Being a Maple Leafs Fan is difficult.
The team has been bad for year and has become hard to defend against its critics.
Getting a seat at the Air Canada Centre is about as easy as a sobriety test on New Year’s.
And since Pat Quinn’s most recent attempt at the Stanley Cup, draft picks have been traded away at a furious rate.
However, like the start of every year, this one was supposed to be different. There were changes in the offseason that seemed to be pretty good for once. Forty-goal scorer Jason Blake was brought in to add some firepower, and the talented Vesa Toskala was acquired from San Jose to relieve the much maligned Andrew Raycroft from the net.
Since Blake was a free agent, and Toskala was traded for draft picks—again—the core of the team remained pretty much the same, leading the fans to believe that a Cup was due anytime now.
But so far, this season has not played out as many had envisioned, and the hopeful exuberance surrounding this Leafs team has rapidly diminished into cries of discontent.
The season started like most, with a modest win-to-loss ratio, but the one feature of this season that remains most alarming is overtime points. This Toronto team seems disturbingly prone to picking up points from overtime and shootout losses.
So far this season, the Leafs have picked up eight points from overtime losses, which is the only thing keeping them in any type of playoff contention in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference.
More importantly, it seems that the Leafs are prone to going to overtime so much because they are unable to hold a lead in the third period. Countless times, this team has gone into the final frame with the advantage on the scoreboard, only to watch it vanish before ultimately losing the game in overtime or the shootout.
It’s hard to actually pinpoint what the exact problem is. It might be that John Ferguson Jr. hasn’t been able to put together a formidable lineup, or it might be that Paul Maurice is not able coach this team into contention.
Even worse, it might just be that beloved captain Mats Sundin is worn out.
His 20 goals, 28 assists and +11 at the midpoint might not indicate that his talent is declining, but dealing with the Toronto media and the constant scrutiny this team has endured may be taking its toll after 13 long years.
Maybe, just maybe, its possible that Sundin can’t effectively lead this team anymore despite playing some very good hockey now and being an amazing captain over the years.
Again though, it’s hard to know exactly what the problem is. It might be one of these factors, a combination thereof, or maybe something completely different—nobody really knows for sure.
What we do know is this—so far this year, the Toronto Maple Leafs are not a Stanley Cup contender. What should be done is not easy for many to swallow—especially the General Manager, whose job hinges on making the playoffs‚ but it is still clear. This team needs to rebuild.
Sundin can be traded at the deadline this year for a premium, much like we saw Forsberg, and Smyth last year. Draft picks can be re-acquired, and prospects can be restocked.
Over the past few years, teams like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Phoenix, and St. Louis have shown the benefits of what intelligent rebuilding can do. Pittsburgh and Chicago made their turnarounds in only a year—and while they aren’t Cup contenders just yet, they are still very competitive and exciting to watch.
Until some kind of change happens in Toronto, though, the Maple Leafs will continue to be trapped within a quagmire of mediocrity, just waiting and hoping throughout another painful spring.