I was going to write a lengthy eulogy for another Toronto Maple Leafs season. I even started working on it: I dug up a few telling stats, drafted another vicious anti-Kerry Fraser polemic, rhaposidized on the emptiness associated with cheering for a losing team…and then stopped. Because I realized there wasn’t a point, because everything I could have written about this year’s edition of the Maple Leafs was already said this time last year. It’s been said every year since 1967. As Eddie Vedder put it: “The names have been changed, but the place is still the same.” We’re used to it by now. It comes with the territory.
Today proved that God isn’t a Leafs fan. Having John Madden score a seemingly meaningless goal with six minutes to play was bad; having him score a second goal with 0.9 seconds left to tie the game was positively Shakespearean. As if that wasn’t enough, the game went to a shootout. Again, I won’t dwell on it; I don’t need to keep writing about the lunacy of having a skills competition settle a team game. Ultimately, however, the Leafs were architects of their own demise; remember, their fate was in their own hands before blowing a game against the New York Islanders on Thursday. It’s tempting to point fingers elsewhere–straight at Kerry Fraser, for instance–but the bottom line is that this year’s Leaf team just wasn’t very good. They were remarkably adept at blowing third period leads; their collapse against Buffalo two weeks ago effectively crystallized their entire season. Team defence–supposedly a focal point of John Ferguson, Jr’s offseason–went out the window; Andrew Raycroft actually tied the all-time win record for a Maple Leaf goalie with 37, but his gaudy goals against average (2.99) and save percentage (.894) were far more telling statistics. Mats Sundin carried the team for three-quarters of the season, but tailed off towards the end. With no one to pick up the slack, the Leafs dropped a few close decisions; throw in a league-leading 355 man games lost due to injury, and you were looking at an untenable situation.
I was actually optimistic about this year’s team. I figured JFJ would have learned from his (many) previous mistakes and done a better job–and to his credit, he showed improvement. Bringing in Paul Maurice was a good move; even his signings were decent, with the obvious exception of the ludicrous Bryan McCabe deal. He just didn’t do a great job–yet unfortunately, when you’re in charge of a team like the Maple Leafs you’re required to do just that each and every year. Don’t get me wrong: I liked this year’s Leafs. They weren’t an especially talented team–apart from Sundin there wasn’t a single bona fide scoring threat among them–but they were a likeable bunch of guys–especially Raycroft, who sounded high whenever he was interviewed (which, if true, would explain the 2.99/.894). That made them easier to root for, but it didn’t make them a good team. And in order to get better, JFJ needs to go. Watching Bryan Colangelo do black magic on the Toronto Raptors emphasized the importance of a good general manager, as well as doubled as an infuriating subplot for this year’s hockey season (i.e., if they can get better, why can’t the Leafs?). Raycroft might yet be a serviceable NHL goaltender, but he needs a backup who can push him. Sundin should stay–obviously–but he needs someone to alleviate the scoring burden; it’s frankly unconscienable that the Leafs haven’t given him a bona fide scoring winger for two full seasons. Of course, no matter what happens I’ll love them unconditionally. I guess it is like what Bill Simmons wrote about the Boston Red Sox: rooting for a losing team is like being stuck in a bad marriage. I firmly believe this.
I also know that the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. And I know that the Leafs can win a championship, too…and even if I don’t know this I’ll be holding on to the belief that it can happen, because that’s what being a fan is all about it. It’s what it’s about today, it’s what it was about this time last year and it’s likely what it’ll be about this time next year, too. If/when it happens, at least I’ll have a jump start on next season’s wrap-up.