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A Toronto Maple Leafs fan puts a shopping bag over his head in the closing minutes of their game against the Vancouver Canucks during NHL hockey action in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 24, 2009. REUTERS/Andy Clark (ANDY CLARK)
A Toronto Maple Leafs fan puts a shopping bag over his head in the closing minutes of their game against the Vancouver Canucks during NHL hockey action in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 24, 2009. REUTERS/Andy Clark (ANDY CLARK)

David Shoalts

No Band-Aid for Leafs Add to ...

The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially off to their worst start in history - 0-7-1 - but the only alarm bells going off are those among the fans and the media.

"I'm not panicking," Leafs general manager Brian Burke says. "This might be the first time in recent memory the team started O and seven, but as recently as four years ago, I had two seven-game winless streaks with a team that went to the conference final.

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"That makes me immune to short-term pressure. If people are frustrated, no one is more frustrated than I am. But you can't run a business based on frustration."

In other words, there will be no Band-Aid trades, like getting goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère and his huge contract from the Anaheim Ducks, or signing a 40-year-old forward like Brendan Shanahan, whose best days are farther behind him than the last Leafs team to sport a winning record.

That team Burke referred to with the seven-game winless streaks is the one the Leafs will play tonight, the Anaheim Ducks, in the general manager's first appearance in Anaheim since he resigned as Ducks GM 11 months ago to take the Leafs job. In 2005-06, his first season in California, the team staggered through those two bad streaks and recovered to finish 43-27-12 and make the Western Conference final. The following season, the Ducks won the Stanley Cup.

The recovery of the Ducks was greatly aided by some moves Burke made as the season went along. He traded the fading Sergei Fedorov and his enormous contract to the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenceman François Beauchemin and brought in centre Todd Marchant on waivers.

Now this is not being said to raise any false hopes about the current edition of the Leafs. Burke also had the aforementioned Giguère in goal to help right the ship.

But heaven knows the fans - and some media members who should know better - need little encouragement to get their expectations out of whack.

On the eve of the regular season, Burke said he believed the Leafs were good enough to make the playoffs, a sentiment echoed by head coach Ron Wilson. But, typically, what the fans heard was not the reality - i.e. the Leafs are one of half dozen teams that has a shot at the last two or three playoff spots if everything falls our way. No, somehow what they heard was that the Leafs were going to challenge for the Stanley Cup. At least they must have judging by the horrified reaction when the Leafs fell flat on their faces out of the gate.

Burke defiantly insists the Leafs can still make a run to the postseason.

"I don't regret a [bleeping]thing," he said. "Realistically, given the personnel changes we've made, we still believe it's possible despite the hole we dug ourselves."

But it will have to be done with the cast that is here now unless another GM suffers a blunt-force trauma head injury and decides he would like to have goaltender Vesa Toskala in a trade.

Giguère makes for great speculation because he lost his starting job to Jonas Hiller and his guru, goaltending coach François Allaire, was hired away by Burke. But those who know Burke say he has no interest in trading for Giguère because he is carrying $6-million (all currency U.S.) in salary this season and $7-million next season. That would create all kinds of havoc with the salary cap, since it will probably dip by $5-million or more next season.

Burke simply points out he is sticking to his rebuilding plan, which went from the net out. The net part was signing Jonas Gustavsson as a free agent and this is Toskala's last season under contract to the Maple Leafs.

Beauchemin's arrival in Toronto is not yet working out as well as his splashdown in Anaheim, but his play is getting better along with the other big free-agent signing on defence, Mike Komisarek. Admittedly, among the forwards, only the lesser lights such as Wayne Primeau, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill have done their jobs.

By the way, for all those complaining about Orr and Rosehill doing nothing but fighting, Burke has a quick answer. "The physical abuse of our team has stopped. The yapping in warm-ups, the face-washing after every scrum has stopped," Burke said.

But to get things on track, the goaltending has to get better in a big hurry. It might, starting tonight, as Gustavsson is expected to start after recovering from a groin injury.

In the meantime, Burke's bosses also say they are not part of the general panic.

"We went out and hired the best GM in hockey and he surrounded himself with the finest people in hockey like Dave Nonis and Dave Poulin," Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie said. "These guys have been there and done that. They are winners and we believe they will find a solution."

In the meantime, Peddie says the fans' unhappiness has not translated into a dent in revenue. The cash continues to pour in to MLSE and its majority owner, Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan.

Peddie did trot out his customary line about the hot dogs not tasting as good when you are losing but, hey, people are still buying them. Aside from the usual sellouts, for example, Peddie says viewership is up for all of the specialty channels owned by MLSE, including Leafs TV.

This may be a result of the new people meters the ratings watchers are using, which have shown a jump in numbers for almost every channel on the dial, but it's still an increase.

As a teacher of our acquaintance says, "What's the problem? We're still making money."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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