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New York Islanders’ Brock Nelson, second from right, celebrates after scoring his team’s opening goal against Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier, right, on Dec. 29. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
New York Islanders’ Brock Nelson, second from right, celebrates after scoring his team’s opening goal against Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier, right, on Dec. 29. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


Maple Leafs’ dreary loss to Islanders reinforces need to stick with rebuild Add to ...

Despite the Toronto Maple Leafs’ recent run of competence, Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the New York Islanders was as dreary an exercise as anything perpetrated on the fans during last season’s apocalypse.

While the Leafs braintrust of president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock surely were displeased with the display at the Air Canada Centre, come Feb. 29 they may thank goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who sprung all the familiar leaks after tantalizing everyone with a couple of decent games. For that date is the NHL trade deadline and the flop by Bernier and his teammates should squelch something that is all too typical of Toronto fans and media.

Mike Babcock aims to get Leafs to 'rightful place' in NHL (CP Video)

As the Leafs went through December with an unexpected stretch of wins, going 5-1-2 in an eight-game stretch before meeting the Islanders, talk on the various media began about what the Leafs should do at the trade deadline. It began in earnest this week with more than one media type wondering aloud if the Leafs should think about adding a warm body or three for a playoff run rather than trying to unload their few decent parts for prospects or draft picks.

The only rational response to anyone raising this is, “Have you completely taken leave of your senses?” But this particular crossroads has proved fatal to Leaf administrations going back to the early 1990s. Let the Leafs show a trace of competence and more than one GM fell all over himself in throwing the rebuilding plan out the window for a shot at immediate success.

Cliff Fletcher is remembered fondly for bringing Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour to Toronto and taking the Leafs to two consecutive conference finals in 1993 and 1994. But even Fletcher admits the unexpected success caused him to start trading futures for veterans and the success stopped there. Draft, schmaft, anyone?

Much the same happened in the Pat Quinn years, too, which also saw the Leafs hit the Eastern Conference twice. Ditto for John Ferguson, who also had the first salary cap to contend with and owners who actually budgeted for a certain number of playoff games.

Brian Burke’s big mistake came in his first off-season as president and GM when he, too, could not resist the siren song of instant success and traded a whack of draft picks for Phil Kessel. David Nonis’s Waterloo was the Leafs near-upset of the Boston Bruins in the 2013 playoffs. In came Bernier, David Clarkson and Dave Bolland. The presence of Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock is all you need to know about how that turned out.

Given the political cachet Shanahan still has with the current Leafs ownership and the well-earned reputations of both Lamoriello and Babcock for doing things their way, this management group is an unlikely candidate to give in to the same self-imposed pressure as their predecessors. But this recent run of success and its effect on the we-will-finally-get-it-right game plan was shaping up as the first major test of the regime’s resolve.

After all, you cannot be absolutely sure there would be no pressure, subtle or otherwise, from the owners to stray from the build-from-within plan in favour of a little premature playoff success. The two majority team owners are the two big telecoms who just happen to broadcast the Leafs’ games.

Rogers Media has more skin in the game because of its billion-dollar gamble on the NHL’s Canadian national broadcast rights, anchored by the Saturday night Leaf games. But Bell Media’s TSN network still broadcasts 26 Leafs regional games and splits the radio rights with Rogers. Television ratings for both companies over the first seven weeks of the season were off considerably from the same period a year ago when the Leafs were in playoff contention.

Yes, both Rogers and Bell have made it known they support the Shanahan plan. But a quick ratings jolt and maybe even a playoff spot are awfully tempting.

So perhaps the fans should hold off trying to run Bernier out of town.

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t worry about Shanahan and company sticking to the plan. In the aftermath of Bernier’s latest meltdown, which was compounded by the lack of any defensive help from the rest of the Leafs, Babcock was talking about the struggles of Leaf forward Shawn Matthias, who scored his first goal since Nov. 14 in the third period but he could have been talking about what lies ahead for Shanahan and Lamoriello at the trade deadline.

“When you put undue pressure on yourself for no good reason,” Babcock said, “it doesn’t help you out.”

If anyone cares about the gory details, Bernier was lifted after coughing up six goals on 15 shots in the first two periods. He would have received the hook earlier but Babcock said the ACC ice was especially bad Tuesday night and he was worried about James Reimer possibly re-injuring the groin muscle that kept him out of the lineup recently. Reimer stopped all six shots he faced in the third period and will, as scheduled, start Wednesday night in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.

Brock Nelson, John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Nikolay Kulemin, Matt Martin and Anders Lee scored for the Islanders. Brad Boyes and P.A. Parenteau had the other Leaf goals.

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