Good News: Big Picture Dept.

Good News: Big Picture Dept.

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I know, I know, when last we met, I promised you that the next installment in these studies in positivity would focus on Nikolai Kulemin.

Well, I lied.  Sue me.  Instead of discussing an individual player, I’m going to make some more general team-wide observations.  Don’t like it?  Line up at window 106 between the hours of 1 and 1:05 p.m., fill out the forms in triplicate, be sure to bring your receipt and three forms of photo I.D. and  the counter staff will be happy to refund in full the money you paid for these charming and entertaining visits to my mind.  Really, though, following Bruce Boudreau’s logic concerning the Ovechkin hit on Brian Campbell (and the obvious liability of the end boards and equally obvious innocence of Ovie), it’s not my fault that I broke my promise to you;  it’s your fault for reading that promise in the first place.

The Leafs have been on quite a little run over the last little while.  They are 7-3 in their last ten and, aside from a clunker in St. Louis before the Olympic break, a snore-fest on Long Island, and the athletic entertainment equivalent of a high colonic enema against   the Panthers on Monday night, you have to admit that the team has played reasonably well.  Hands down for a moment, naysayers, no need to point out that the Leafs‘ recent success has hardly come at the expense of the 1975 Montreal Canadiens, that doesn’t add much to the discussion; not many teams are really that good.  You naysayers are a tiring lot, that way.  Did you know that almost half of the teams in the NHL have below average talent?  And NONE of them have won the Stanley Cup this year!  Anyway, naysayers, your point is taken – the Leafs have been feasting on a steady diet of weak sister sauce.

The Good Newsâ„¢, though, is that they’ve been growing fat on it.  Not just regular fat, either.  Kyle Wellwood fat.

“Balderdash!” you say.  “Humbug and [expletive deleted].  The Leafs are just on their annual Surge When it’s Too Late For Howard Berger to Think it Matters Extravaganza.”  This line of logic sees Leaf wins at this time of year, while positioned at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference table as pure effrontery:  a Blue and White thumb inserted firmly in the fan’s eye.  According to this line of thinking, late February and early March wins are naught but this year’s model in the long line of MLSE products supposed to have been designed solely to add to the frustration quotient in your life.

The problem with this line of thinking this year is that there is reason to have hope for the future.  Just think for a minute about the way the team wearing the Blue and White sweaters played earlier this year (warning: if you are a Senators fan, do NOT attempt thinking without sitting down first, preferably in heavy traffic.)  Ask yourself one question:  when was the last time you heard the television broadcast crew tell you, “that’s the [x]th time in [y] games this season that the Leafs have given up the first two goals of the game.”  Sweet Jeebus, for the first three months of the season, the Leaf broadcast crew spoke these words about as often as the national anthem was sung before the game.  It was a mortal lock, for heaven’s sake;  I’m pretty sure that in Vegas, they wouldn’t let you bet on whether this phrase would be uttered, and they let you bet on anything in Vegas.  I know this to be true, because they let me bet on the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl.  My point is this:  somehow, whether through the injection of youth or the subtraction of Stajan, the Leafs‘ team culture has transformed so that they frequently begin playing the game at or around the time of the opening faceoff.  You know, as in “at or around the same time that the opposition starts to play.”   Trust me when I say this, my brothers and sisters, I know that it is sad and pathetic that this little development counts as “progress” around these parts, but it does.  It really does.

Little things like not standing around with thumbs up nostrils during the first two periods, and playing with some speed and a determined forecheck – these things have been producing results.  Prior to the game against Florida on Monday, the Leafs had scored first in five straight games.  Continuing to play for the whole game has also helped; recently, the Leafs have even won a couple of games in overtime and/or the shootout.  I swear, the Leafs’ record in bonus time has been so bad since the lockout, if you had only attended Leaf games over the last four years or so, it is entirely possible that you’d have no idea that Toronto was even eligible to tally an extra point after the completion of the third period.

There are other specific facets of the game that have also shown recent improvement.  The penalty killing unit, formerly something Leafs fans were proud of in the same way that Alberta is proud of Nickelback, has  actually managed to occasionally prevent the other team from scoring (since the exile of Vesa Toskala).  Overall team effort has improved.  The goaltending has gotten better.  The guy wearing the number 39 sweater is no longer playing more like Joni Mitchell than John Mitchell.  The stupid penalty parade has slowed to a manageable trickle.  A bounce or two has gone our way, rather than in our net, which is what happened almost without exception earlier in the season.

My point is not that the Leafs have arrived.  Brian Burke’s work building this team is not yet done.  Rather, my point is that since – oh, approximately January 31st, thank you very much Darryl Sutter, hope you enjoy your upcoming “retirement” – the Leafs have been a better team.  Things aren’t perfect, but they’re very definitely trending in a positive direction.

The Good Newsâ„¢ is all that, but it’s more than that:  this team isn’t just playing better, it’s a younger team, a team that now resembles much more closely than it did two months ago the Maple Leaf team that will be a contender two years from now.  There is a core of youth on this team that is gobbling up minutes, playing in all situations, and showing not only that it can succeed somewhat now, but also that it can get better.  Ask yourself another question (careful, Sens fans – here comes that “thinking” thing again.  Be sure you’re properly rested, and wear a helmet before giving this one a try):  when was the last time you felt the Leafs were both improving AND a young team?   I posed that question at the end of my last post in this series, and dmnted brought up the Hound Line.   That goes back to the mid 1980s, ladies and gents, a time when Joe Piscopo was believed to be funny, a time when stone washed jeans were required by law, and a time when I suspect a lot of the eyes currently flicking over these words on a computer screen somewhere weren’t even born yet.

That, however, is precisely what is going on right now with Burkie’s charges.  Argue amongst yourselves about the degree of progress that’s been achieved over the last year – some will see more to like about the team than others – but I would suggest it’s difficult not to agree that, at least in some measure, things are getting better. So the Leafs are getting better, and they now have the youngest team in the league.  It may not be a recipe for immediate success;  it may not even be a recipe for playoff hockey next year, but it’s a recipe for hope.  And that, my friends, is the Good Newsâ„¢.

UPDATE: I originally neglected to include a glove tap to Down Goes Brown for starting the #BruceBoudreauLogic meme on Twitter.  Also, the royalty cheque is in the mail for the “Wellwood is Fat” joke.  My bad.  Thanks to Garrett for mentioning the Boudreau meme in the comments.

Next up in this series:  Nikolai Kulemin. Seriously, unless he gets like run over by a bus or something.

More of Junior’s cane-waving get-off-my-lawnery may be found at www.heroesinrehab.ca/blog, or (in 140 characters or less) on Twitter by following @warwalker.  Effusive praise and poorly-reasoned criticism may be directed via email to warwalker[at]heroesinrehab.ca.

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