With their 4-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs slipped back to a .500 record (19-19-6) yet again, and now sit tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, fighting for their playoff lives after having played more than half of their games this season. They’re missing a hospital ward full of regular players due to injury (Mike Peca, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ian White, Kyle Wellwood, Darcy Tucker, etc.). They continue to struggle with goaltending that, while decent at times, is far from superior, with neither Andrew Raycroft nor Jean-Sebastien Aubin stealing a single game for them this year. So what has general manager John Ferguson, Jr. done to shore up his team with the all-star break and stretch run looming? Well, yesterday he claimed former Leaf third/fourth-liner Travis Green (two points in seven games this year with Anaheim, 22 points in 82 games with Boston last season) off of waivers. While a noted faceoff and penalty kill specialist, Green is hardly a replacement for the likes of Tucker (19-12-31 in 39 games), Ponikarovsky (11-13-24 in 35 games) or Wellwood (9-22-31 in 35 games) on a team that even when fully healthy is still lacking offensively.
This is not to say the Leafs have been wholly terrible. After a series of distressing losses to division rival/bottomfeeder Boston, the blue and white scored 15 goals over two games against the Bruins last week. A number of call-ups from the minor league Toronto Marlies (Kris Newbury, Boyd Devereaux, Ben Ondrus) have performed admirably, with Devereaux leading the way with six points in six games since being promoted. And they’re certainly living up to preseason predictions made by their own head coach, Paul Maurice, that they would be in a fight for the playoffs right through the campaign. But in a city that expects the Leafs to at least contend for the Stanley Cup every single year, a city that hasn’t seen a championship for 40 years now and counting, mediocrity is akin to blasphemy.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment and Ferguson shoulder a lot of the blame for the team’s sub-par showing over last season (the first time the Leafs missed the playoffs since 1997-98) and the first half of this one. Ferguson has made a number of questionable-to-shoddy moves in his four-year tenure (contract extensions to dinosaurs like Ed Belfour and Tie Domi before the lockout which necessitated buyouts this year, massive contracts to questionable stars like Brian McCabe and Pavel Kubina, the trading of a number-one prospect in Finnish goalie Tuuka Rask to Boston for the underachieving Raycroft at the NHL entry draft this past summer, etc.), and was picked by many pundits to be the first executive fired this season. But a quick start by the team had MLSE falling over themselves to extend Ferguson’s contract, as if the rest of the hockey world was wrong in predicting the Leafs as being the paper tigers they eventually proved to be.
Hope does remain, though. Maurice has squeezed a lot more out of the team on many nights than some experts thought was possible, and the consensus based on media reports has the players enjoying the more workmanlike atmosphere to the dressing room and practices than they had under Maurice’s predecessor, Pat Quinn. The NHL trade deadline is a month and a half away, and the Leafs have a plethora of young defence prospects, one or two of which, should they be even flirting with contention by the February 27 deadline, they might be willing to part with. This is a dangerous game in itself of course, as the past has shown the Leafs to not be overly successful in trading the future for the present (see Alyn McCauley and Brad Boyes for Owen Nolan). But one of the few major positives of Ferguson’s reign has been the upgrading of the team’s scouting department, and the Leafs enjoy a larger and more attractive stable of prospects than they have in years. And those injured players will start trickling back over the next while, and as the first few weeks of the season proved, this team when healthy is at least capable of contending with the rest of the conference.
There are 38 games left in the regular season. That’s 38 games for captain Mats Sundin, who’s been on a tear lately (8-8-16 in his past 12 games) to continue being one of the best forwards in the league and put to rest all of that silly trade talk that comes up on Toronto sports radio stations whenever the team loses a couple of games. Thirty-eight games for Tucker to return and continue being one of the league’s premiere offensive threats on the power-play. Thirty-eight games for McCabe and Tomas Kaberle to continue being the second-highest-scoring defence tandem in the NHL. Thirty-eight games for Raycroft to regain the form that won him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year prior to the lockout. Thirty-eight games for young players like Wellwood, Matt Stajan and the recently rejuvenated Alex Steen to continue finding their games and contributing. Thirty-eight games for this team to become the contender its city craves.
Thirty-eight games and maybe we can start planning that Stanley Cup parade route.
Travis Green image (top) and Sundin fans image (bottom) courtesy of the Toronto Star, John Ferguson, Jr. image (middle) courtesy of Canada.com