By: Alex Karageorgos
1967. It was the year of psychedelic rock with bands like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd tearing up the airwaves. Movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Jungle Book were exploding onto the big screen. In sports, the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched their thirteenth Stanley Cup in a six game series win against the Montreal Canadiens. Coincidentally, our beloved Maple Leafs have not hoisted Lord Stanley’s Mug since. Long gone are the days of Stanley Cup parades that ran through Toronto’s downtown core.
Let’s flashback to The Ballard years, during which the Leafs were barely competitive and did not post a winning record for 12 years. This continued up until the great 1992/93 season, when the Leafs made it to the Western Conference Finals after being knocked out by the L.A. Kings and Wayne Gretzky. The Maple Leafs have not made the playoffs since the NHLPA locked-out the 2004/05 National Hockey League season. The post-lockout era has not been kind to the blue-and-white, with their highest finish being ninth in 2007, when the Leafs nearly qualified for the playoffs, ending with a 36-35-11 record, just above the .500 mark. Leaf Nation’s patience seems to be wearing thin. It’s been 43 years and counting, and it seems like the woes of the woeful Leafs are anything but over.
With another dreadful start under their belts this season, the Leafs find themselves near the basement of the Eastern Conference yet again. Brian Burke was hired by Richard Peddie in November of 2008 replacing interim General Manager Cliff Fletcher. Burke was solely hired to dust-off and remodel the Leafs by picking up the pieces that former Vice-President and General Manager John Ferguson Jr. left behind. Burke managed the Vancouver Canucks from 1998-2004 and lead them to a Northwest Division title in 2003/04 and was the man that signed the brother duo Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Burke moved to Anaheim for the 2005/06 season and won a Cup in his second year of operations with the Ducks, as he turned the once struggling franchise around. With the Maple Leafs, Burke has hired new administration and brought in talent to shape up the former hockey powerhouse for the future, but the Crystal Ball is not all good for Burke and Co.
The Leafs acquired American sniper Phil Kessel in September 2009 from the Boston Bruins for a first and second round draft pick in twenty-ten and a first round pick in twenty-eleven. Kessel has been slow getting out of the blocks this season, netting only 12 goals–but this still leads the Leafs. He is also one of the league leaders with shots on goal. If more of those shots hit the back of the net, the Maple Leafs could improve offensively. J.S. Gigure and Jonas Gustavsson have been shaky between the pipes with goal-against averages of 2.85 and 2.87 respectively. Giguere has playoff experience and was stellar in the Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks team in 2006/07. Jonas Gustavsson, before signing with the Leafs and donning the uniform in the summer of 2009, was the top goalie in the Swedish Elite League in the 2008/09 season recording a league best save-percentage of .932 and a goal-against average of 1.96. He lead Färjestad to the league title and won MVP of the playoffs for this feat. Promising young talents like Nazem Kadri, who was drafted 7th overall in 2009 by the Leafs from the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and the undrafted Tyler Bozak have flourished in the minors and are now key parts of the Leafs squad. Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong are other strong acquisitions that Burke has picked up during the off-season. Both Versteeg and Armstrong have Stanley Cup rings and bring leadership to the Leafs’ dressing room. Last but not least, the Leafs’ captain, Dion Phaneuf. The big 6’3 defenseman was a rock for the Calgary Flames on the blue-line and had his best season in 2007/08 racking up 60 points and was voted into the Western Conference All-Star line-up. When Phaneuf signed with the Leafs on January 31, 2010, it seemed like the tides were turning in Toronto. Unfortunately, this was not the case. As a Leaf, Phaneuf has only tallied a total of 16 points, with 6 of those points coming this season. Phaneuf sustained a deep laceration on his leg that needed surgery early in the season. Even though he is back in the line-up and healthy, this setback hurt the Leafs as they missed their captain for a few weeks, dropping points in the process.
Even with all of the talent that Brian Burke has acquired for the Leafs during the off-season, they are still struggling to find the knockout punch needed to win hockey games. The Toronto Maple Leafs are notorious for not putting enough pucks on net or not getting enough bodies in front of the puck to stop shots when there is an extra man on the ice or a man down in the sin bin. Ron Wilson has struggled to develop the Maple Leafs’ horrendous special teams that held the league’s worst power-play and penalty kill percentages last year. For this season, the Leafs had nowhere to go but up. They are still terrible with both disciplines. The penalty-kill almost halfway through the season holds a 77.2% that ranks 29th along with a dismal power-play that checks in at 15.3% and is 28th in the NHL. Remember, hockey fans, that there are only 30 teams in the NHL. The Leafs’ improvement is non-existent and if they want to lock-up a playoff spot for this season, or future seasons, they need to fix this problem as soon as possible. Former captain and Maple Leaf legend Mats Sundin stated that, “When things are not going well in Toronto, you’re going to hear about it.” That’s exactly what’s happening in Leafs Nation.