These Are… The Leafs

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Nov. 19) — Amid the Department of New Presidents; the Department of Analytics and the Department of New Third and Fourth Lines, the Leafs look an awful lot like the Department of Wreck–Creations.

Which is a remarkably convoluted way of suggesting the old bromide that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

While watching the multi–vehicle pileup at Air Canada Centre Tuesday night, I was reminded of why Rogers tried to move oceans and continents to pilfer James Duthie from TSN as host of its grand hockey production. Among his multiple gifts, ol’ Duth sure knows a segue. To wit: As Bob McKenzie, Jeff O’Neill and Aaron Ward looked on bemusedly in the first intermission — the Leafs having withdrawn into a tidy 3–0 hole against Nashville — Duthie calmly submitted (and I paraphrase), “Okay, before we break down every shift in the opening 20 minutes, let’s try to remember that these are the Toronto Maple Leafs… with a record of 9–7–2… and probably good enough, as a lot of us expected, to compete for a Wild Card playoff spot this season. By all signs, a middle–of–the–pack team. With that in mind, let’s break down every shift in the first period… Jeff?”

In the moments that followed — and as accomplished a TV analyst the former Carolina and Toronto winger has become — O’Neill wasn’t able to tell any sharp-eyed Leafs watcher what he or she didn’t already know. This is an average–to–below–average hockey club that will (as McKenzie later pointed out) drive its followers to perennial distraction with peeks and valleys. As such, the misleading euphoria of last week’s 6–1 ACC pounding of Boston (merely without its two best players: Zdeno Chara and David Krecji) and the funereal environment that currently pervades Leafs Land after consecutive bludgeoning’s by the Sabres and Predators.

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THE LEAFS WERE STILL IN TUESDAY NIGHT’S GAME AGAINST NASHVILLE AT THIS POINT. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

My advice to Toronto hockey fans: Get used to the pattern.

As I have written to death in this space, Leafs management chose to upgrade its bottom forward positions last summer rather than alter the club’s unreliable nucleus. Randy Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel were preserved in Business Class while a whole bunch of Economy seats were rearranged. Add in the vaunted analytics movement and the team is merely losing differently than it did a year ago. Instead of being out–shot by a considerable margin, it is now routinely permitting soft, killer goals while final strains of the national anthem reverberate through the arena. There isn’t a Corsi or Fenwick on the planet that can overcome such wretched failure — even with Jim Corsi once a netminder himself, having played 26 games alongside Dave Dryden (and in back of Wayne Gretzky) with the 1979–80 Edmonton Oilers. Though I’ve been a stout believer in Jonathan Bernier, the Maple Leafs No. 1 stopper absolutely cannot allow a practice shot to elude him at 1:52 of regulation, as did a routine volley from Nashville’s Taylor Beck on Tuesday. The Leafs don’t have enough character or leadership to rebound from early misadventure.

Whether or not these missteps are the result of Carlyle’s befuddling strategy with Bernier and James Reimer is material for a separate blog. Suffice to say that neither man is thriving amid Carlyle’s “Guess Tonight’s Goalie?” routine. Neither is this a call for the coach’s scalp. Brendan Shanahan and David Nonis elected to retain Carlyle. Dumping him after a couple of brutal losses wouldn’t prove a thing. More productive is trying to figure the collective psyche of this team and whether it is, a) good enough to remain in playoff contention all season, or b) good enough to remain in contention until the missile strikes Ground Zero in March. That’s why it’s imperative for Maple Leaf fans to preserve a shred of sanity through the middle portion of the schedule. Barring virtual disaster, the waning portion — as always — will determine the club’s fate.

In the interim, it’s best to remember that the Leafs of 2014–15 are essentially the Leafs of post–2009. During that time, Brian Burke chose to cast his lot with Phaneuf, Kessel and – later – Carlyle (as replacement for Ron Wilson). Burke’s replacement, Nonis, decided to keep the roof intact while reordering some tables and chairs… none of which will survive if the roof collapses. And, ain’t that a dirty hockey word around here.

So, try not to go goofy.

After all, these are… the Leafs.

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