ESPN The Magazine recently unveiled their Ultimate Team Standings for 2012, and to the displeasure of many people in Ontario, the Toronto Maple Leafs ranked dead last as the worst franchise in all of professional sports.
When asked about the Leafs' ranking, general manager Brian Burke was quick to defend his organization,
Per the National Post:
I don’t think ESPN knows a single thing about hockey. I think their hockey coverage stinks. I don’t think they know anything about Canada. I don’t think they know anything about hockey.
While ESPN's coverage of hockey on their television networks is quite poor, their ESPN.com NHL content is superb.
However, this poll is, for the most part, a mess. The Phoenix Coyotes are the highest-ranked NHL team at No. 6 overall. Along with the Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning at No. 7 and the New Jersey Devils at No. 13 are the three highest ranking NHL teams.
This is hard to understand since the Lightning have not been a winning franchise for most of their brief history, and up until last season, the Devils hadn't enjoyed too much playoff success since 2003 while also having some serious financial issues.
So are the Leafs really the worst team in professional sports? Let's dive into these rankings and see if ESPN's assessment is correct.
Before we get started, it's important to note that ESPN breaks down the rankings into eight parts, which I will use in my own analysis. A full description for each ranking can be found on ESPN's rankings page.
Bang for Your Buck
The Leafs ranked last in this portion of the overall standings, and it would be really hard for Leafs fans to argue with ESPN's assessment here.
Toronto has the highest ticket prices in the NHL, yet they haven't finished with a good record at the end of a season in quite some time.
The fans are paying a lot of money to see a low-quality team, which isn't exactly the definition of getting the most value for your hard-earned cash.
The Leafs finished 119th here, which, in my opinion, is a bit inaccurate. It's nice to have your favorite players willing to engage with fans, and do charitable work and other things of that nature, but this really isn't a category that should be used when determining which franchise is the best in sports.
ESPN describes its ownership ranking as "Honesty and loyalty to core players and local community." The Leafs finished 112th here, but using ESPN's description, it's hard to figure out why the team didn't finish near or at the bottom in this portion of the overall standings.
The Leafs' ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports, yet the results on the ice have been unimpressive over the last four decades. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, ownership hasn't cared as much about winning as they have about making money for some time.
Charging insane ticket prices for a team that has played terribly for many years isn't a good way to win fans. Neither is hiring general managers who don't get the job done and not firing them soon enough after they repeatedly fail to deliver results (Burke, for example).
Harold Ballard's tenure as a majority owner was a disaster, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan didn't help the team much when they had a massive stake in Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment and now that Bell and Rogers have a majority stake in the team, fans are once again pessimistic about the team's future.
Few teams in sports have been derailed by bad ownership as much as the Leafs have for the last 40 years, and it's really quite sad that a historic franchise in a place like Toronto has been burdened by poor ownership for so long.
It's surprising that Toronto didn't receive a worse ranking in this category from ESPN.
Understandably, the Leafs ranked last here. As I mentioned above, the high ticket prices don't help the Leafs' affordability rating.
However, ESPN ranked 10 NHL teams in the bottom 22 of the affordability rankings, so this seems more like a hockey problem than a Leafs issue.
At the same time, going to a Leafs game is anything but affordable.
The Leafs ranked 104th in stadium experience, but they would have finished higher if their promotions ranking from ESPN wasn't the worst.
Promotions at stadiums are cool, but that's an issue for minor league teams who are looking to attract fans, and people with young kids. For a professional team, stadium promotions shouldn't be a major area of focus.
The Air Canada Centre is an arena that many NHL teams would love for their team to play in. In my recent article on the 10 best arenas in the NHL, I ranked the ACC fifth.
ESPN describes its player rating as "Effort on the field and likability off it." This isn't the criteria I would use regarding players; however, the Leafs finished 121st and 122nd in these categories, respectively.
While hockey fans may not like some Leafs players on the ice, the team doesn't have very many players who are incredibly annoying off the ice. They may not be the most likable players, but they aren't despised, either.
In terms of effort, the Leafs may have given up in some games last season, but they don't deserve to be ranked last in all of pro sports. The Washington Wizards and Boston Red Sox, who both finished a couple spots better than the Leafs in the effort department, should have received a worse ranking than Toronto.
The Leafs ranked 111th in coaching, which is a bit harsh. I wouldn't say poor coaching is the primary reason why the team hasn't been to the playoffs since 2004.
Ron Wilson, who spent more than three-and-a-half seasons in Toronto before the Leafs replaced him with Randy Carlyle late last year, did not have too much success with the team, but he also didn't have a ton of talent to work with. A coach is often only as successful as his players.
Even with a coach such as Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings, the Leafs' playoff drought would probably still be seven years and counting.
Since 1998, the Leafs have had four different head coaches, but many NHL teams, and teams in other pro sports, have had more head coaches in that same span.
Toronto hasn't been fortunate enough to have brilliant coaching over the last few years, but to rank them 111th in all of pro sports is unfair.
ESPN described this ranking as "Championships already won or expected in the lifetime of current fans." With this description, it's not surprising that the Leafs ranked second to last here. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets ranked worse.
The Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and they also haven't been to a Cup Final since that year. The future of the Leafs also isn't bright, despite some nice prospects such as Morgan Rielly joining the organization in recent seasons.
It's going to take a while for the Leafs to become championship caliber, which is why you cannot argue with ESPN's Title Track ranking.
Is ESPN's Ranking of the Leafs Correct?
The Leafs are certainly not the worst team in professional sports, but they don't deserve to be in the top 65 percent, either.
The loyalty of their fanbase is something most pro sports teams only dream of, they play in a nice building and they are the talk of the town even when they struggle to win games.
It does cost "an arm and a leg" to watch a Leafs game at the ACC, and to buy concessions and team merchandise, but the cost of supporting a pro team is high in most cities.
The Leafs should be ranked anywhere from 85-105, which isn't impressive for one of the most historic franchises in North America, but it's a more accurate ranking than what ESPN gave Toronto in the network's latest Ultimate Team Standings.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL lead writer at Bleacher Report. He was also the organization's on-site reporter for the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.