Character is Leafs Prime Deficit

By HOWARD BERGER

LOS ANGELES (Aug. 16) – Given the unparalleled situation in the final two months of last season, the 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs appear to have only one shot at ending the franchise playoff absence of nine years (dating to 2004). It would involve perpetuation of the club’s October spurt from the past two seasons – winning four of five, or five of six games at the outset – and never looking back.

The tangibility of this scenario, of course, is remote to the extreme. Leafs do not possess nearly enough quality or depth to look at more than a handful of opponents in the rear-view mirror. Additionally, there may not be hockey in October, November or December. Whenever Gary Bettman unlocks the doors, however, Leafs will again have to rely on their leadership quota – an alarming thought for any Blue and White zealot with a shred of objectivity (assuming there is such an individual).

During his soon-to-be four years as president and GM of the Maple Leafs, Brian Burke has made some ballsy moves and acquired upper-end talent – not a simple pursuit in the salary-capped NHL. Where Burke failed (or has been failed) in these maneuvers was outrageously evident when the team plummeted from playoff contention in the final-third of last season. Not a single trusted voice emerged to abate the slide, let alone stop it. As Burke’s club – trapped in that figurative “18-wheeler” – careened toward disaster, it picked up speed on a nightly basis. Character and leadership were either non-existent, or entirely powerless to intervene. It resulted in the most stunning, dishonorable collapse of any Toronto outfit in prevailing memory.

As such, what can possibly be expected from the returning core this season? Where were the big-money players when the Leafs were spiraling toward oblivion over the final 28 games? Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Tim Connolly and Mikhail Grabovski accounted for $29.5 million in salary and $27 million in cap consumption as Leafs crashed to 1-9-1 from Feb. 7-29 and a 7-17-4 to season’s end.

All but Komisarek appeared overwhelmed throughout the death-plunge. Though he is clearly the poster-boy for Burke’s misadventures on the open market and, by extension, the club’s most maligned player, Komisarek was visibly perturbed by the constant losing. Sadly for the veteran defenseman, it was impossible to enact any sort of leadership role while wearing suit-and-tie on so many game nights. Even a portion of his temperament, however, would have served the others quite well. 

One of the most humiliating hours of any Leafs season, post-1967, occurred on Mar. 19 at the TD Garden in Boston. Blatantly intimidated by the defending Stanley Cup champions, Leafs were demolished, 8-0. Only Komisarek showed up – fighting his long-time nemesis Milan Lucic. On the heels of that embarrassment, the club returned to Air Canada Centre for a 5-2 pounding by the New York Islanders the following night; wobbled through a 7-1 disgrace against Philadelphia on home ice, Mar. 29, and then choked on a 5-3 lead at Buffalo with 5:03 remaining (Apr. 3) and somehow lost, 6-5, in overtime. As a last reminder of their ineptitude and dysfunction, Leafs failed to show for the season finale in Montreal – capitulating with ease, 4-1.

LEAFS WANTED NO PART OF THE BRUINS DURING 8-0 HUMILIATION ON MAR. 19 (ABOVE AND BELOW). IT PUNCTUATED A TWO-MONTH-LONG DEATH SPIRAL. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

All of this occurred, incidentally, after the coaching change from Ron Wilson to Randy Carlyle in the first week of March: hardly the response Burke had in mind upon firing his long-time pal and college roommate from the 1970s. Nor did it require a 30-year veteran of covering the Maple Leafs such as yours truly to recognize the look on Carlyle’s face – and tone of voice – during post-game sessions with the media. Though he adroitly couched his remarks befitting a newcomer to the scene, Carlyle could not mask the horror he had witnessed from behind the bench.

Devotees of the Blue and White – undeterred; hopeful, and almost always looking wide of the mark – consigned blame for the club’s travesty on goaltending. True, Leafs have mostly languished between the pipes since the pre-lockout tenure of Ed Belfour, but the catastrophic failure of 2011-12 extended far beyond such technical requirement. Dependable goaltending wouldn’t have been nearly enough to bail out 21 vanquished, discombobulated teammates during the Toronto death-plunge.

Spotty though it was, the tandem of Jonas Gustavsson, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens had Leafs in solid playoff contention after 54 games, or two-thirds of the schedule. Then the floor caved in – literally overnight – somewhere between Toronto and Winnipeg early on the morning of Feb. 7. Having won 10 of their previous 16 games, Leafs would prevail in only seven of their final 28. It’s more than a stretch to believe the Toronto goalies suddenly forgot their craft. If you aren’t convinced, ask LEAFS TV to replay the combined losses of 15-1 against Boston and Philadelphia in late-March. They provide forceful, conclusive evidence that underlying issues in the realm of unity and composition – not merely goaltending – invalidated the Leafs.

In the stretch-drive, when playoff wheat is separated from regular-season chaff, the club became derelict. Neither a coaching change nor the big-money talent Burke acquired could arrest the free-fall. Almost without exception, Leafs  surrendered when challenged. Players blathered on incessantly about “great guys in the dressing room,” yet no-such trust, conviction or camaraderie existed once the room emptied.

How will that change when the curtain goes up on the 2012-13 season? Or, more specifically, when it begins to lower? James van Riemsdyk and Jay McClement might be useful additions but the Kessel-Phaneuf-Connolly-Grabovski foundation remains unaltered. It proved capable of having Leafs atop the overall standings on Nov. 4 and within four points of home-ice advantage in the playoffs on Feb. 7. Once the games truly began to “count”, however, it vanished without a trace.

It therefore stands to reason that Burke has a good-deal more on his plate than the acquisition of a goalie. Such enhancement, if attainable, would be the equivalent of plugging a couple of holes in a sprinkler. To legitimately compete for a playoff berth in the months that matter, Leafs require a meaningful bump in character and resolve.

Or – somehow – a hot streak that never ends.

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