The weirdest thought struck me today as I was dismantling an abandoned mall, and packaging garbage, fixtures, and eclectic odds and ends on trucks, possible never to see some of these "useless spare parts" ever again.
I wasn't thinking about how I used to come here with my parents when we were at the other end of the city, or how the stores that used to line the walkways that were now littered with broken tiles, cardboard, and wooden planks, or how a Zellers stockboy suddenly became "foreman" on a company project that was probably better left to someone who knew whatever it was that they were supposed to be doing.
I began thinking about what it must be like to be a professional athlete—to be loved one minute and loathed the next—and how there are times when the fans can treat you like an empty skid of boxes. No one cares that you once belonged or served a purpose—all they seek is change.
It's that change that drives sports—and it's that change that drove the Toronto Maple Leafs offseason.
It's that change that has me more intrigued than excited to start the upcoming NHL season.
I could say I'm looking forward to seeing if the Leafs will be competitive or not—I'd be the entirely wrong person to ask about that, what with the bias and all. But I'm just not sure. Popular consensus is that this team will finish nowhere near the bottom three in the league—because Vesa Toskala, among others, is just too good to let that happen.
Meanwhile, there are those who say that this team could thrive without the burden of expectations, that no one in hockey-heavy Toronto is screaming "Stanley Cup" at this team, but just biding their time, waiting to see what happens. Some think that could be a key to victory.
Me? Well I'll save my opinion on where they'll finish for later—but win or lose this year, what I'm really looking forward to is watching the construction and the development that's going to take place.
The spare parts have been shed, the mall has been gutted, and the broken tiles of past performances that were below the standard expectations in such a market litter the Air Canada Centre, while empty boxes that once held the dreams of so many fans' vision of their team finally hoisting a Stanley Cup litter Bay Street.
The empty shell of a team that underachieved in the eyes of some, and overachieved in the eyes of others, is sitting out there, now empty, with the expectation that the remaining steps will be taken to have it leveled—to have a new foundation built in place, and a new team in which to build memories, and hopefully (one day) house glory once again.
The head contractors on the project—Paul Maurice and John Ferguson Jr.—are gone. The inability to get the house "up to standards" is the reason.
Darcy Tucker, the once proud-to-wear-the-Blue-and-White agitator that seemed to endear himself to every fan (until he signed a contract paying him $3.5 million a year and ran into a stumbling block last season) is gone, taking his rough and tumble game to Colorado.
Andrew Raycroft is out after a forgettable showing, joining Tucker in Colorado, while a few of the spare parts brought in by John Ferguson Jr., like John Pohl, have been let go.
Bryan McCabe—the slowly-rotting support beam—may finally be gone as well, depending on if he receives his money or not.
Even Mats Sundin—one of the greatest leaders, captains, and scorers of all time for this franchise—for all intents and purposes will probably be gone, leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs in a state of flux, a state of demolition—but a state of growth at the same time.
So it's a time for change. A change the ultimately begins with leadership.
There's no real leader to this team. We can argue that Jamal Mayers, Alex Steen, and Matt Stajan are eligible to lead this team, but the fact is that there's nothing in place—this is the season that the young players must step up.
Sure, there can be leadership developed from all different kinds of places—but if this team has aspirations of becoming more then a laughing stock, they need a leader to emerge and become the support beam, the backbone, and the foundation of the franchise. Besides, when was the last time a team made the Cup Finals with "captain by committee"?
The "heads" of this project have also changed, as Cliff Fletcher (despite not knowing how long he's here for) and Ron Wilson—one guy with the experience of reshaping teams, and another with a reputation of getting the best out of young players—have been brought in, completely changing everything that Maurice and Ferguson had established.
But what about on the ice?
The scoring and defense need to emerge as well, as Nik Antropov must prove he can remain healthy (and effective) for two straight seasons, Jason Blake will have to hope more of his shots find the back of the net, and Nik Hagman will have to be able to provide both a great, speedy, two-way presence, and some semblance of the scoring he showed last year.
The defense? Well, the names Jonas Frogren, Jeff Finger, and even Anton Stralman to an extent are names that fans around the league don't know—aside from Frogren's contract situation and Finger's big-money contract—but they'll have to provide V-Tosk with a solid base from which to work.
And then there's the youth, with Robbie Earl, Nikolai Kulemin, Jeremy Williams, and Mikhail Grabovsky—which will be its own story altogether this season.
But if you tally all of the offseason subtractions and additions, then the result could be just what it appears to be—a package that is hardly expected to compete to a meaningful degree, but could be developed down the road. \
A house with a concrete foundation that needs to be set, featuring a few ordinary pieces of furniture, but nothing flashy yet—at least at the elite level, or until we see more of Luke Schenn. A car with a frame, but no leather interior or air freshener.
Yup, the 2008-09 Maple Leafs are really just a growth spurt, or a step in the blueprint—and I'm looking forward to every minute of it.
Besides, good or bad, it's not like it can be any worse than the past three years.