Interest in Maple Leafs This Season Focuses on Development, Not Playoff Spots

Dave McCarthyCorrespondent ISeptember 14, 2008

Heard on Episode 4.1 of A Foot In the Crease

Quite a stark contrast from just one year ago: As the Maple Leafs gathered to prepare for the 2007-08 campaign, then-head coach Paul Maurice proclaimed that his team would “make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.”

Fast-forward one year and you see that the current version of the Maple Leafs only sparsely resembles the version from 365 days ago, and that includes the organization’s expectations. General manager Cliff Fletcher did not try to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes when he spoke to a group of reporters earlier last week, suggesting this would be a season that will likely be quite lean in terms of success and include many, as he put it, “rough spells.”

The coach and GM from a season ago are long gone, Maurice and John Ferguson Jr. now replaced with Ron Wilson and Fletcher. Star forward Mats Sundin is not likely to return, but who really knows at this point? Former core players from years gone by—including Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, and the oft-injured Kyle Wellwood—have all been shown the door. So what does all this leave Maple Leafs fans to expect this season?

Time for me to be frank: not much. If you convince yourself the Maple Leafs will be playoff contenders even just for a moment this season, you are indeed fooling yourself.

But all this doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to stay interested. Take the approach of a junior hockey fan and focus on the development of the players that will hopefully one day comprise a new “core group.” Jiri Tlusty, Jeremy Williams, Robbie Earl, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, and Anton Stralman will all get the opportunity to prove that they are genuine NHL players and, by the end of the season, we will have a pretty good idea of whether or not that is true for each of them.

If those players and other youngsters impress and show themselves to be capable NHLers, then this campaign will be a success. Accomplishments in Leaf Land will be measured in development and improvement, not playoff spots and Stanley Cups. But, hey, all that was just rigmarole.