Crumbling Leafs Part III: Scrutiny, Pressure and a Pinch of Self-Doubt

The only position in Toronto that sits upon a hotter seat is that of the lonely netminder.  The last line of defense is often the first victim of ire at the hands of the rabid media in Toronto.  Historically the most pressure-cooked position in the game of hockey, goalies in Toronto are even more highly-scrutinized for their every move.  It is such a tough market to play in as a goalie that several have it in their contracts that they can not be traded to the Leafs.  Budding stars like Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala figured they were destined to achieve glory in the blue and white, only to crumble under the microscope and watch their careers fizzle out and dissipate.

So what does Toronto need to do to build a new model for success?  My views are only opinions and only time can tell what form of action new GM Dave Nonis will decide is best, but I believe that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel.  I think the model exists or at least a hybrid of sorts that will help Toronto create the identity it needs to move forward and find a level of successful consistency in the NHL.  I am a firm believer that you need to build through the draft and secure a nucleus of talent that can be complimented with saavy acquisitions.

The parade of signings of over-the-hill bandaids such as Eric Lindros, Joe Nieuwendyk and more recently Mike Komisarek and Tim Connolly need to stop.  It’s about time the Leafs realize that a veteran quick fix isn’t going to work with a team that lacks a close-knit nucleus or identity.  There is no point adding complimentary players to a team that isn’t ready to become a playoff contender.

The pressing issue on every Leaf fans mind lately has been when or if the Leafs will be able to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire Roberto Luongo.  To me it makes no sense at all to bring in a guy like Luongo at this stage.  Luongo is a 33-year old goalie who has logged a ridiculous amount of minutes in his career.  He is clearly on the downslope of his career and would better suit a team that is ready to win now like the Chicago Blackhawks.

Both Dave Nonis and Brian Burke have sparking hockey resumes and deserve the utmost credit for reaching the levels they are at. However, that being said, if I were in Nonis’ shoes, I would put faith in 24 year-old James Reimer and try and build a winner around him over the next three to four years.  I won’t use the word “Rebuild” because it usually sets of panic alarms in Leafs Nation.  Instead, I will use the word “Remodel” because I believe it’s the current model for success that has failed the Maple Leafs organization.

Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, James Van Reimsdyk, Nazim Kadri, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer are a pretty good starting point to build around but they need a strong prospect class behind them to provide a push to succeed.  In hockey, like in any aspect of life, there is nothing wrong with having someone biting at your heels to keep you honest.  Hockey is a competitive sport and competition breeds greatness.  Without it, all you have is complacency.

Aside from Kadri and Reimer who have already experienced the negativity shower from Toronto’s astute media minds, the rest of this crop has bounced around and understand what it’s like to have to pull up stakes and move on.  And for anyone who has been burned before and felt the pain of being unwanted, Toronto can be a tough place to rebuild your ego and self-confidence.  Anyone who has played in Toronto can tell you that you burn a lot quicker in the limelight.

So far this season, the Leafs are off to a promising start, but we’ve seen this happen before.  The real concern is how will the organization react when it faces its first real test of adversity?  In recent memory, the reaction has been to panic and shuffle the deck with unnecessary and debilitating transactions.

I personally, would like the Leafs organization to say, “Don’t worry Leafs Nation, we’ve got a plan.”  Lets be honest, the fans aren’t going anywhere no matter what the fan forum sites may say.  An average of over 19,000 fans per game over seven straight years of mediocrity is proof of that.  And as sharp a bite the media will have during times of adversity, the Maple Leafs organization has to stay the course and keep a clear focus on the future and building to be successful for years to come.  Although it may sooth the hunger for success in the short-run, the priority cannot be to just creep into the playoffs this year, only to be on the outside looking in for the following seven.

Not since the 1992-93 Leafs edition, have we seen a hockey team in Toronto exude the swagger and bravado of a true contender.  Led by fearless, home-grown captain Wendel Clark, the 92-93 Leafs dazzled their way to within a bad call of the Stanley Cup Finals.  With a home-grown nucleus of Clark, Todd Gill, Nikolai Borschevsky and Felix Potvin, complimented by the savvy additions of Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuck, the model for success was firmly in place and being executed.  Toronto fans got a taste of the good life that year and made the mistake of expecting nothing but winners thereafter.  Over the next few years, the nucleus was dismantled and a string of horrendous draft choices, followed by head scratching trades, set off a tailspin that only increased in intensity as the years rolled by.

So twenty years later, with the lockout-shortened NHL season just 12 games old, can the Toronto Maple Leafs break free from the tailspin and re-route the ship?  Will the team fall into a skid and hit the panic button amidst the slings and arrows of the media frenzy?  Will Roberto Luongo find himself in the blue and white at the cost of prospects and picks, as many past-prime talents have before him?  Or will the current Leafs regime be the ones that finally say enough is enough?  Patience, as they say, is a virtue and only time will tell.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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