Since Air Canada Centre opened in February of 1999, the arena has hosted just 44 NHL playoff games – and only three since 2004. In keeping with that abysmal tradition, there will be no post-season hockey to enjoy this spring in Toronto; the Maple Leafs are out of the playoffs for the eighth time in the past nine seasons, leaving their fans despondent and Bon Jovi concert promoters thrilled at the possibility of more open dates for shows.
But picture the same scenario playing out, only with the Leafs chock-full of dynamic young players who are now ready to contribute in a significant fashion. That’s what should’ve happened immediately after the 2004-05 lockout season, but for too long Leafs fans have been told – either by former GM Brian Burke explicitly, or by ownership’s actions implicitly – that Torontonians have no appetite for a long-term rebuild. Instead, the franchise made a t-shirt cannon for money, and aimed it at whichever high-profile free agent du jour came along in the hope they could arrive at their final destination faster than they otherwise would have.
Whether it was Jason Blake in 2007, Mike Komisarek in 2009, or David Clarkson last summer, the Leafs have succumbed to temptation at virtually every turn and wound up regretting it almost immediately thereafter. The ability to write checks to paper over their structural issues has stunted their growth on the drafting and development front, even after Burke arrived in 2008 and drastically bulked up their scouting staff. They’re not totally bereft of young talent, but THN’s 2014 Future Watch edition ranked them 29th out of 30 teams. That is as unacceptable as any on-ice disaster their fans have seen this season.
Teams that consistently succeed under the NHL’s cap system do so because they produce cost-effective young talent and augment it with high-priced veterans. In Toronto, the converse is true. (Of course, you can look at teams like the Edmonton Oilers as an example of long-term rebuilds going awry, but they’re the rule’s exception. Ask the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche or the L.A. Kings; all of those teams had to endure sustained agony before their youth matured and pushed them to the next level.)
Because the Leafs have refused to build the right way, it will take them just as long this time to correct what obviously is wrong. That same temptation to use the franchise’s bursting coffers to reverse course or accelerate the plan they have in place is always going to be there, particularly considering the 50th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup victory is just three years away. So it will take a strong management member (I’m looking at you, Tim Leiweke) to stare down the team’s board of governors and tell them the truth: Leafs fans are the one team in the league that does have the appetite to deal with a long-term rebuild. They'll eat anything. They’re buying tickets regardless of Toronto’s record. They’re in it for the long haul.
Pretending otherwise is little more than an excuse to justify a lust for playoff revenue. But the past doesn’t lie. Forty-four playoff games in 15 years, or the equivalent of one first-round loss per season, is an indictment of Toronto's corporate philosophy under Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. And no amount of corporate grovelling – including full-page newspaper apology ads, or free pre-season games paid for by a soft drink company – is going to satisfy any irate Leafs fan. They've heard this song-and-dance before and they're sick of the music and the movement.
Changing the coach, GM or any roster player won’t matter a lick if that philosophy stays the same.