The Montreal Canadiens’ 4–1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks yesterday night mathematically eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from postseason contention, thus assuring the Buds of a fourth consecutive playoff-less year. The Leafs haven’t been in a playoff game since Jeremy Roenick eliminated them in the 2004 Eastern Conference semi-finals. Not to belabour the point, but this is the longest such streak in franchise history.
At least this year’s non-appearance won’t come as a surprise to anyone. Indeed, before the season had even begun, new head coach Ron Wilson announced flat-out that the team wouldn’t be competing for the Stanley Cup, a refreshingly honest statement that kept people’s expectations in check (we Leaf fans need this every so often) and set Wilson apart from his overzealous predecessor Paul Maurice. The Leafs seemed committed to rebuilding, instead of merely paying it lip-service as in previous years; not resigning Mats Sundin, who’d been the face of the franchise for more than a decade, underscored this intention. “Tanking for John Tavares” (to borrow the former name of a message board thread at TMLfans.ca) looked to be well on track. And for the first time in years, we started feeling ambivalent whenever the Maple Leafs lost.
But then the Leafs, as they’ve become annoyingly adept at doing, started winning meaningless games. At the trade deadline, general manager Brian Burke turned Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore into a pair of second-round draft picks—but he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) swing the kinds of major deals we’d been envisioning. (These may yet occur: we’d be shocked if at least one of Pavel Kubina or Tomas Kaberle weren’t dealt following June’s NHL entry draft.) The Leafs appeared to be stuck between stations yet again, neither good enough to make a playoff run nor really bad enough to win the draft lottery. Yet having said that, while in previous years these late-season turnarounds was usually due to veterans suddenly playing up to their ability, this year it’s been more a matter of the team’s youngsters coming into their own and adjusting to Ron Wilson’s style of coaching. These are both positive developments moving forward. We’ll have a final post mortem once the regular season finishes next weekend. Until then, we plan on enjoying what’s left of the 2008/09 Maple Leafs—even if the scores officially don’t matter any longer.