It’s easy to predict how fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs view the future of their hockey club, but much harder to know what the reality of the situation is.
Blue and White boosters have long donned rose-colored glasses to protect them from the searing sadness of their situation, reaching for unfounded optimism in the face of blatant badness.
(And really, isn’t that what being a fan of any team should be about? Life is full of hard realities; being a sports fan is about temporarily insulating yourself from them, even if it requires a little self-delusion.)
Where Toronto is headed is being debated all over town thanks to the young team’s 9-5-2 record since the Olympic break.
Success doesn’t have to occur on a grand scale to get the “wait until next year” train rolling.
Certainly there are sources of hope in Leafland, from the presence of a genuine sniper in Phil Kessel, to the slick puck skills of Tyler Bozak to the fact Jonas Gustavsson is striking a better balance between athleticism and technique in the crease.
The Leafs are very young. A dressing room that had grown stale and cynical has been completely overhauled in the past couple years and there are more moves on the way, to be executed by a GM, in Brian Burke, who has quite an accomplished resume.
But as much as all that adds up to – at the very least, a reasonable starting point – it’s important to point out progress is one tough thing to definitely predict.
Yes, if you’ve drafted Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal within four years of each other, chances are things are going to improve soon.
Ditto for adding Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in consecutive years.
That said, drawing up a list of face-slapping left turns is no tougher an exercise.
I wonder how Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson would have responded to any questions about his team’s long-term goaltending prospects after last year’s NHL Awards, where 21-year-old Steve Mason won rookie of the year and was runner-up for the Vezina? For that matter, how would Howson have felt about the overall trajectory of his young team, which was coming off its first-ever playoff showing thanks to Mason and the play of Rick Nash, a superstar just entering his prime?
Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was probably thinking about a lot of things after his team won the Cup in 2006, thanks to a Conn Smythe performance from 22-year-old Cam Ward. I couldn’t say for sure, but my guess is none of those thoughts produced the scenario whereby Ward’s save percentage the next year would be .897, which contributed to the Hurricanes missing the playoffs as defending champs…before falling short again the next year.
Conversely, guess where we – and everyone else in the objective world – had the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes slotted to finish this year? Try 14th and 15th in the West.
None of this is intended to push a giant rain cloud over the Air Canada Centre or any other place where Leafs fans are clinging to a little late-season rattle from a team or player as a sign next October can’t get here fast enough.
The point is that traversing from Point A to Point B in the world of professional sports is a maddening, twisted challenge. It’s tough to hang your helmet on the continued development of even the most solid-looking young players, let alone a group of kids who are, at most, achieving a modicum of success while having nothing to play for aside from proving they can play at all.
Maybe ‘The Monster’ will be the answer. Maybe “Bozak to Kessel” will become a call feared around the league.
Just know if that’s not the case, the magnitude of that surprise will pale in comparison to other eyebrow-raising regressions in recent history.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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