Hey, maybe, just maybe, the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting good at getting bad.
The seeming majority of their fans who want them to tank the rest of the NHL season in hopes of a late charge to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes were given new hope in that regard Friday night. The Leafs pulled another no-show in a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils to proudly (these guys do this so often they must be proud of it, okay?) set a franchise record with their 11th consecutive loss.
In establishing a new standard for futility for a franchise that has a long and sorry history in this category, the Leafs look to be finally shaking off their penchant for being merely bad but not really, really bad enough to snare those No. 1 overall draft picks. Losing 11 in a row, though, means they just might be ready to forsake the mediocre middle.
However, the Leafs are still at the back of a group of five teams in the fight for the superstar-in-the-making McDavid with the last-place Buffalo Sabres holding a 15-point lead on them, so the plucky lads have much sloth ahead of them. One of those five teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets, helped out by beating the NHL's hottest team, the St. Louis Blues, to rise to 47 points and put themselves within striking distance of the Leafs' 48.
The big test, though, comes Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre when one of the real contenders in this race comes to town. The Edmonton Oilers have had few peers in recent years when it comes to pure putridness, although their 4-6 record of late, the kind of mediocrity that can take you out of a competition like this, has boosted them to 37 points, four behind the Sabres, who hold the McDavid lead with 33.
But the Leafs showed in New Jersey they have the lack of will necessary to excel in this competition. All of their flaws were on display and finely tuned. Offensive impotence, a flaccid defence and leaky goaltending (okay, enough with the can't-get-lucky references) all played a role against the Devils.
The top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk opened the game with a nice bit of gamesmanship, actually skating hard for their first shift, as if to lull the Devils into thinking they had a game on their hands. Goaltender James Reimer played along, too, making a couple of nice saves in the first few minutes.
Fortunately for the Leafs fans, Reimer showed why Leafs management doesn't have any confidence in him as the No. 1 goaltender when he overplayed a point shot and was caught swimming when Tuomo Ruutu scored into an open net.
The Leafs' top line quickly caught on. Kessel and Bozak did their usual backchecking job early in the second period, leaving almost all of the Leafs' zone open for Devils winger Patrik Elias, who happily scored his 400th NHL goal.
Poor old Leafs interim head coach Peter Horachek, who is the only fellow in this farce who has to make a pretense of winning and looks like his ulcers are in full roar, dutifully shuffled his lines after the second goal, but these Leafs were not to be denied. Reimer was left to deal with Steve Bernier by himself and the Devils forward deflected a shot to make it 3-0. These Devils may be a long way from their Stanley Cup ancestors of 15 years ago, but a 3-0 second-period lead is still a lock for these guys.
By this time, Leafs management sent a hint they are getting aboard the change wagon when a minor trade was announced during the first period. Minor-leaguers Carter Ashton and David Broll were sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. How minor? Well, it isn't often two players are traded for a pick that is made as the general manager is on his way out the door at the draft. But the deal does lower the number of player contracts to 48, two under the limit of 50, which opens some room for another trade or two.
First, though, the Leafs have to show their lack of mettle against the Oilers. And there is ample room for their fans to worry. After all, the Leafs team whose futility record this version just broke was the 1966-67 group. Yep, the one that won this sorry franchise's last Stanley Cup.