Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Leaf Nation meet Tank Nation

It's happening. The Toronto Maple Leafs are actually tanking. There is no other explanation for what is happening to this team.

Make no mistake; this is not the usual just-bad-enough-to-miss-the-playoffs style of losing that characterized the last three Leaf seasons. What's happening this year is different. We were fooled early in the season when the Leafs looked no worse than many other playoff contenders. The Leafs are turning into the team we thought they'd be this year and the team management predicted they would be. In other words, they're bad—and they would be making a strong run at the first overall draft pick in June except the Islanders are even better at tanking.

I was at last night’s game and it was painful to watch. But after 3 mediocre season you have to be bad, really bad to get good again. That’s what happened in Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington and it’s happening in Phoenix. Yet for the first few months of the current season the Leafs seemed intent on thwarting their destiny, not only were they winning, they were playing annoyingly well. On December 23, however, the downward spiral began. That night, the Leafs lost 8-2 to the Dallas Stars; they were down 3-0 before registering their second shot on goal, and from there it was simply a question of how the Dallas players would pad their stat lines. Since that game, the Leafs are 3-8-1 and are slipping down the NHL standings. They currently sit twenty-fifth, but teams twenty-six through twenty-nine are within four points.

So let the tanking continue from now until the end of the season. Last overall might be a stretch—the New York Islanders have that sewn up—but a top-five draft pick looks increasingly likely. New general manager Brian Burke seems to be on board: apart from the odd acquisition of Brad May he hasn’t done much. If you wanted to inject some life into this lineup you would try bringing up Boyd Devereaux or Mark Bell from the Marlies or pick up one of many spare goalies to give some relief to Toskala. However this team is going to look drastically different after the March 5 trade deadline. They will be worse, God willing. We've struggled to embrace a deliberate tank job, but it's what the team needs in order to fix its myriad problems. We'll never root against the Maple Leafs...but we won't be too upset when they lose, either. Seldom has rooting for our favourite team been so complicated.