James van Riemsdyk and Cody Franson (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Think you have these Toronto Maple Leafs figured out? That puts you in a minority. The Leafs have been a team that has been all over the map for the first quarter of the season and will likely do the same for the following three quarters.
Even when the Toronto Maple Leafs do something right, they find a way to mess it up. On a day when people should be talking about how they put the brakes on a three-game losing streak with an impressive win, the narrative will surround how a bunch of pampered millionaires stuck it to the paying public.
Here's what happened. On the heels of perhaps the most negative scrutiny they've faced from their fan base all season - including a fan throwing a Maple Leafs sweater on the ice during a 9-2 loss to the Nashville Predators Tuesday night, the Maple Leafs had an inspired effort, one of their best of the season, and defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night.
Like every other team around the league, the Leafs have adopted the post-win ritual of saluting their fans by skating to center ice and raising their sticks. But after the Tampa win, they did not do it, a move that was first noticed by Chris Johnston of Rogers Sportsnet. It was suggested by commentators that "one or two players" directed the team off the ice after the win.
There will now be all sorts of speculation over what the Leafs intentions were by doing this. But make no mistake. They were sending their fans a clear message. And what makes it so troubling is that if this message was not orchestrated by the team's leadership group, it was endorsed by the leadership group. And that is indeed troubling.
Aided by their front-office superiors, the Leafs have allowed themselves to adopt this notion that playing in Toronto is some kind of burden that has to be endured. The scrutiny is so intense, the media are a bunch of jackals, the fans are too demanding. And they use it as a crutch, conveniently forgetting the fact that there are a whole bunch of professional teams in North America and Europe who face even a higher level of scrutiny and still manage to win championships occasionally.
To wit: James van Riemsdyk, who played one of his better games after generating no more than a handful of scoring chances in the previous two. “When things aren’t going well in this city, you’ve got a lot of overanalyzing going on,” he said. Seriously? You lose two games by a combined score of 15-4 and people are overanalyzing?
By doing what the Leafs did, they've portrayed themselves as a bunch of overpaid whiners who take their puck and go home when the criticism gets a little too personal. And if you're looking for a reason why this team never wins, perhaps it's the lack of intestinal fortitude in its players that's the root reason, not the fact that they face such unreasonable working conditions.
The leaders on this team, the guys with six and eight years left on their contracts, are going to have some explaining to do for this. Because it's one thing to play terribly in front of your fans. It's quite another to stick it to them the way the Leafs did Thursday night.
On the ice, depending upon how you do your math, the Maple Leafs have reached the one-quarter mark of their season. The exact one-quarter point will occur halfway through their game Saturday night against the Detroit Red Wings, but you get the point.
The main thing is that after 20 games of the 2014-15 season, the Maple Leafs have finally established their identity. And that is…hmmm. That’s a tough one.
Some nights, such as Thursday night when they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2, they’re not going to turn the puck over too often in bad areas. They’re going to be effective on the forecheck, have a lot of offensive zone time and their defensemen are going to have excellent gap control in the neutral zone. And other nights, they won’t get any of those things.
Some nights Tyler Bozak is going to win 70 percent of his faceoffs and badly outplay Steven Stamkos. Other nights, not so much. Some nights van Riemsdyk is going to score twice and direct nine shots at the opponents’ net and register three hits and others he’s going to be invisible.
Do not, repeat, do not expect this to change. To expect the Leafs to suddenly become a contender, even in the Eastern Conference, would be unreasonable. The Leafs are what a lot of people call a 7-11 team, one that could finish anywhere from seventh to out of the playoffs. At 10-8-2, the Leafs are not as good as they looked Thursday night. Nor are they as bad as they were in a 6-2 loss to the worst team in the league, followed by a 9-2 drubbing at home to the Nashville Predators.
So when the Leafs hit the ice Saturday night at home against Detroit, are they going to do so as a hungry bunch eager to build on one of their better efforts of the season? Or will they display the self-satisfaction they have so many times before and play like a team that is far too impressed with itself? Good luck trying to predict that one.
“We’d love to be able to be more consistent for sure,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “Tonight was hopefully a starting point for us. By no means do we thing we’re over the hump. Our preparation starts now for Saturday.”
Noble words to be sure. But they're only words. This team has had many of them this season. Not until this team begins playing with some semblance of consistency is it going to silence its doubters. And since it can’t seem to do that, the doubters will be there all season.
Give the Leafs credit, though. Playing with a 1-0 lead late in the first period and coming off a 51-second span in which they had a 5-on-3 power play, the Leafs gave up a shorthanded goal. That could have sunk them, but instead they came out like men possessed in the second period. After the game, Carlyle was asked whether that shorthanded goal was a here-we-go-again moment.
“There were a few more words than here we go again,” Carlyle said. “It was not polite.”