It’s December, so the Toronto Maple Leafs must be in search of an excuse.
The coach is new. The systems are in flux. The stars aren’t starring.
“The game works in funny ways,” coach Sheldon Keefe said after a third-period collapse in Calgary against the Flames on Thursday night.
He said that three times, which is three times too many for someone whose only job is taking the funny out of the game.
Just three weeks into his Toronto tenure, Keefe already has the look of a man who’s just been told the ship is taking on water and there are no lifeboats.
“We have a long way to go in terms of structure and habits,” Keefe said. “It takes a significant amount of time.”
Well, that was quick.
You’d think Keefe would have tried to string out the sunny-days portion of his tenure for a few months at least. Instead, he already sounds like his predecessor in Year 5. Just sub in the word “habits” for “process.”
You’d think that people who are paid millions of dollars would already have their habits in order. But not in Toronto. This is a construction project that never gets past the digging stage.
The Leafs have several little problems and one big one – that they inhabit an excuse-oriented culture. There’s always a good reason things go wrong. It doesn’t fix anything, but there is a reason.
Perhaps you’ve heard the backup goalie isn’t much good. Technically, they don’t have one. They have various faceless schlubs who all seem to have been born with an unusually large gap between their legs.
Everywhere else this is a problem. In Toronto, it’s an excuse.
“I don’t think we want to be hasty,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said a few days ago about the possibility of replacing backup Michael Hutchison with a cardboard cutout of just about anybody else. “We want to be patient. We need to show our belief.”
Dubas makes the Leafs sound as if they’re running a halfway house for recovering failure addicts. A backup goalie is like an NFL kicker – he’s not important enough to deserve any patience. He either does his job or he gets fired.
“I know that’s not the answer that people would like,” Dubas said. “I think if we’re going to satisfy the masses, it would be to just make a move to make a move.”
Technically, that is the only job of a sports executive – satisfying the masses. The masses pay your salary.
And have you noticed that whenever anyone says anything that starts with, “I know this isn’t the answer you’d like … ,” everything that comes after it is a rationalization. People who are not rationalizing just tell you their answer.
The backup’s no good? Trade him or play the starter. That’s why he’s called the starter.
Play Frederik Andersen 70 games. Martin Brodeur routinely played that many times a season and that worked out okay.
But what if Andersen gets injured? That would be perfect because it creates another excuse. By March, Dubas may want to Nancy Kerrigan the guy himself so that he can tell everyone he believes in Andersen, with or without functioning knees.
There’s only so many times you can tell people to calm down before they start freaking out. The Leafs are over the limit.
This is the real hole Mike Babcock left behind. Under him, the Leafs got comfortable making excuses, fully expecting they wouldn’t just be accepted, but welcomed. As it turns out, that was Babcock’s greatest skill. He could feed you a line of nonsense that sounded like the most comforting sort of homespun wisdom.
This was the issue with firing him (until all the other issues began leaking out). No one else in the Toronto organization is any good at that.
Dubas and Keefe are wonderful emoters. They’d be good people to run into right after you’ve had a car accident. But neither has Babcock’s talent for folksiness or his résumé. When they talk about the Leafs’ shortcomings, the two of them sound like bankers trying to explain that your money isn’t gone, exactly. It’s just temporarily missing for all time.
There are a bunch of things the Leafs might try doing differently, but here’s one that’s free – stop talking.
Every time anyone on that team talks, it makes everything worse. This is Brendan Shanahan’s genius. The Leafs president doesn’t talk. That’s why everyone still loves him.
Because talking sensibly about this team when it is losing is impossible. You dare not say what is obvious – the Leafs paid a lot of money for the best possible ingredients, but the cake is not rising. It may not do so for several years, or ever.
That isn’t something you can say out loud in Toronto. After every failed season, it gets exponentially harder to say it.
So what you end up saying are things such as “We believe in this evidently sub-par player" or "I know you’d like me to fix this broken thing, which is why I’m not going to fix it.”
This has become a battle of wills between Leafs fans and the Leafs executive. The more the guys in charge talk, the more difficult it gets for them to tack a different course.
What if Toronto doesn’t make the playoffs? It still seems unlikely, but it is a becoming a genuine possibility.
After all Babcock, Dubas, Keefe et al have said over the past couple of years, how do you explain then that you were wrong all along, that things do need to change and then maintain your credibility? You don’t. You keep rolling out the same “be patient” excuses because it’s too late to take them back.
The penalty kill and the goalie rotation are small problems. That’s an existential one.