TORONTO (Nov. 1) — Here’s a sobering thought for a hockey fan in our city: The Maple Leafs need to go 7–60–3 in their next 70 games in order to pull alongside the worst team ever in the National Hockey League.
Yes, the expansion Washington Capitals of 1974–75 lurched through an 80–game debacle with eight wins, 67 losses and five draws for the grand total of 21 points. The 2015–16 Maple Leafs — 1–7–2 after ten matches — are squarely on target for eight victories and the percentage–odds of choosing San Francisco native Auston Matthews first overall in the NHL draft next June in nearby Buffalo. Call me an optimist, if you wish, but I think the Leafs truly have it in them to garner those seven additional triumphs. The club may have to erupt for two goals a game once in awhile, but, hey, anything is possible.
Dating to the second half of last season, the Leafs were crafted to be inept and impotent. And, wow, the club is coming through spectacularly. If given time and patience, this might be — as elaborately planned — the worst season in 99 years of hockey at the Mutual Street Arena, Maple Leaf Gardens and the Air Canada Centre. Points are more easily attainable in the overtime–shootout era, so the Leafs will presumably challenge the franchise low–mark of 48, established in 1984–85. But, it could be close. Give these players a pail of pucks at the edge of a cottage pier and it’s likely none would find the lake. There is more finish on the bark of a 90–year–old Redwood. When the Toronto St. Pats became the Maple Leafs under Conn Smythe in 1926–27, Irvin (Ace) Bailey led the club with 28 points. Can anyone break 30 this season?
Alright, it’s true: I’m piling on here.
The Leafs are frighteningly kick–able right now and I’ve donned my steel-toes. But, c’mon, this is hardly evolving by accident. The blueprint — as peddled favorably to ownership by Brendan Shanahan — was for the Leafs to stink as putridly as ever for a couple or three seasons; horde medium–to–high–level draft picks and properly develop their young players in junior, Europe, or the American Hockey League. By 2019, or so, the franchise would be in the midst of a long–term reversal. This is what you get for years and years of cutting corners; in trying for the elusive quick–fix by relinquishing first–rounders, and by missing widely with draft picks retained. As we used to call it around my house: Tsuris (Yiddish for “aggravation”).
I’ve previously written here (http://bit.ly/1LfsiuH) about my concern — financial stability aside — for Mike Babcock, who isn’t acquainted with losing. And, I maintain that regardless of intellect, he had no idea what he was getting into with the Leafs… in this city, at this time. You can see it and hear it after every loss. The stark reality that he is coaching — by leaps and bounds — the worst team of his professional career. As I mentioned in the above blog, anticipating failure is far different than experiencing failure. It was nice of Mike to take one for the boys after another somnolent performance on Saturday against Pittsburgh. Rarely is a 4–0, home–ice defeat so flattering; Babcock’s team was considerably more inept than the final count indicated. And, he put it on his shoulders afterward — as if a coach can teach players how to score.
Babcock needs to cultivate some form of resistance to losing, which is much easier said than done for a coach — particularly one with a pedigree in a hockey town that expresses anguish as openly as Toronto. With regard to his health and well–being, however, it is an absolute necessity. For such a proud, accomplished man as Babcock, no amount of income can cushion the agony of defeat.
And, it’s beginning to show — every night his players suit up.
I was at the Toronto–Pittsburgh game on Saturday in a rather unique location — six rows from ice level behind the goal defended by the Maple Leafs in the first and third periods. As such, I was able to capture some rather nifty close–ups with my trusty NIKON:
THESE EXPRESSIONS SUMMED UP THE NIGHT FOR MIKE BABCOCK.