "plan the parade".

That momentum led him right into a deal that would be viewed as the pivotal point of his Toronto tenure; During his first training camp as Leafs GM he sent out two first round picks and a second round pick for Phil Kessel. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Leafs had the general notion (as they had pretty much every year since the lockout) that they were "one legitimate sniper away" from being a playoff contender, and the valuable picks given up were deemed expendable as the team was ready to compete now. The result? Dead last in the eastern conference and one of the worst seasons in team history. Maybe my math is off, but I'm pretty sure the Leafs could have finished dead last without the help of Phil Kessel and his brand spanking new five year contract.

Poor finishes usually pay dividends in the draft, but instead the Buds handed over the second overall pick (Tyler Seguin) to a division rival who was already stacked at the forward position.

The heat was now on for Burke to put something tangible together over the summer, because another cellar-dwelling season would be viewed as a massive failure.

The tough part of navigating this market is not succumbing to the overwhelming outside pressure when people are clamouring for change, and Burke did not get Rob Babcocked into another bad move. He played his cards safely, holding onto top asset Tomas Kaberle, and shaping the team in his image by singing free agents like Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, and Clarke MacArthur, who all have become solid contributors to the organization in different ways. Kris Versteeg was also brought in via trade and has become the team's best two way forward, and has plenty of up side.

Despite an improved roster, it's a long way up from the bottom and the Leafs bumbled through the first half of the 2010-2011 season. Fans were growing increasingly restless and could be heard chanting "fire Wilson" at several poor home games. The feeling began to grow around hockey's most knowledgeable fan base that the team had been lost to Wilson and his sarcastic attitude, and that the players were no longer buying what he was selling. The standings seemed to agree.

The All-Star break rolled around and the Leafs were again sitting near the bottom of the eastern conference. Phil Kessel, the Leafs not-so-worthy All-Star representative, had the unsavoury distinction of becoming the first player to be chosen last in the NHL's new fantasy draft selection format. It was a not-so-subtle slap in the face to the organization, and if there ever was a rock bottom for this team, certainly this would be as close as they could come. Or was it?

Less than a week later a league-wide player poll showed that 24% of players in the league had voted Ron Wilson as the coach they would least like to play for, and with thirty coaches to choose from that is a pretty hefty percentage. If Wilson's loss of credibility was in question before, surely it couldn't be now. Phil Kessel put the exclamation mark on an embarrassing fortnight by publicly calling Wilson out on his bullshit when he told a scrum of reporters "me and Ron don't really talk...that's all I have to say about that". Bitch move? Yes, but maybe this will finally be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Wilson needs to go, and no amount of Anaheim Duck-fleecing is going to change that (really, how many different ways can we screw that team? Toskala. Blake. Now Beauchemin for Lupul, Gardener and a pick? Thanks losers! Might as well call you the Anahaim SUCKS!).

As the standings sit today, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in twelfth place, seven points out of a playoff spot, and barring a comeback of epic proportions, will miss the playoffs yet again. Brian Burke has done an admirable job rebuilding this team with very little assets to speak of, but until he gets up the gumption to let his BFF Ron Wilson go, this team will not compete going forward. There are options on the horizon, and if they're not taken advantage of soon then Toronto is as doomed as any pimp-ho relationship. The ho winds up ODing on whatever junk she's been strung out on, or simply facedown in a ditch somewhere, all used up, and if she isn't dead, she'll be void of any emotion or ability to return to a normal existence. The pimp? Well he just finds a new btich and keeps on pimpin', baby.

I'll talk more about some of the options for improvement facing the blue & white brigade in my final installment, part 3: The Future. Until then, you stay classy Toronto.

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