Sometimes the hockey gods serve up analogies that are far too easy for simple-minded sportswriters to pick up on.
Such was the case Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, where not even the Zamboni driver could do his job without embarrassing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If ever there were a perfect symbol for Toronto’s increasingly disastrous season, this was it; they knew what the problem was (badly cleaned ice), tried repeatedly to fix it (with multiple flood attempts), but nevertheless came away looking absolutely clueless.
So it goes with the NHL franchise that is more watched, wealthy and worried-over than any other. They know exactly what the problems are in Toronto – defense, consistency, clutch-goaltending, a lengthy and inglorious history of front office/ownership meddling – yet nothing changes.
And worse still, there’s currently no imperative to do anything (a) differently; and (b) immediately. Management throws out the usual platitudes about not panicking, about not judging a team over a few bad games here or a few mediocre weeks there, and they expect fans and media to be satisfied.
They just might be, if only the facts bore them out. Unfortunately, the facts have an anti-Leaf bias.
Fact is, Toronto hasn’t put together a win streak longer than two games since late January/early February of last season. Fact is, they’ve had just a single, solitary, two-game win streak this season. Fact is, they’ve allowed more goals per game than any other team in the league this year, and only the Edmonton Oilers have a less successful power play.
If now isn’t the right time for a Grade-A, blue-(and-white)-in-the-face freak out session, when exactly is? Must the panic have a corporate sponsor attached to it before Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment will take the necessary amount of action?
This is no slight against John Ferguson, Paul Maurice, or any of the Leafs’ hockey operations staff. Most, if not all of them, have had success working in other cities before they assumed their current duties in Toronto. And though neither the GM nor coach has performed to expectations with the Leafs, neither can be solely blamed for the team’s woeful showings.
To the contrary – both men are in the slow, painful process of being eaten up by MLS&E’s system; the only remaining question is the precise date they get spit out.
In Ferguson’s defense, even hockey’s smoothest operator could not operate in an organizational structure where his most important decisions had to be ratified by a collection of suits from the ACC’s director’s lounge. He has operated in an environment where parent company politics is in a dead heat with profit margin for primary importance – with championship aspirations running a close, but not close enough, third.
And MLS&E never seems to learn its lesson. The philosophy of NHL management by committee was first trumpeted by longtime company president Richard Peddie, was first implemented in the days of Ken Dryden, Mike Smith and Pat Quinn, and ended in infighting and abject failure; nevertheless, now there are rumblings ownership wishes to return to such an arrangement – only without prior hockey management experience as part of the equation – and go with a trio of big-name former players (i.e. Mark Messier, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis) instead.
That’d be swell, if you could locate an NHL city where that type of plan worked. Look around the league at the teams that win Stanley Cups, and you’ll see those teams have just one individual – Brian Burke, Jim Rutherford, Jay Feaster, Lou Lamoriello, Ken Holland, Pierre Lacroix – at the helm. Yeah, they have great support systems surrounding them, but there is no mistaking who makes the final call.
Contrast that with what goes on with the Leafs. Occasionally, one of their owners insists a marginal, broken-down player must be re-signed, and Tie Domi winds up with a contract that still triggers giggles throughout the league. Occasionally, the president decides the coach must stay, even though the new GM didn’t hire him, and Ferguson winds up working with Quinn, though neither man was especially pleased with the arrangement.
And look at the team’s managers now: Mike Penny, the Leafs’ assistant GM, is a leftover from the Quinn era. So is assistant coach Keith Acton. It’s as if MLS&E is leaving their version of a trail of breadcrumbs, to re-trace their steps and understand how they arrived in this mess in the first place.
Although the heat so far has been focused far more on Toronto’s GM than its coach, it would be best if both Ferguson and Maurice are shown the door. This is a disaster zone on par with the one the NHLPA needed Paul Kelly to clean up, and therefore requires nothing less than the full-broom treatment.
However, it’s not just the hockey ops side that should be shredded from top to bottom; the organizational structure also must be demolished. The board must cede complete control to Ferguson’s replacement, ensure Peddie never again utters a public comment on the team, and pray they hired the right guy for once.
Otherwise, if ownership continues on the same course and refuses to allow a singular voice to guide its hockey operations, it may as well install a three-headed monster consisting of Domi, Lil’ Jon and Elton John at the top, and fully embrace the franchise’s new status as the most hilarious joke in all of professional sport.
Or perhaps their Zamboni driver is looking for a new line of work. He’s far from the ideal candidate, but that’s never stopped the Leafs from hiring someone before.
Adam Proteau’s Screen Shots appears every Thursday only on thehockeynews.com. Want to take a shot at Adam Proteau? You can send him a comment or question through our Ask Adam feature.
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