On The Same Page
"We will make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup."
--Former Leaf head coach Paul Maurice, Sept. 14, 2007.
"If you asked us if you were to pay for a Stanley Cup team this year but you were to be lousy for the next five years would you do it? The answer from an ownership point of view, absolutely not."
--MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, Sept. 26, 2008
""Win this year and then next five years be last? For sure I'll take it."
--Leaf defenceman Pavel Kubina, Sept. 26, 2008.
"Wins and losses don't matter."
--New Leaf head coach Ron Wilson, Oct. 6, 2008
Not hard to see why people get confused.
The concepts, objectives and goals around the Maple Leafs are like shifting sands, more now than ever before. Clearly, much has changed in a calendar year, and while Ron Wilson was clearly being honest and straightforward through his "wins and losses don't matter" mantra for the season, that's not going to be easy for proud, veteran players to ingest before an 82-game season even starts.
It's a little different than "Win One for the Gipper" or "You Gotta Believe."
The concept of a slow, painful re-build is a noble one, one that should be supported after years of quick fixes and patches. When Wilson says "you guys can't be all out there bleating and writing in your papers that this team needs to bottom out and get high draft picks and build and then turn around and say they better win or else," he's sure not reading the right papers. There's nobody in town, really, suggesting the Leafs are pursuing an incorrect strategy by starting at the bottom again. Go ahead. If there's a commentator in the city who is arguing the Leafs should be trying to win now and make the playoffs, I'd like to know the name.
So it's certainly not the stated aspirations of the Leafs with which folks disagree.
It's how they go about it. And whether they have the internal discipline and sense of direction to get it done, not to mention the corporate will to get it done. Tanenbaum's pre-season comments, for sure, raised many an eyebrow, as did the apparent willingness of the front office to trade away next year's first round pick already to land an appealing but older prospect after trading off eight other draft picks over the past five months.
If Wilson thinks nobody's going to have an opinion about his team's methods, he's wrong. If he's hoping the scores don't get reported in the papers, or hoping nobody will say his team has played a bad game after it has played a bad game, he's wrong as well.
But nobody is saying "win or else," that's for sure.
Even last year, most media people and fans saw Maurice's comments for what they were, a fairly transparent effort to breathe some confidence into his squad.
But a forever hopeful Leaf fan would have reason to wonder why his or her team was trying to win the Cup last year, and now isn't even worried about winning any games at all, while the team's chairman apparently isn't willing to pursue the ultimate prize in the game if significant sacrifice goes along with it. The players are, just not the suits.
Oh yes, and the current GM is in power until, uh, when? Next week or next June or indefinitely. Yet interim/non-interim Cliff Fletcher is the one deciding that Luke Schenn must start in the NHL this season, again ignoring all the history of this team and the obvious reality that life for an 18-year-old NHL defenceman in Toronto is enormously different than for the same player in St. Louis, Atlanta and Los Angeles. It's nice that Alex Pietrangelo, Zach Bogosian and Drew Doughty get to start in the NHL this fall, but that has no bearing on the Leafs and Schenn, or should have no bearing. Nobody will even notice what those kids are doing right or wrong in those towns, while Schenn is going to find out what life is like under the microscope. Sure Scott Stevens broke in successfully as an 18-year-old blueliner in Washington a lifetime ago, but c'mon, nobody was even watching those Caps back then. Stevens could've shot the puck into his own net every night and it wouldn't have been even a note anywhere else.
Right now, you could have a spirited debate over which young Canadian-born defenceman, Dion Phaneuf, Marc Staal or Braydon Coburn, might be the first to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenceman. These guys are all that good.
Well, Phaneuf played four years of junior and moved into the NHL at age 20. Staal played four years of junior and entered the bigs at age 20. Coburn played five years of junior and was a semi-regular at age 21.
But these Leafs know better with a Kelowna youngster who was a second team WHL all-star a year ago in his third junior season and doesn't turn 19 until next month?
Rushing a kid is a slow, disciplined, patient re-build?
Wilson's right. It's not about wins and losses right now. It's about the decisions the team makes, and whether they dovetail with some kind of logical growth plan.
But Fletcher and Wilson have made their choice, and it sure would be terrific to watch Schenn become the first 18-year-old rearguard in Leaf history to flourish immediately. Nobody wants to see Schenn fail, certainly not me. When I receive emails suggesting that I just disagree with whatever the Leafs do, or want the team to be unsuccessful, it is to laugh.
Clearly, 41 years of losing and being in the predicament they are now means they generally make the wrong decisions. When they start making better ones, I'll agree more often, I'm sure.
Otherwise, it's the same old story. Been there, got the t-shirt.