As of January 10, 2009 the Toronto Maple Leafs are in familiar territory- no mans land.
Yknow that place in the standings where you are a ladder rung or 2 away from a playoff spot, but clearly not inept enough to be banking on a lottery pick in the draft. There is, at least a shred of understanding on my part for those who in the past three seasons felt that this was the worst place the team could be- too mediocre to squeeze into the draft lottery and not good enough to truly contend.
However, a little perspective must be applied to the current state of the team and how different things are from the past 2 seasons in particular. As I said, I have a shred of understanding of the desire of some fans and media types for the team to tank, seeing whats on the horizon in terms of young talent (another Gold metal run for the Canadian Juniors gets the saliva flowing for sure) but there has to be a point in every teams development where the team is exactly where the Leafs are now- question you have to ask yourself is whether they are on their way up, on their way down, or setting up permanent residence.
A huge case could be made for the latter throughout the entire JFJ era. There was little hope that the Leafs would do nothing but patch holes on a sinking ship, and the evidence was overwhelming that Ferguson had not the hockey sense, the autonomy nor the ability to abandon plan A and rebuild for the future. With JFJ constantly trying to prove himself a winner and prolong his stay in the big leagues, things were bleak indeed, and staring at a team perennially in 9-10th place, rammed up against the cap and filed with declining complacent veterans armed with NTCs left most fans feeling, well, familiar.
All of that began to change the day Cliff Fletcher took over as interim GM.
Fletcher immediately set to the task of purging the Leafs of every piece of dead weight, every locked in contract and every excessive salary he could in an emergency effort to make the Leafs into something that they have not been in years: fluid. His goal was to have the team in a liquid state for the incoming GM, so that he could immediately begin to build and restructure the team in his image.
Mission accomplished, Mr Fletcher.
Fletcher got whatever he could for what little commodities he had, but most importantly he rid the team of a mess, which not only hampered the one-ice product, but could have possibly curbed the interest of a certain GM whom the Leafs had not so secretly coveted for a year.
The Leafs went from a bloated dead fish in Toronto Harbor to being, well, a young Salmon with a long upstream swim (hey at least its a start!).
Point is that the teams place in the standings may appear similar, but the direction of the team could not be more opposite, and optimism should once again fill the hearts of Leaf Nation (much to the chagrin of certain sports writers that cover the team).
The Leafs of Jan 10 2009 are night and day when compared to the team of a year ago, despite the similarities in the standings. They now have an elite management tandem and a coaching staff that have a proven track record. The brain-trust of the team has autonomy over all things hockey, and despite the aforementioned house-cleaning the interim team is performing equally to the over-the-hill squad that were paid like superstars, and expected to contend for the Stanley Cup (famous last words) yet phoned in their efforts for the past 2 years.
The present day Leafs are young, cheap and fluid. The team works hard, even in defeat and that my friends, is a big step forward in redefining the culture of this team. For this reason I do not consider this a lame duck team nor a lame duck season, as the seeds of a good team with a good attitude and strong work ethic are being planted now. Whether half the club is moved by seasons end or not is irrelevant to this point.
The necessity of establishing a healthy team culture is an equally important, and possibly more elusive team commodity than high draft picks or free agents because theres no guarantee that it can be created regardless of whos on the roster.
Look at the late-round draft success of the Detroit Red Wings- is it possible that the Wings have bar none the greatest scouting staff in the history of pro hockey? Sure, but it is more likely that players like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Filppula, Franzen and a laundry list of others rose above their sooner-drafted, higher rated peers because they were brought into an organization that instills the spirit of a champion into everyone that dons the Red and White.
Red Wings players dont have to learn how to win, they are born winners- simple as that.
New GM Brian Burke has every tool at his disposal: total trust and autonomy from the board, raw materials to work with and a legitimate shot at turning the club around with few of the obstacles that plagued the teams development over the last 3 years.
Although Burke has yet to make a significant roster change, hes already begun to change the dynamic of the existing on-ice product. Notably different in how the club is being run from the past two years, and even seasons beginning is in the choice of call-ups that color the Leafs roster. Despite fishing in the same talent pool, the Leafs have used a near completely different set of youngsters when holes needed to be filled- character guys like Deveaux, Mitchell, Williams, and Sifers get the call more often than guys like Tlusty, Stralman, Battaglia and Kronwall. Heck, even Justin Pogge saw a glorious 60 minutes of NHL action (an opportunity which should have been provided to him in 2006, after Pogge dominated the World Juniors and his confidence was at an all time high).
Allowing Pogge to rot in the minors while watching the Leafs trade asset after asset on no less than 3 different goalies, rather than giving him a legitimate opportunity is one of the most grievous errors in recent team history- talk about derailing a kids self-confidence.
Speaking of moves, the acquisition of Brad May within 48 hrs of Luke Schenns return from the IR was no coincidence or surprise to me, as I fully expected Burke would have someone in place to handle the dirty work before Schenn ended up having to stick up for one of his big brothers again.
And finally, the recent news of Tomas Kaberles sudden willingness to head for greener pastures should give fans yet another reason to feel like this season is less about correcting on the fly, purging dead weight, or a general waste of time and more like an opportunity for the Leafs to make a true step forward (something to keep in mind while suffering through games like Thursdays 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Habs).
When the doors open for training camp next Sept, we should all expect (and demand) a young Leaf team full of possibility, potential, prospects and cap space. But the most significant contribution to the future success of this team just might be the foundation of a winning attitude and strong work ethic courtesy of the sacrificial lambs of 08-09.