Takin' a T/O With BT: Is Vesa Toskala Owed an Apology by "Leafs Nation"?

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Takin' a T/O With BT: Is Vesa Toskala Owed an Apology by

Toronto is a fickle city.

Unless it's stars take them to a championship, score at a point-per-game clip or better, or nab 35 or more wins, the fans are hard to please.

They also have short memories.

A 35-win season can be forgotten thanks to one soft goal. A fan-favorite becomes public enemy number one after an injury-riddled, off-the-rails year. The team misses the playoffs one year, and suddenly the sky is falling.

Three years makes that attitude a little more feasible, but one year and it's like the world might end.

That's how Vesa Toskala's season was.

Inability to perform is a tough thing to deal with. To follow a team your entire life and see it go through such hard times without being able to do anything about it is nearly impossible. It must be like watching your children enter the "real world" in the midst of a mind-numbing collapse: There's nothing you can do about it because it's inevitable—everyone faces hardships at some time, and they're better for it in the end.

From the beginning of the season, V-Tosk was in trouble. With one win in his first five games, the inconsistency of a young Leafs team shone through. Toskala would go from a night of twenty-two shots against to thirty-six the next game while trying to help the team stay competitive.

Most of the time, the shots weren't even quality shots either. A rookie mistake, a lost man, or a freed-up lane led to more than a few chances where Vesa was simply out-manned, out-gunned, out of chances.

To make matters worse, veteran Curtis Joseph struggled out of the gate, so time off was a privilege barely afforded to Toskala—especially when rookie Justin Pogge began to struggle with his series of one-game call-ups.

When Toskala was winning four out of five games and allowing just two or three goals against, the fans were happy. He was a quality goalie, overworked by an undermanned team in a talent-laden league. Once he started losing three and four in a row and allowing five or six goals a game, that was the end of the road—the support was gone, and the fans were few and far between, lessening every game.

The love affair for the 33-win man who lifted Torontonians out from under the shadow of Andrew Raycroft's troublesome tenure was over.

"Trade him" they shouted, "he's lost his edge." "Why are the Leafs keeping around a goalie who can barely stop a shot?"

And admittedly, Toskala was having trouble stopping shots. His rebound control disintegrated from where it was last year and his lateral movement looked pained and stunted.

Rumors began swirling about Toskala ranging from a nagging injury to his practice habits being less-than-ideal. Brian Burke questioned his role as the starting netminder at the Conn Smythe sports dinner, and soon after Head Coach Ron Wilson said he'd like to see Toskala "practice harder."

Wilson expected more effort out of a goaltender who wanted upwards of sixty-five starts a year, and with a down-year speckled with trouble patches, he expected him to practice harder in the areas he needed work.

Way back on February 6, Toskala even admitted to not feeling all that healthy: "I guess when you aren't feeling 100 percent, you have to pace yourself during practice."

Some asked whether Toskala was seriously injured or not. His answer? "We can talk after the season."

A non-committal admittance to a mystery injury only invited more venom towards the Finnish 'tender. Some fans thought he was making excuses, inventing an injury. Others just thought he lost his edge and didn't want anything more to do with him.

No one figured he'd put a last-place team first and keep playing despite the disdain.

After that though, a strange thing happened: Toskala began to play better—much better. Although he only won one of his first three games after the comments were made (and he allowed 11 goals-against), his lateral movement started to improve a bit.

After that, Toskala went off on a tear: He only allowed more than three goals once in the next six games (his longest streak since early December) and he won four of six, taking the Leafs to March 3: the day before the NHL trade deadline.

That was the day which ended up defining the aforementioned results as "strange".

On what was expected to be a busy Trade Deadline for the Maple Leafs, their first move was to claim former Ottawa Senators goaltender Martin Gerber off of re-entry waivers. Many of the fans raised their eyebrows at this move: There were still hopes of trading Toskala whose recent hot play could have increased his value, so that space could be freed up for youngster Justin Pogge.

Upon further inspection, that wasn't the case.

While Toskala was still out on the ice practicing at the time of the move, there was an announcement that was about to be made: thanks to a wonky hip and groin, Toskala was planning on shutting it down for the year with Gerber coming in to be his replacement.

A month after having both his General Manager and Head Coach challenge him to play better and fans dismissing his hinting at an injury, Toskala had finally had enough of the discomfort.

In a season that meant nothing, Brian Burke and Ron Wilson pushed a goalie who was giving everything he could, and denied he was injured. For a player who was obviously hindered by something that wasn't right, all the fans wanted was someone who could offer them perfection—not someone willing to play through pain, trying to put his best foot forward.

All that came of this was a pair of surgeries and the possibility that this could affect Toskala's tradeability come next season when his contract expires.

A 33-win season was a thing of the past. A goalie who had never had a season with a sub .900 season and a goals-against average over 2.74 was suddenly useless to an entire city. Now he was hurt, and the fact he "never spoke up and hurt the team by playing through it" were the talk of the town.

When Toskala was as honest as he could be about his status, all anyone wanted to do was discredit him—after all, who knows his own body better than the man himself?

When he came forward with the information about his surgeries, he had suddenly been holding the team back.

Apparently a Coach, a General Manager, and two million people who follow the Leafs or just need to write about how "he's begun to suck in just half a year and needs to be traded" can't be satisfied one way or the other: He's either not committed enough or he's hurting the team.

I know no one will probably say it, but thank you, Vesa—for at least trying. You had a legitimate injury (he's already undergone groin surgery and is awaiting hip surgery) that you wouldn't disclose as an excuse or a reason, and took the brunt of the criticism, anger, ridiculous rumors, and spite of the "fans."

The team wasn't going anywhere this year, but unlike some players, you never gave up on a rebuilding franchise. Playing through a hip and groin injury that needs to be surgically repaired? That's big for a goalie.

It may not be big to many, but it's big to me to. If you've never seen Toy Story, rent it: You've got a friend in me.

You should've gotten more support than you did. You shouldn't have been thrown to the wolves like you were.

Sometimes life isn't fair. Sometimes people jump the gun without knowing all the facts.

Sorry Vesa. I think you've earned at least that.

 

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.

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