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Toronto Maple Leafs and captain Dion Phaneuf say they plan to focus on defence after their recent slump. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs and captain Dion Phaneuf say they plan to focus on defence after their recent slump. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

JEFF BLAIR

Hatred for Maple Leafs trending upward Add to ...

It’s good fun but just once you’d like Brian Burke to stow the righteous indignation and stop picking fights with shadows. As the much-discussed recent Sports Illustrated players poll shows, his sacred duty to turn the Toronto Maple Leafs into the most hated team in the NHL, as opposed to the most pitied, is proceeding apace.

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It’s not necessarily mission accomplished, because hate alone won’t get you into the playoffs, let alone through the first round. It’s one thing to be hated because people respect your players and don’t particularly like playing your team, another because your team has spent a decade punching under its weight, your coach was voted in another poll as the coach players would least like to play for – and because there are unborn generations who will go to their graves believing there is an inherent bias toward you on the part of every national broadcaster.

But it’s a start, no?

Burke made it fairly clear when he took over as general manager of the Maple Leafs that one of the signs of a turnaround would be when the Leafs stopped making people collapse to the floor in spasms of laughter and instead had them scowling and raging. And it must seem achingly close: The Edmonton Oilers are a sexy, young team stuck in neutral, the Calgary Flames are maybe one step in front of the Grim Reaper and coached by a Sutter, the Winnipeg Jets disappear on the road and the Montreal Canadiens have imploded and are a theatre of dysfunction in two languages. Cover your eyes, Leafs haters (the fingers cramp up at the very thought of typing the following words), but other than the Vancouver Canucks … could it be that the Leafs are just maybe, possibly … you know … the second-best team in the country?

You’ll get a fight in Ottawa from Senators fans, and fair play to them. Truthfully, both Senators and Leafs fans have more reason for optimism than usual because let’s face it: Other than the Boston Bruins, is there a team in the Eastern Conference that you’d be deathly afraid of facing in the playoffs? Not right now there isn’t; not even the New York Rangers. The nightmare scenario for Ontario’s teams might be facing each other.

It sets up beautifully for the all-star game in Ottawa in two weeks time.

Dion Phaneuf, No. 1 among overrated players on the aforementioned poll, has been voted on as a starter. Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel will be there with him.

Burke was on Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Prime Time Sports on Wednesday (full disclosure: I’m the host of a show on the same station) and he was in full Irish, dropping goodies about being willing to trade his first-round pick at the deadline if it will expedite the acquisition of a big forward (the guess here is he’ll get a deal before the deadline, and that when it’s done, one of either Luke Schenn or Nazem Kadri will be gone). He also suggested he wants to have a mano-a-mano discussion with Alex Ovechkin about the way he picked on Kessel during the player draft at the all-star game last year and suggested he likes Toronto enough to stick around after he’s finished his GM’s gig. Burke is leading with his chin as always, and if you’re already sick of the sound and fury, wait and see what happens if his team follows. Enjoy the Leafs hatred, but know it means Burke has you exactly where he wants you.

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