There may be no bigger indictment of where this franchise is, one month before the scheduled start of a season that few expect to start as scheduled.
Some fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs actually want there to be a work stoppage that wipes out an entire season, and they have made their case quite fervently on blogs and social media over the past few months.
Reason No. 1 for a Leafs fan to root for a lockout?
The last time a season was cancelled, the top pick in the following entry draft (Sidney Crosby) was determined by a weighted lottery that would, if conducted in similar fashion in 2013, give the Leafs one of the seven best chances of picking first overall.
Reason No. 2 for some of the more militant factions of the fan base?
Another year and another set of contracts will be wiped out. And they don’t see this group improving dramatically from 26th place anyway.
It’s a grim outlook, sure, but Leafs GM Brian Burke didn’t exactly offer these pessimists much dissuasion on Monday either.
After calling his minor changes only “a starting point” back on July 1, he doubled back, revealing that his team could look very much like last season’s whenever they finally drop the puck.
“Based on the lack of activity that I see out there, no I don’t think I’ll do anything else right now,” Burke said before the Leafs teed off for their annual charity golf tournament, an event which generally marks a week or so before training camp. “We’ll probably go with this group.”
This group? Essentially that’s the 2011-12 team minus a few bodies (Luke Schenn, Joey Crabb, Colby Armstrong, Jonas Gustavsson) and plus at least two more (James Van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement).
So you can see where some fans are coming from.
To be fair to Burke, he has a point about the difficulty of making a deal in this climate.
There hasn’t been a significant one made league-wide since Rick Nash was shipped to the New York Rangers in mid-July, a span of two months of quiet brought on by the likelihood of a lockout, which would presumably be followed by a lower cap and major machinations by teams trying to get under it.
It’s not entirely out of the question Burke can do more once the league and NHLPA stop squabbling, players are bought out, cap space is created and trade talks heat up.
Given his track record heading into most off-seasons, however, inaction is more likely. As Leafs GM, Burke has often settled on hope over change, proclaiming his support for this player or that when questioned about the need for improvement.
No player has enjoyed “Burke backing” more than James Reimer, who remains the team’s No. 1 netminder with rookie Ben Scrivens as his backup.
So, as was the case a year ago, when Burke stood pat entering the season on the basis of a good second half of the previous year, so much of this coming campaign will rest on Reimer’s shoulders – and head, given his concussion history – that it borders on unfair.
“We have said from the get go if we get an opportunity to upgrade at the goaltending position, we’re going to do it,” Burke explained on Monday. “That’s still the case. But it’s not a frantic search for a goaltender. We believe in James Reimer…
“So if this is group we start with, and I think it’s going to be, we’re comfortable with that.”
Which is fair enough. Reimer did have an outstanding rookie half season and his struggles can likely largely be chalked up to a head injury suffered just as things got going.
But where’s the insurance? Or the upgrades elsewhere, specifically down the middle and on a blueline that laboured through rough patches over and over as the goalies took the blame?
Those questions are much of the reason “comfortable” hardly describes the fan base, which recently helped ESPN rank the Leafs last among all 122 professional sports franchises in the big four sports.
They have spoken, in more ways than one, and with a resounding voice, have had enough of believing.
They want to see it – something, anything – even if it means they’ll have to wait to do so.