Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dare I Dream?

With only eight games and just over two weeks left in the NHL schedule, the Toronto Maple Leafs are firmly holding onto a playoff spot. The last time the Leafs were in the playoffs was in 2004, before the previous lockout cancelled the entire 2004-2005 season. That was nine years ago, and they have not made the playoffs since.

To put that in perspective, my now-wife and I were just getting engaged for the first time. Since then, we've had an un-engagement, re-engagement, and nearly five years of marriage. Sidney Crosby was yet to be drafted. The Calgary Flames lost the Stanley Cup Final that year. The Leafs' current leading goal-scorer, Nazem Kadri, was thirteen years old. You get the picture - it was a long time ago.

After the lockout, Leaf fans held on to a semblance of hope for a couple of seasons before giving up entirely. Here is a short summary of what the Leafs have done since that last playoff loss, when Jeremy Roenick and the Flyers beat them in the second round, including both their regular season history and the significant moves made by the management during that time - a reflective diary from a fan. (I know this is kind of the Sports Guy's gimmick, but I just started reading Now I Can Die in Peace, his memoir about being a Red Sox fan, so bear with me. Plus, I think it works well in this context.)

2006 - 9th place, 90 points, 2 points out of a playoff spot. The Leafs decided to make a run with their old crew, who were all two years older than their last playoff appearance. They kind of had to, since they, unlike most forward-looking teams in the league, had not written contracts that anticipated the lockout and were still beholden to their aging stars. It almost worked, but they fell just short in the final week. That was the year that the Oilers almost won the Cup starting in 8th place in the West, so Leafs fans hold onto hope for the next year that all they need to do is make the playoffs. The Leafs also made one of the dumbest deals they have ever made, dealing away surefire goalie prospect Tuukka Rask for one-time Calder-winning goalie Andrew Raycroft. Why? Because they had Justin Pogge in their system. He's now a top Italy. We knew it was dumb at the time, but there was nothing we could do except watch and know that there was a long road back to respectability.

2007 - 9th place, 1 point, and they lost out on 8th on the final day of the season, to the New York Islanders. The Islanders, who won four straight to end the season with journeyman goalie Wade Dubielewicz giving conniptions to every sportswriter in Canada. The Leafs had beaten the Canadiens in their last game to sit in playoff position, and all they had to do was watch the Devils and Islanders play the next day and hope that the Devils won, even if it was in a shootout. The Islanders led 2-0 until the last five minutes of the third period, when the Devils scored a goal; they scored again with one second remaining to take the game to the shootout. There was hope for Leaf Nation - maybe, just maybe the Leafs could squeak in and make a miracle run. But alas, it was not to be, as the Islanders won in the shootout, and the Leafs were left to wonder what might have been for another year. The box score from that day is still heartbreaking, and that's the closest the Leafs would come to a post-season appearance for another half a decade. The Leafs picked up goalie Vesa Toskala after the season, but he never worked out in Toronto - of course.

2008 - 12th place, 83 points, 11 points out of a playoff spot. We fans hoped for a complete collapse soon so that the Leafs could pick up a high draft pick or two and start rebuilding. In typical Leafs fashion, they were not bad enough for a good draft pick, but not good enough to be exciting that season. The only interesting part of the season was wondering what would happen with Mats Sundin, their star captain; he left after the end of the season knowing that he had no chance of winning with the Leafs. The bigger move the club made was to finally fire incompetent General Manager John Ferguson, Jr., replacing him with Cliff Fletcher in the interim during the season and hiring Brian Burke as the permanent replacement in the off-season. Burke had built winners before, so there was hope.

2009 - 12th place, 81 points, well out of a playoff spot - The same result as the year before, but slightly worse because it meant another wasted season without a good draft pick to compensate. Just before the next season, Burke finally made his mark and pulled the trigger on a huge deal, picking up young star Phil Kessel from the Bruins for three picks. In true Leaf fashion, this ended up not entirely working out for the team, as demonstrated the following year. Also, the book Leafs Abomination is published, and every Toronto fan nods glumly as they read the account of why the Leafs stink.

2010 - 15th place, 74 points, 2nd worst in the league. Finally, the bottom falls out, and the only team worse than the Leafs was the Edmonton Oilers. The high pick that Leaf fans had so eagerly awaited was finally ours - except that the Leafs had traded it away in the Kessel deal. Of course, in a year in which the second overall pick would have netted them a superstar like Tyler Seguin, they had traded their pick away to the Bruins (along with their second round pick that year and a first round pick the following year). Sigh. Burke did continue to rebuild the team in his image, as he picked up D Dion Phaneuf from Calgary during the season. We were mostly tuned out, but intrigued to see what might happen in the future with Phaneuf and Kessel in the fold.

2011 - 10th place, 85 points, 8 points out of a playoff spot. A resurgence from the previous year's debacle, led by an unexpectedly frisky crew of young players with something to prove. Hope springs again in Leaf Nation. Burke adds by subtracting, getting rid of two defensemen. Francois Beauchemin was traded for Joffrey Lupul, who would become key to Kessel's success, along with prospect Jake Gardiner, and a week later, the Leafs finally parted with the last piece of their past and dealt away Tomas Kaberle, the offensive "defense"man whose egregious errors were perenially overlooked because he played in Toronto. Our final link to the past was gone, and the rebuild was fully underway. Fans can endure a couple of horrible seasons, as long as they can have hope, and there truly was hope for a better result next year.

2012 - 13th place, 80 points, 12 points out of a playoff spot. Aaaaand we're back. After a surprising first half had the Leafs in a playoff spot, a fantastic and not unexpected second half collapse left them significantly out of the playoff race. Granted, their spot looks worse, as the Eastern Conference was very tight that year with only six points separated 10th through 15th place, but they were still out of contention well before the end of the season. The team's big deal of the year was trading away young D-man Luke Schenn - the fifth overall pick in 2008 - for forward James Van Riemsdyk, who has been a top-20 scorer this year. Maybe the Leafs' fortunes have finally changed...

Which brings us to 2013. Currently, the team sits in fifth place in the East with 49 points and eight games to go. This shortened season might be the best thing to happen to the Leafs since the Cujo signing. The team surprisingly fired GM Brian Burke before the season, but the team has otherwise kept with his plan to let players develop and find their rhythm together, and it seems to be working. Four teams would have to jump over them to make the playoffs, and those teams are all between five and seven points behind the Leafs in the standings.

That means, in theory, that if the Leafs win five or four or even as few as three of their remaining games that they should be able to make a playoff spot. If they can do that, it is all but assured that the Leafs will finish in fifth, since they likely will not be able to make up enough points to finish higher than the Bruins or Canadiens, their two most likely first round opponents. Both of those series would be difficult for the Leafs to win, and I would not expect them to win, but honestly, it does not matter to me whether they even get out of the first round; it just matters that they finally make the playoffs.

It means that I can watch at least four games that matter in late April and early May. It means that I can cheer against whichever team beats them out and thoroughly enjoy their inevitable demise. It means that I can proudly be a Leaf fan once again. And it means that I can dare to dream about a day when I can finally enjoy a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto. I am finally letting myself dream again, and that's the greatest gift that this year's Leafs have given to me. Now, where's my fifty mission cap?

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