Someone asked Ron Wilson the other day if the Maple Leafs had found their identity yet.
God, I hope not.
Going into tonight’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs are losers of four in a row and tied with Carolina for dead last in the league. They are 11 points out of the playoffs, last in goals against, bottom five in goalscoring.
As far as identities go, that of a last-place, offensively-challenged, defensively-porous band of underachievers is not really the one you want.
And yet the question has merit.
Last season, even as they broke from the long and prosperous tenure of Mats Sundin, the Maple Leafs had a sense of who they were.
They were hard-working. They were pretty fast. And yes, they were defensively challenged.
In 2008-2009 there were a host of good news stories.
Jason Blake shook off Cancer treatments to score 25 times. Curtis Joseph gave the club a charismatic presence behind Vesa Toskala. Mikael Grabovski dazzled on most nights and recorded 20 goals. It didn’t seem farfetched to conjecture more.
John Mitchell gave notice he could be a dependable two-way centreman.
Rookie Nikolai Kulemin
scored 15 times and flashed ample promise.
Most importantly, Luke Schenn
’s game was so formidable, a whisper campaign was afoot to name him captain.
There was, in this group, a clear direction, a handful of reasons to conjecture better times built on the solid platform set up last season.
This year’s Leafs team should be better. Jonas Gustafsson has been imported to win the goaltending job from Toskala. Phil Kessel
has been a marvel, a stand-alone star and the club’s sole elite player.
Ian White hasn’t missed a beat. Lee Stempniak has been a dramatically better player than last year.
True, the Garnet Exelby trade for Pavel Kubina deal hasn’t worked, Kubina is a top four defenceman, Exelby is routinely scratched. Jason Blake has but two goals.
But after enduring a rough start, Mike Komisarek
was giving the blue line precisely the grit and intensity it needed before he was sidelined by a leg injury. Tomas Kaberle is playing better than he has in years. Francois Beauchemin is an honest player. Niklas Hagman has been fine.
A retool of sorts is already underway. Rookie Carl Gunnarsson
has impressed on the blueline and he might be difficult to unseat. Gustavsson seems destined to win the goaltending job sooner rather than later. He is younger than Toskala, obviously talented and he brings the size preferred by goaltending consultant Francois Allaire.
More changes are coming. Christian Hanson is winning fans with the Marlies. He has 13 points in 15 games. Viktor Stalberg has seven points in seven games since being sent down.
Next season Nazem Kadri
might well be in the lineup.
Obviously, what has been lost is the modest momentum built up last year. Look no further than Schenn, a human fortress last season, a confused 20-year-old now.
It is one of the great mysteries of life how a team with individual components performing about as well as they did last year (and in some cases better) can be so far behind last year’s pace.
It’s like a plant that fails despite the right amount of sun and water. It does so for reasons known only to it.