There is no guarantee closure will ever come. And that would be the case even if the Toronto Maple Leafs hadn’t failed to win a Stanley Cup since 1967.
But credit general manager David Nonis and his executive team: they have given head coach Randy Carlyle and the uniformed personnel some ammunition in trying to limit the psychological damage of last year’s Game 7, third-period, quarter-final collapse against the Boston Bruins.
You could hear the talking points Wednesday, when the Leafs rolled into the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence for their NHL training camp medicals. Carlyle struck an appropriate tone talking about “not putting the players on an island,” and viewing the coaching staff as being “in the same boat.”
Rest assured, the tone will be the same until people stop asking about it.
But the simple truth is, for many of us, the suddenness of the playoff loss, coupled with the traditionally quick manner in which athletes disappear these days, prevented any real closure from happening. Will it be removed with that first regular-season win over the Bruins or the first win streak or – dare we imagine? – that first playoff series win?
The truth is, some franchises never recover from losses like that.
Nonis made it easier by trading for goaltender Jonathan Bernier and signing him to a two-year, $5.8-million (U.S.) contract extension, then bringing in Stanley Cup winner Dave Bolland and veteran Dave Clarkson.
There’s a popular notion out there the Game 7 meltdown against the Bruins would not have happened if the Leafs had a few more good men such as the latter two in uniform. And while that’s impossible to judge, this much is true: In bringing in two players whom the puckheads like to call “glue guys,” Nonis has taken a step toward putting the collapse in a different context. Now, the media have a pair of go-to guys who can honestly smile at the cameras and say: “Don’t ask me, I wasn’t here for Game 7.”
Carlyle made clear Wednesday he views the two veteran forwards as players he wants to see “grasp a leadership role in our group ... because it’s part of their makeup.”
The same holds true with Bernier and, possibly, rookie defenceman Morgan Rielly if he makes the team. That’s one of the reasons that, for all the talk about “win and you’re in,” it seems obvious Bernier will get the chance to lose the No.1 job – or, 1-A, as Carlyle prefers to call it – over and over again.
It is unfair to lay the Game 7 meltdown at the feet of goalie James Reimer but that’s what happens in the NHL and, early in the 2013-14 season, the visual images of Reimer on the ice following that loss to the Bruins is going to be a staple of television coverage whenever the Leafs are discussed.
The Leafs are going to be under the media spotlight even more this season, since they and the Detroit Red Wings will be the subject of the HBO reality series 24/7 leading up to the 2014 Winter Classic.
There will be no shelter for these Maple Leafs. None.
Reimer is the face of defeat; Bernier the face of hope.
One of the reasons Nonis made such a favourable impression in 2012-13 is, unlike his predecessor (Brian Burke), he showed a deft touch in avoiding compounding the daily dramas that are a fact of life in professional sports. Nonis isn’t exactly disarming as he is measured and it has served him well through the off-season, too, given the low-key manner in which restricted free-agent centre Nazem Kadri’s bridge contract was finalized late Tuesday.
Closure? It’s going to be one of those “each to their own” things, but step one is massaging the message by altering the messengers. Nobody’s saying this was planned or discussed or even mused about by the Leafs front office. But in this market – at this time – it is a fact. The bar was raised last season; so was the level of trepidation.
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