TORONTO (May 17) — Come on, be honest, you didn’t expect to hear a different message from your Toronto Maple Leafs today? Did you? Why would the club venture outside its vaunted comfort zone in the National Hockey League’s most–hapless market? With countless fans that are already looking forward to all the regular–season goals Auston Matthews can score next year. And, more than enough sycophants in the mainstream media content to ensure they don’t upset players or management with critical observation and commentary.
Welcome, Leafs Nation, to yet another Groundhog Day in the middle of spring.
Many questions abound, but one thing is for absolute certain: No team in the history of North American professional sport has provided its personnel — on and off the ice — a seventh attempt at accomplishing the bare playoff minimum. It’s unlikely that a club has been given more than three–such opportunities without significant change. You need not wonder, therefore, why the Leafs are the butt of jokes across Canada and throughout the hockey world. It’s the result of spineless, fractured ownership that undoubtedly wants to win; will pay to win, but refuses to take anything but the path of least resistance. Electing, eternally, to play its tortured, unconditionally loyal patrons for the collective fool. Knowing there will be minimal pushback in any form that might threaten the bottom line. Harold Ballard… Steve Stavro… the Teachers… Larry Tanenbaum… Bell Canada… Rogers. Different names; disparate companies, but with the identical laissez–faire approach to ending hockey’s interminable championship drought. Why? You know the answer: Because they can. Always and forever… they most–certainly can.
Brendan Shanahan, with the cushion of three more guaranteed years as president of the Leafs, astoundingly told the media that “we’re not going to make change for the sake of change.” Providing, of course, we can still be astounded by anything Shanahan says. Change for the sake of change? After nearly a decade of hollow triumph under his stewardship? Shouldn’t change be affected in order to try and win something? If there’s a sports team in all of the world that justifies structural and cultural amendment more than the Maple Leafs, I’d like to know about it.
ONLY THE CALENDAR CHANGES FOR BRENDAN SHANAHAN (LEFT) AND KYLE DUBAS. THE MESSAGE — AND THE PLAYOFF RESULTS — ARE FOREVER THE SAME.
Again, it’s not so much that the Leafs need to bring in a new general manager and coach — Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe have fared quite nicely (until it matters) — but rather the flimsy, sophomoric excuses for staying the same. Year after year after year. Disappointment after disappointment. If you’re a dyed–in–the–wool fan of the Leafs, surely, by now, you’d appreciate someone — anyone — losing a bit of decorum in front of cameras and microphones on locker clean–out day and telling the world “this is freaking unacceptable! We can’t keep going down the same path and expecting to arrive at a different destination.” Instead, we have Shanahan and Dubas, side by side, spewing the same old bullshit about how they “believe in the group.” Is there anyone else on the hockey planet that truly has confidence in this godforsaken group beyond the last week of the regular schedule?
It’s like a tragic comedy. The Leafs resemble a slick moving company with an elegant, shiny van and employees dressed to the 9’s… who drop the furniture while entering your house. Can you imagine that company sending the same delivery people to every house over a seven–year span? That’s how absurd the situation has become with the Blue and White. Which brings us back to the rulers of the ivory tower — Bell, Rogers and Larry T. — who evidently will allow Shanahan and Co. to “get this right”… or die while trying. The Vegas Golden Knights, with a storied legacy of five NHL seasons, 100 fewer than the Leafs, failed to make the playoffs for the first time. And, fired their coach within two weeks. I’m not suggesting Peter DeBoer was the culprit, but the Knights wasted no time in sending a note of dissatisfaction. The Leafs keep blundering in the Stanley Cup tournament and promising they will tinker with the bottom third of the roster. Knowing, all the while, they can get away with such feeble nonsense.
Perhaps the nearly flat salary cap will rescue the team and its fans. Surely we cannot count on Dubas — knowledgeable, but not nervy — to move on from the man–crush involving his precious and beloved core. The Leafs have $77.451 million committed to the roster for next season, a paltry $5 million beneath the cap ceiling. Close to $48 million is absorbed by the Fab Five: Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. No general manager devoted to ending such a ridiculous playoff famine would continue to say “don’t worry, everything will be just fine.” Instead, that person would find a way to transform the losing playoff culture with at least one poignant alteration; in this example, moving out a member of the sacred nucleus. A good GM, in fact, needs to be borderline ruthless when warranted. Kyle is already three years late in summoning any form of roster cruelty. Evidently, yet astonishingly, that continues to appease ownership and the president.
More than ever before, the cap arithmetic is unworkable for the Maple Leafs.
With the usual token effort by management, fans of the club had best prepare to rinse. And repeat.