It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ start to the 2009/10 hockey season. It’s not just the lack of wins that’s puzzling: it’s how bad the team’s looked in compiling its 0-6-1 record. Right now, the Leafs seem bereft of talent, ideas, leadership, and desire. Surely they won’t be like this all year?
It’s the apparent lack of heart that’s most worrying from a fan’s point of view. Losing to a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins (as the Leafs did on October 11) isn’t embarassing in and of itself: Pittsburgh is, top-to-bottom, vastly superior to the Maple Leafs (and arguably every other team in the league, what with being defending Stanley Cup champions and all). It’s the way the Leafs lost that was so upsetting: after surrendering the opening goal 3:20 into the first period, the Leafs simply rolled over and died. There was no fight, no guts; it’s as though Brian Burke’s mandate of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence, and belligerence” had failed to register with a single one of his players (and, no, meaningless staged fights don’t count). Talent can often compensate for a lack of heart; alas, the Leafs’ biggest offensive weapon (Phil Kessel) has yet to play a game, the supposed saviour in goal (Jonas Gustavsson) has been beset by injuries, while the leading point-getters are tied with a measly four. The situation has to improve; the question is, when?
It might not be soon. Tonight, the Leafs face their historic rivals the Vancouver Canucks (whose fans would presumably celebrate a win over Toronto by planning a Stanley Cup parade route). After that, they travel to Anaheim, Dallas, Buffalo, and Montreal. It’s entirely conceivable the Leafs will be winless heading into November. This turn of events is likely not what Burke had in mind when he more-or-less guaranteed a playoff berth this year. It’s likely not even what the team’s most pessimistic fans (and goodness knows there are lots of them) had in mind.
To be fair, we as fans tend to overreact to losing streaks. It’s also important that we keep them in perspective: ultimately, this one comprises seven games out of eighty-two. Toronto fans should know the ephemeralness of the first few weeks of the season: five months ago the Blue Jays were leading the American League East and had a 19.6% chance of winning the damn thing. Every team goes through slumps; it’s just that Maple Leaf slumps happen in a city where a forty-two-year Stanley Cup drought and an overzealous sports media conspire to make them seem much, much worse. Ultimately, the Maple Leafs probably aren’t as bad as they’ve looked so far. This forthcoming road trip might test our patience a bit more (especially if things don’t go the Leafs’ way right off the bat), but it’s still too early to panic.