It was easy last season to go along for the ride and snicker at all the open references to blue and white disease and the tough love shown by head coach Ron Wilson, because it was an easy storyline to digest regardless of how you felt about the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For the legions of Canadians who grew up disliking them and believing there was a conspiracy involving the NHL, Hockey Night in Canada and TSN to foist their inept brand of hockey on the rest of us, it was all good fun. There was an I-told-you-so element to the hatred. For some in Leafs Nation, there was a sense they'd been had for the previous, oh, 10 years or so and maybe a little guilt about getting all dewy-eyed about the Wade Belak Era and elevating Tie Domi to god-like status. But that was okay. Wilson and general manager Brian Burke were going to take care of it. They were smart guys. They knew stuff. They had a plan and unlike another GM from Massachusetts who ran a Toronto team, Burke had a track record.
And now Wilson wants us to do what he's going to ask of his team. "Hit the reset button," he said Tuesday night, in an unusually low-key analysis of a 4-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche that left the team winless.
Here's the thing about the Maple Leafs' close-to-historically - and for some of you no doubt hysterically - lousy start to the season. Forget about the Phil Kessel trade, at least until the guy takes a shift. Kessel? Draft picks? Lottery picks? The Leafs' crisis is much more immediate than that.
Mike Komisarek, who started to hear the boos Tuesday night before the rest of the Leafs, said it was a matter of "winning 1-on-1 battles and making five-foot passes."
Still, it's tough to see where individual battles will be won with this group. The only professional, non-panicky game they've received from a goalie this year came from Jonas Gustavsson and he's hurt. He is the only one who can save this thing from becoming even more pear-shaped and, considering his lack of track record, ought to scare the crap out of you.
The Leafs have forwards who think truculence means taking a holding or hooking penalty in the offensive end - the Avalanche's first power-play goal came with Alexei Ponikarovsky in the penalty box for a holding call behind the Avalanche goal. They have lots of guys who can fight - but that's kind of a non-starter when the other team is kicking your butt playing within the rules, no? Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill don't make statements in games like Tuesday night; they only add to the embarrassment.
Wilson benched two of his nominal top six forwards for Tuesday night's game, Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman. This is in keeping with the coach's considered opinion that his team's defensive woes owe as much to his forwards' lack of defensive interest as it does to crappy goaltending and a defence corps that sure seems to spend an inordinate amount of time collapsing in front of the poor sap who happens to be in net.
Komisarek and François Beauchemin were major components of Burke's off-season defensive airlift and the Avalanche walked around them with impunity. Still, they will get a longer leash than players Burke isn't responsible for bringing in.
The search for answers has raised the favourite catch-call word for sportswriters and fans: chemistry, as in all these new faces on defence need to gel. Rubbish. The Leafs have had enough time to get used to each other and the modern-day athlete has change thrust upon him almost daily. That's an excuse. Luke Schenn has regressed, and it's not because of his defensive partners.
When a team is as bad as this, when it can't move the puck out of its own end and does a lousy job of penalty-killing, then that is a reflection of man management and tactics and system. It's a coaching issue. Burke can dump some big salaries on the AHL's Marlies affiliate - ownership's deep pockets are Burke's biggest ace in the hole, and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment wouldn't likely blanche at such a move - but righting this ship is all on Wilson.
Look, there's nothing wrong with Burke and Wilson raising hopes in a city whose baseball team has played itself off the radar screen and can't even hold a proper player revolt, whose CFL team is run by a bunch of guys straight out of amateur hour, whose NBA team could be okay but still won't be a topic of conversation an hour east or west of the city. Burke and Wilson came in promising the eradication of blue and white disease. Nobody bothered asking what the plan was if the disease adapted to the medicine.
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