Appeal to Reason In Leafs Nation: Don't Hit the Panic Button Yet

Mike BoultbeeContributor IOctober 7, 2009

TORONTO - JANUARY 31:  Vesa Toskala #35 of the Toronto Maple Leafs despairs as Maxime Talbot #25, Pascal Dupuis #9 and Rob Scuderi #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a goal during the game at Air Canada Centre on January 31, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Who can tell me the significance of the following three numbers: 4-9-2?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Didn't think so.

Answer: Four wins, nine losses, two ties.

I would not know the exact set of numbers myself had I not looked it up, so you certainly are not alone. But, 4-9-2 is the lovely record the 2002-03 edition of the Leafs sported after the first fifteen games.

You might remember this team as the ugly redheaded stepbrother of the Leafs team the year before that came just two wins from a Stanley Cup Final, and you're right. Coming off a sensational playoff run, the team lost its franchise goaltender, Curtis Joseph, to the Detroit Red Wings. Taking his place would be Ed Belfour, the veteran who was coming off a poor season (for him; I don't mean Toskala poor or anything) in Dallas the year prior.

What you might not remember is that this team was written off by many hockey geniuses, and expected to finish well out of a playoff position. Better yet, some expected them to rot in the cellar of the Northeast Division.

And for a while, their prediction of "Leafs - Cujo = Disaster!" appeared to be right. And so we come back to the 4-9-2 record.

Now, unlike this year's Leafs, the 2002-03 team actually won it's home opener. A lopsided 6-0 win, actually. But, their opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, and for those who forget the pre-Crosby era Penguins (i.e. roughly two-thirds of their fans), they were a terrible team who would go on to a 65-point season that year. So, that first win was really akin to beating your grandma in a boxing match: not really indicative of anything.

But, the growing pains of the post-Cujo era came to fruition when the Leafs struggled through a 1-6-1 slide in their next eight games (the lone win, in case you were wondering, came in a 5-3 decision over the Phoenix Coyotes. Nuff said.).

By the end of October, they were on pace for 50-something points; to top off such a horrid month, they tied the Atlanta Thrashers, easily considered the worst team in the league then.

November did not look any kinder to the Leafs, as they struggled to a 1-3 start to the month. After a 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 9, 2002, they hit the aforementioned record of 4-9-2. Things looked extremely bleak, and it looked like all hope was lost for the season.

Then, something strange happened: the Leafs started winning.

When the Leafs defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 in overtime on Nov. 12, 2002, no fan would have noticed right away, but things finally began to click. Then, they won another game. After a loss, a couple more. After another loss, four more.

As momentum slowly began shifting, and the play of Belfour began to move from "Andrew Raycroft on a good day" to "franchise saviour," the team began playing with the heart that got them to three playoff rounds, and they kept winning.

That 4-9-2 team that no one gave a chance? It finished with a 44-28-7-3 record; good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference. While they bowed out to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, their regular season showing admittedly was not too shabby for a team many believed couldn't finish eighth, let alone fifth.

So, some of you may think the purpose of dredging all these random facts up was to make you feel warm and fuzzy about the days when this team could actually make the playoffs. But, with relation to the 2009-10 Maple Leafs, the story of the 2002-03 Maple Leafs has a moral:

Don't panic too early.

The fifth best team in the East that year was also downright horrendous in their first fifteen games, after all. And, for those who watched the games (and have not blocked them out of their memory), they really did look like a team that had no business being anywhere near a playoff spot in those fifteen games.

Heck, of the nine teams they lost to in that span, five didn't even make the playoffs that season. Neither did either of the teams they tied.

Simply put, input and output were pretty much equal.

And so, we come back to 2009, where, after just three games of misery, people want to push the panic button. Already, many great minds within Leafs Nation have determined that our entire D is a bust and will remain that way the entire season. That goaltending won't improve. That this team is not as truculent as advertised. That, essentially, Taylor Hall will be wearing a Bruins jersey come June.

Three games. Three. 79 more games in this regular season, and already the season has been conceded. That has to be some sort of Guinness World Record!

Sure, this Leafs team has not looked great so far. Indeed, they have yet to win a game. And no, I am not implying they will make the playoffs.

But if last night's 2-1 loss to Ottawa is any indication, goaltending may not be an issue; at the very least, so long as Jonas Gustavsson (who had a 2.00 goals against average, and .929 SV percentage in the losing effort) is in net. Not to mention that Francois Beauchemin played a better game last night, and Mike Komisarek improved by going a full game without spending time in the penalty box.

And Phil Kessel has yet to even play a game for his new team yet.

So, Leaf fans, while I cannot assure you that our team will almost certainly march onward to the postseason, truculently leaving a bloody mess of the other 29 teams in its wake, I ask for one thing in these troubling times: patience. Don't go off the deep end. Don't push the panic button. Stay calm and collected.

Remember, it can only get better. And if 2002-03 tells us anything, we don't even know how much better that is yet.


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