There are two seasons in the city of Toronto for Maple Leafs fans—hope and realization. Hope lasts from July 1 to mid-April. Realization lingers from late-April to June 30.
With the first preseason game scheduled for six weeks from today, the season of "hope" is in full bloom in Toronto. Mats Sundin is unsure of what the next phase of his career will be, but fear not—the Blue and White will move forward unscathed.
Tucker and Wellwood are gone. In are Hagman and a surprisingly wealthy Jeff Finger. This writer is not sure if that trade-off makes the Leafs better or worse—but history tells me it won't make a difference. The moves the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the last four decades haven't helped—why would they start now?
Fans refer to the Buds as a "storied" franchise with a "winning tradition." Yet many of those fans weren't alive to attest to those halcyon days.
One look at the banners honouring past greats in the rafters at the ACC will give you an instant answer as to how long ago the Maple Leafs were a proud franchise—not one player on those banners is in color!
The organization is a PR circus that, unbelievably, year in and year out, is able to fool the fans into believing things are going in the right direction. Sure, they use all the right words and phrases that other, successful organizations use—catch words like "rebuilding," "moving in a new direction," etc. But to any fan that is not blinded with loyalty can see right through the B.S. attempts to improve the team and ice a winner.
Let's begin with the interim GM. Cliff Fletcher was brought in to "clean house," and help guide the higher-ups on the "impossible" journey of finding a hockey executive capable of handling the "toughest job in sports".
Fast forward to late summer 2008. Fletcher has been given the reigns for the entire 2008-09 season, and his only house cleaning consisted of trading Hal Gill to the Penguins for a second-round pick in 2008 and a fifth-round pick in 2009 (subsequently trading that pick to the Rangers for Ryan Hollweg).
Forward Chad Kilger was sent packing for Florida. However, no deals could be made with any of the "country club members" to truly help the Leafs move forward. So by my math, Cliff Fletcher is 0-for-2 in his assigned tasks to date, or is he?
Leaf fans speak highly of their roster and almost invent superstars that aren't there for the rest of the NHL to see. Last season, Mats Sundin (arguably the team's only true NHL star) led the team with 78 points—good enough for 20th in league scoring. These are not exactly superstar stats.
Most Leaf fans will defend Mats' stats by claiming he has no one to support him, yet simultaneously claim the Leafs have a pretty solid team. Sounds a little hypocritical to me. Antropov, in his eighth full NHL season was second in team scoring, exploding for 56 points—good for 75th in the league!
Yet assuming Mats Sundin does not return, the fans in Hogtown feel very comfortable with Nik being the first-line centre this season. Let's put this in perspective. The Flyers third-line centre by default, playing behind Briere and Richards, is Jeff Carter. At 23 years old, Carter managed 53 points—in only his third full NHL season.
Scoring from the wings is supposed to come from ex-40-goal man Jason Blake (he tallied 15 last season) and newly acquired Niklas Hagman, coming off 27 goals last season in Dallas. That was a career-high for the seven-year veteran, who will not have as strong of a supporting cast as he did in Big D.
Out is agitator and fan favourite Darcy Tucker. In is cheaper and—believe it or not—less-effective Ryan Hollweg. A fifth-round pick originally acquired from Pittsburgh for Hal Gill was used to obtain the services of Hollweg.
I find this move disturbing for a few reasons. First, when Gill was shipped to Pittsburgh at the deadline, Fletcher claimed he was moved to clear cap space and stockpile picks for the "rebuilding" process that was to take place.
But the next season has not yet begun, and the Leafs have used that very pick to select a career fourth-liner most famous for taking a baseball-style slash across the chin from Chris Simon. Rangers fans can attest that Hollweg contributes very little other than untimely penalties.
Players like Hollweg are a dime a dozen. Ben Ondrus—currently a Marlie—could do that job for a fraction of the cost, and the Leafs would still have that fifth round pick.
This trade to me is the essence of the PR talk used by TML and MLSE to appease the fans. Stockpiling picks for the rebuilding process, yet moving the pick to acquire a player that can be found in any professional hockey league—and probably within the TML organization.
However, come mid-November, Hollweg will be a fan favorite and will probably be granted a long-term contract in the offseason with a no-trade clause.
A majority share of the Leafs' cap is spent on their defensemen. Kaberle, Kubina, and McCabe all make more than $4 million per season. Of those three, only Kaberle would be considered a true top-four defensemen in the NHL. Add to this overpaid trio 28 year-old, unproven Jeff Finger at $3.5 million per season, and the outlook only get bleaker.
Colaiacovo and White don't appear to be top-four material. Anton Stralman showed some signs of life late in the season and at the World Championships, but not enough to prove that he will have significant impact next season.
This summer's fifth-overall pick, Luke Schenn, is at least two years away from donning the blue and white. Although, when you factor how much the Leafs pay their current group of defensemen, one wonders why a trade up from seventh to fifth to obtain a stay-at-home D-man was a necessity. I guess this qualifies as "moving in the new direction."
In goal, Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph will have to steal a large sum of wins for the Leafs to stay out of the cellar. The duo could not play well enough to ever hope of propelling the Leafs into the postseason.
Ron Wilson was hired to guide this roster thin on skill. The papers have already explained how he has guided very weak teams to levels of success experts did not expect them to achieve.
One "expert" claimed Wilson was the reason why San Jose was considered a Cup contender, and anyone could see on close examination that the Sharks were not very good. Not sure how many people would agree with that assessment.
However, to this point Wilson has been a successful NHL coach, so we'll simply have to wait and see what miracles he can bring behind the Maple Leaf bench.
When you examine the offseason moves made by Fletcher, it's very hard to see the beginnings of a "rebuilding process". Hagman and Finger are both 28. The Marlies have absolutely no one ready to step into the lineup and make any type of impact.
Overall, I would say the true mandate for Fletcher is not to begin a rebuilding process, or to set up an infrastructure to acquire and develop quality hockey players.
Instead, Fletcher's task is to go out and sign somewhat recognizable names, and overpay them to ensure the minimum salary cap requirements are met. MLSE is astute enough to know that the fans in Toronto will convince themselves their 2008-09 roster is loaded with top-quality stars.
That is, until mid-April—when the Leafs are once again mathematically eliminated from the postseason and the "realization" arrives. Then call-in shows will be flooded with calls to fire Ron Wilson, trade Kaberle, and give up on Stajan.
But hey, who knows? By that timem maybe Bowman will be fed up with his gig in Chitown, Yzerman will get impatient waiting for the promotion to GM in the Motor City, and they'll both join the Maple Leafs—and make them a storied franchise with a winning tradition.