TORONTO – Shaken, humbled and apologetic. This is the Toronto Maple Leafs as they’ve seldom been seen.
General manager Brian Burke capped another failed season Tuesday by echoing the mea culpa issued from other key members of the organization that now owns the NHL’s longest playoff drought of eight years.
“We have the best fans in the National Hockey League and all of pro sports and we need to deliver more,” Burke said during a relatively low-key 30-minute session with reporters. “That loyalty needs to be rewarded.”
His remarks followed an open letter to fans from Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum that ran in newspapers and on the team’s website, asking for forgiveness.
A similar note was sent to season ticket holders. Tom Anselmi, MLSE’s chief operating officer, went so far as providing his email address to each member of that group and has pledged to speak with every concerned member individually.
From top to bottom, the franchise is clearly embarrassed by its performance, and it went to great lengths to try to reassure the paying public. The Leafs may have sold out every home game for as long as anyone can remember, but they don’t want to be seen as taking that loyalty for granted.
“This is about winning, this is about doing right by your fans, this is what we’re all into this for,” said Anselmi. “Sports is a business, yeah, but it’s a business based on emotion and passion and caring.”
Toronto fans care, he said.
“They’re paying with after-tax dollars,” said Anselmi. “You owe them a great product and when it isn’t good enough that’s not good enough.”
The Leafs were not nearly good enough this season, at least over the final two months. They won just 10 of 33 games after the all-star break and missed the playoffs by 12 points in the Eastern Conference—tumbling all the way to 26th overall in the league.
Burke made sure to steer well clear of the panic button in his annual state-of-the-union address Tuesday, saying that his vision for building a winning team remains unchanged from the day he arrived in November 2008.
But this was far from a typical performance for the franchise’s most distinctive and powerful voice, who still seems to be coming to grips with the lack of success during his tenure. Burke famously dismissed the need for a five-year rebuilding plan the day he was hired and now finds himself heading into his fifth season at the helm.
“I was in the playoffs seven straight years before I got here,” said Burke. “This has been agonizing. I’m sure you can see it in my face, I haven’t slept in a month, two months.
“If fans think they’re disappointed, I can assure you the general manager is far more disappointed.”
It will be difficult to acquire every item on the team’s summer shopping list. Burke wants the Leafs to be able to dictate the game to opponents and that means more size and strength, including finding a centre to play on the top line. He’d also like to get another goaltender to play alongside James Reimer.
A thin free-agent class offers few solutions and the uncertainty hovering over negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement will complicate the decision-making process. But Burke believes he has the assets to be a player on the trade market, where he’s made his best moves as Leafs GM to date.
Amid the wreckage of a poor finish he was able to identify some reason for optimism.
“I’m trying to build a championship team here and that’s very hard to see today,” said Burke. “But the building blocks, the keys that you need—the Phil Kessels, the Joffrey Lupuls, the Jake Gardiners, the Dion Phaneufs, the second line—all those things have been put in place.
“And that’s what can’t be overlooked as you analyze and dissect a season. Even a season that’s marked by failure. I think we’re going in the right direction.”
There was a noticeable change in direction when Randy Carlyle replaced Ron Wilson on March 2 and the new coach has made it clear he’s going to hold everyone to a higher standard in the fall. In exit meetings, he challenged his players to improve their work ethic, conditioning and accountability.
Carlyle had a unique view on the late-season collapse after entering at the height of the chaos. From afar, he’d seen how much playing in Toronto can shatter a player’s confidence—he said it took Francois Beauchemin weeks to recover after being dealt back to Anaheim in February 2011—and spotted the trend early in his tenure with the Leafs.
“Confidence was the No. 1 thing that I would say this team did not have,” said Carlyle. “We were not a confident group. … It’s our job as a coaching staff to force, coddle, kick—whatever word you want to use—to get them to believe that they can do it.”
It’s a process the entire organization is going through.
On the financial side, the Leafs remain hockey’s version of the Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers and Manchester United. But in terms of performance they’re lagging behind the Panthers, Wild and Avalanche—and every other team in the NHL, all of whom have hosted playoff games since the lockout.
Toronto has been shut out since 2004, an almost unimaginable stretch for a marquee franchise.
“I’m not a patient person,” said Burke. “I was born impatient and I’m going to die impatient. I don’t like what’s happened here, I don’t like our lack of progress. Obviously, I’m driving the bus, I’m ultimately responsible and I’m not happy where we are today.
“I thought we’d be further ahead than we are right now.”
He’s far from alone.