It’s that rock-bottom point in the season when you officially quit, give up. The playoff talk is ramping up and now I’m looking at the rest of the league for big matchups every evening to see how things will play out before April 7th. We’re all stuck staring at the standings and making predictions about who we think will face each other in the first round and which clubs will battle it out for the Cup. As much fun as that is, things were a lot more pleasant a few months ago. And now, for the boys in blue, it’s all over but the crying.

With an 8-point gap and only 11 games remaining, the Leafs will ride out the end to another failed season. It’s likely that the Florida Panthers will crack the top 8, leaving Toronto as the lone club without a playoff appearance since the lockout. To put that in perspective, when Roenick put the Leafs out (yes, Roenick seems ancient now) I was graduating high school. Turning 26 next month. Sad. I’ve never had a beer legally during a Leafs playoff game and thirty ain’t too far away.

Next season.

The idea was for the Leafs to barely nab a postseason berth this year, or nearly miss, then be looked upon as a lock for next season. Ready to run, right? Well that’s all changed within a month or so and now that the team is back to cellar-dwelling, I’m not sure what to think.

Whether you believe this is all part of the plan and Burke and co. shouldn’t veer off path is up to you. You’ll often hear folks say they don’t want Burke to mortgage the future for immediate success. Who would, really? But now things are so jumbled that I can’t tell what’s supposed to be the future or who is supposed to help us now.

“But the Leafs have prospect depth”

They do. They have some prospects. Other teams do too.

“The Leafs are young, have patience”

Oh, the big picture argument. Understandable, I guess. But it’s strange to me that Burke would eliminate a roster spot for one of these “future young stars” by locking up J-M Liles for four more years. Is that a future move? A now move? Someone should explain that one to me as part of the big picture.

There will be a section of Leafs fans that will also say “but this team was good in January and now that they’ve lost a bunch of games people are panicking.” Well, yeah. Nobody says the same thing about a winning team that they say about a loser. The Leafs are losers. They were winning for a while, and now they’re not. Professional sports are about results. Winners get praise, losers get criticism – pretty simple formula.

“Things were a mess when Burke took over”

Hm. When Burke took over. Oh, like, almost half-a-decade ago?

While things look better now than when Burke took over the Leafs, it doesn’t give everyone a free pass. Better than garbage can still be garbage, just less garbage-y.

Burke has been here a while, and things have gone from bad, to better, to the same, to now bad (or worst of all?). The Leafs may not even crack 80 points this season. And there’s no certain help on the way either, no guarantee that the team will be better the next time around. So while it’s said that this team shouldn’t go off path, what path are we talking about? A path to what? Who’s coming to help?

An enormous offseason awaits Burke and how he handles it will likely decide his future with the club. He’s mentioned that he’s not interested in a player that will take three years to chip in. For this reason I think that if the Leafs get buried from here on and end up with a lottery pick, he’ll hold on to it. There’s a chance a lottery guy could make a nice contribution within two years.

Keep in mind that a lottery pick is not the same as, say, a #8 pick, that’s why it’s a lottery pick. A lot of the time the drop off is quite significant outside the top three. Evidence? Evander Kane versus Nazem Kadri or Brayden Schenn. The idea that anything in the top ten is good is, well, false.

I think if the Leafs rip off a few wins here to end the season and end up with a lower pick (7-10 range) Burke will obviously be more inclined to shop it. So how the team performs in these remaining games and how Burke handles this off-season could be huge in shaping this club for the next five years, all of which need to be winning seasons. That sounds like pretty serious stuff, and it is.

I mean, for all of this losing, we should expect around three to five years of winning as a reward at some point, no?

As bad as this recent slide has been, it has set us up for the most important few months in Burke’s tenure by far.

This whole thing has taken it’s toll on Burke, as is evidenced with his recent attempts to control the media. He’s made mistakes, particularly in the area of free agent signings, that have blurred the lines between build, rebuild, whatever. Now he’s got limited time to get things on track, in some sort of direction.

I’ll hold off on saying I love where Burke is taking this club until that picture comes into focus.

Email and follow on twitter @rfancey3

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