Photo by Яick Harris.
It’s happening. The Toronto Maple Leafs are actually tanking.
Make no mistake: this is not the borderline-acceptable, just-bad-enough-to-miss-the-playoffs style of losing that characterized recent Leaf campaigns (and that, in 2006/07, would’ve yielded a postseason berth had the New Jersey Devils won a shootout). No, what’s happening this year is different: after briefly dabbling with the lower echelons of the NHL’s playoff standings, the Leafs are turning into the team we thought they’d be this year. In other words, they’re lousy—and they’re going to be making a spirited run at the first overall draft pick in June. And Leaf Nation couldn’t be happier.
Because this is what we’ve been craving since it became obvious, painfully obvious, that an overhaul was necessary. We never wanted mediocrity: if our team was going to be bad, we wanted it to be bad. Yet for the first few months of the current season the Leafs seemed intent on thwarting their manifest 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 3-7-1 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. That’ll change as he decides how to reshape his team; if you’re a fan of the current Maple Leafs roster we suggest you enjoy the next few weeks, because this team is going to look drastically different after the March 4 trade deadline. 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.