By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 5) — I often point out, in this tiny corner, the singular lack of middle ground among fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As if the poor buggers have an option.
With half of the 2014–15 National Hockey League schedule to be in the books after Wednesday night’s home–ice rarity against Washington, the Leafs are whatever you think they are on a given day. It doesn’t matter what you thought they were going to be before the season or how delirious you were during the 10–1–1 outburst between Nov. 20 and Dec. 16. Today, the Leafs are bums; led by a lousy coach and assembled by a GM that should have long ago been discarded by the new (and somewhat baffling) president. Welcome to one of the longest–running soap operas in professional sports history. Same time. Same channel.
And, every friggin’ day of the week.
All of which could be alleviated, of course, by a modicum of consistency. The Leafs merely have to gather for a few moments and decide what they are: Inept or brilliant. In any other walk of life, some gray area might prevail. But, not here. With the Maple Leafs, the glass is either overflowing or bone dry. The concept of half–full or half–empty does not exist. And the sum of all parts at mid–season leans toward the most troubling of scenarios: Missing the playoffs for a ninth time in ten years while finishing in the mushy middle of the NHL standings. During a year that bears two of the brightest draft prospects since that kid from Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia in 2005. How could it be happening… again?
DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN SHED NARY A TEAR FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS DURING HIS DOMINANT PERFORMANCE ON BEHALF OF WINNIPEG SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MTS CENTRE. CBC/ROGERS
As per the norm, theories abound.
In today’s edition of the Globe and Mail, James Mirtle — arguably the most thorough of the local hockey beat–writers — contends that the core of the Leafs is fatally flawed. It’s a drum that I began pounding in this corner as soon as the team folded last March and April… and kept pounding in the warm months until it was certain the club would retain its three–headed cabal of Randy Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Perhaps the Leafs had no other option. Though such alternate coaching candidates as Peter Laviolette and Barry Trotz were available soon–after last season, they were quickly latched onto by Nashville and Washington. Phaneuf’s contract may have had “UNTRADEABLE” stamped across it while Kessel wasn’t likely up for discussion.
The choice was made to improve the club’s forward depth, which David Nonis accomplished rather adroitly. All of Daniel Winnick, Mike Santorelli, Leo Komarov and Richard Panik have earned their salaries in the first half of the season. Holdover Peter Holland has thrived amid increased responsibility and veteran David Booth is just now rounding into form after another long injury absence. For nearly a month, the off–season strategy appeared to be brilliant — Maple Leafs copping 21 of 24 available points while leading the NHL in goals scored. And, not cheaply, either. The club conquered, you should recall, such prime opposition as Detroit (three times), Tampa Bay, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Anaheim. As Christmas approached, the Maple Leafs were gaudily positioned within three floors of the Eastern Conference penthouse. And now this.
How, we ponder, has 21 of 24 points so quickly turned into four of 18 points? A 2–7–0 spit–up that began in Raleigh, N.C. on Dec. 18 threatens a flimsy hold on the second Eastern wild card spot… by a mere point over the scuffling Bruins as of Monday afternoon. Note how the standings have shifted from Dec. 17 (bottom–left) to today:
With the same flawed nucleus, the Maple Leafs — so wretched at Winnipeg on Saturday night — were the best team in the NHL from Nov. 20 to Dec. 16. That’s four weeks of toil and sweat. Twelve games. More than one–seventh of the entire NHL season. And now, once again, this.
Is it any wonder that hockey’s most enduring, soulful followers are — at one moment — on the observation deck of the C.N. Tower and — at the next moment — in some darkened cave? The men they cheer for give them no chance to catch a breath between contrasting levels. Yet, a word to the wise. Fifty percent of the NHL calendar has clearly indicated the Leafs can go in either of two directions. In the bat of an eyelash. Though visions of impending doom prevail, such evidence is circumstantial right now. In the end, it will be all about timing.
To wit: If the Leafs can hang in through injury (Holland, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri) and reserve another hot streak for the waning portion of the schedule, perhaps the doomsayers will be surprised. As will those (James Mirtle, myself) that believe change should have been made to the club’s three–headed monster before the puck dropped in October.
OH YEAH, ALSO FROM CALIFORNIA…
Almost forgot. This souvenir decal, somehow preserved for nearly four decades by my friend Len Shapiro, from his season as the last media relations director of the California Golden Seals in 1975–76. Given to my son Shane in the media lounge at the SAP Center in San Jose, Dec. 20:
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [HUMBER COLLEGE]
LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [BROADCAST MEDIA]