Better Or Not?
Once again, proof that there's nothing like a two-game winning streak.
That's if you're the Maple Leafs, of course.
This, needless to say, is part of the problem Ron Wilson faces as coach of the team. The Leafs knocked off Boston and Ottawa in succession last week, two solid victories over divisional opponents, and already there's talk all around that the club is clearly either improved or improving.
Voices on Hockey Night in Canada worried on Saturday that the Leafs might be becoming too good too fast. Luke Schenn (8 games played, 0 points, minus-3) has apparently not only proven he must stay in the NHL, he's being listed as a candidate for the Calder Trophy by various media pundits. The team, some suggest, is burdened with nine "proven" NHL defencemen. It goes on and on.
Just two victories in a row, and a 3-2-3 record, has produced all this.
People do seem to like the way the Leafs are playing, and that's fair, although at this time last year they were the NHL's highest scoring club. This year's team is clearly faster and seems to be more consistently industrious. Against a slumping Ottawa team on Saturday, the Leafs were first to the puck all night and outskated a Senators team that used to outskate the Leafs with ease.
But was that more of a measure of the Sens or the Leafs?
The Boston victory was impressive because it was a comeback win, and in three games last week, the Leafs allowed just six goals, certainly evidence of enhanced defensive play.
But two games in an 82-game slate don't prove much, and Wilson's dilemma, just as it was for Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice and those that came before, is that the city is as easily satisfied as the players. The bar has been set so low by decades without a championship that minor accomplishments are viewed as major ones. HNIC, desperate for the Leafs to do well to enhance it's ratings and with a strong pro-Toronto lean, wildly exaggerates the most meagre positive notes and treats every single member of the team like a star. On last week's show, one analyst suggested Mike Van Ryn was a "great" NHL defenceman.
None of the other five Canadian teams are viewed through the same rose-colored prism as the Leafs by HNIC. That's how players like Darcy Tucker managed to become marquee names.
This is what Wilson is up against. To make this team successful over time, he will have to find a way to overcome the atmosphere surrounding his team that allows a couple of wins to be portrayed as sure signs of progress. Already, you can imagine that he's fearful that the wild praise being showered upon Schenn, who does look like a solid NHL prospect, is going to go to the kid's head.
Last year, Jiri Tlusty scored twice in his first NHL game and folks were projecting him to be a top six forward. A year later, he's in the minors, but there's this belief out there that Schenn is somehow exempt from all of the landmines that trip up young players.
That the team is willing to burn a year of his entry level contract, needless to say, just demonstrates that the Leaf organization still doesn't understand the managing the payroll in a salary cap era is crucial.
But as usual, the Leafs are selling hope, not excellence. Spirit (not winning) is everything, goes the team's slogan.
So what would be measures of team improvement?
Play consistently well for a month. Get the team's goals-against average, now 11th overall, into the top half-dozen. Realize improvement in the league's 24th best penalty killing outfit. Enhance the team's offence, now 28th in the NHL with the 23rd best power play, to at least the top 20.
Some won't like this blog posting, and will say its the usual negative, glass-half-empty approach. This team was not expected to do well, and some will suggest three wins in eight games to start the season is evidence of a team that is over-achieving.
But isn't it about time Leaf fans and local media started looking at their hockey team realistically, rather than believing in the latest two-game win streak?