SANTA CRUZ, January 20, 2015 — Toronto is, perhaps unfairly, known for imagining itself to be the center of the Canadian universe. Entertainment, sports, you name it; in the minds of southern Ontario residents, events are not relevant unless they are taking place in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). No organization suffers more from this fishbowl phenomenon than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Every move the Leafs make, whether on or off the ice, is scrutinized to ridiculous degrees. The team is followed by a rabid, merciless army of beat writers and covered by the national media as if it were a member of Parliament. The Leafs’ historic struggles are as fascinatingly inexplicable as they are painful for a hockey-crazed nation who find they cannot quit talking about Toronto’s team, even though they may not like them. The amount of coverage and conversation the Maple Leafs receive and generate, relative to their organizational success, is one of modern sports’ greatest puzzles.
The Leafs have been absent from the Stanley Cup finals since winning the cup in 1967, a fact that keeps Leafs fans up at night, and makes their fame and prominence all the more incredible. There have been high points, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where the club was dominant in the regular season and regularly participated in the playoffs, but even these great squads fell short of the final round.
Perhaps the national Canadian fascination with the Leafs is akin to watching a car crash; a guilty pleasure, existing to satisfy some visceral, voyeuristic urge. Two years ago, the Leafs were one period away from a trip to the finals, with a three goal lead on the Boston Bruins. The game was being played in Boston, and the telecast would frequently cut away to a shot of thousands of Leafs fans watching the game outside on a massive screen in downtown Toronto. Their expectant jubilance was palpable.
In a matter of a few moments, the Bruins mounted an unlikely comeback and won the game in dramatic fashion. The next shot from Toronto showed the stunned faces of thousands of Leafs fans, unable to process what had just happened. For those who loathe the Leafs (and there are many), it was a glorious picture.
Making Toronto’s Stanley Cup finals drought even more painful is the recent appearance of so many other Canadian teams. Montreal won the cup in 1993, Calgary went to the finals in 2004, Edmonton in 2006, Ottawa in 2007, and Vancouver in 2011. Last year, the Montreal Canadians made it to the conference finals and many believed they would have beaten the New York Rangers had starting goalie Carey Price not been injured late in the series.
The Leafs have been an organizational mess for decades, famously trading away prospects and draft picks for enigmatic, underachieving players. The front office and hockey operations departments have been a revolving door of ex-players, coaches, and up and coming hockey whiz kids, all purportedly with sufficient cache to rescue the floundering franchise. However, none have succeeded. The most recent debacle involved the forfeiture of multiple picks, including two first rounders, to acquire Phil Kessel, a talented, yet streaky and one-dimensional scorer.
It is difficult to determine if the Leafs’ core is incapable of getting the team to the next level because of the absurd amount of external pressure and media scrutiny, or if they simply lack anyone who possesses the elusive leadership gene to put the team on their back and carry them to a championship. Dion Phaneuf, the current captain, is viewed by many as overrated and immature. A promising prospect coming out of the WHL (Western Hockey League), Phaneuf enjoyed moderate success with his first club, the Calgary Flames, but has been erratic and volatile since landing in Toronto. Not every player has the thick skin and singular focus to excel under the brightest of spotlights at the unforgiving eye of the Canadian sports media storm.
The team has struggled to forge an identity for itself, regardless of its litany of head coaches and their varying philosophies. The time tested formula for success in hockey is to start in net and build from the defense out.
The Leafs goaltending is middling at best, and they lack an elite defensive tandem. Toronto’s forwards are a mixed bag of puck-hogging danglers and grinders with hands of stone.
A full commitment to a locked down, defensive style of play is the quickest way to get the club winning again, and possibly sneaking into a playoff spot. However, the current roster appears unwilling to deviate from the loose, run and gun style they have been playing to this point, leading an anonymous source involved in the team to call its current core un-coachable.
Playing in the world’s premier hockey league is not easy. Doing it in Canada’s most populous city, under the weight of Leafs fans’ pie in the sky expectations, fueled by over forty years of futility is even tougher. As another season reaches its halfway point, the Leafs again find themselves out of a playoff spot, playing a nervous, frustrated brand of hockey.
If this were happening to the Florida Panthers or Dallas Stars, it would scarcely move the needle on local sports talk radio. In Toronto, the Maple Leafs are literally all anybody talks about, all year round. The organizational disarray, the lackluster product on the ice, and the frustrated entitlement of Leafs nation all point to another playoff absence, and another off season filled with more questions than answers.