Plenty wrong with lowly Leafs

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

If you are a Leafs fan who knows a Canadiens fan, you've probably received the mass e-mail joke at some point this season.

It goes something like this:

Leafs coach Ron Wilson calls out for the first line to hit the ice and nobody gets up. When he asks for the third line, 12 men in blue jump the boards.

Might be funnier if there wasn't so much truth to it as the harsh reality of this season of low expectations settles in.

If this miserable month of November doesn't end soon enough, the Leafs will be the butts of many more wisecracks.

Where to start with a team that fooled many opponents, fans, and potential critics with a better than expected October but has now regressed to the pre-season prognostications, losing four in a row and eight of its past 10 games?

How about with its league-high (prior to last night) 78 goals against? Or the league's worst penalty kill? Or goalies that make the cage seem as big as a soccer net for opposition shooters?

The funkier the current skid gets, the more it appears the team we saw in October was an overachieving bunch that fooled all but coach Ron Wilson and his staff.

If there is such a thing as bottoming out 21 games into a season, it came in Tuesday's 6-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers.

It wasn't just the score, or the ho-hum opponent, but the fact that the Leafs were pushed around by a less than imposing guest.

"I hope it's a wakeup call, it should be," forward/defenceman Ian White said yesterday of the disgraceful showing. "Frankly it was embarrassing with our effort in terms of standing up for guys."

Embarrassing and potentially job threatening with the imminent arrival of Brian Burke, who generally favours the time-honoured tradition of having a couple heavyweights in his lineup.

Opposing teams already have taken notice that the Leafs have, at best, welterweights in Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg.

And when a 19-year-old kid (Luke Schenn) often is the first to jump to the aid of a teammate, how can you not try to be the bully and take liberties with the Leafs?

Next up in the list of things that need to be fixed is the mess in net, a spot where the Leafs had hoped to be at the least respectable.

Vesa Toskala continues to stay deep in his crease where he can't challenge shooters and doesn't seem capable of making a game-changing save.

Curtis Joseph is 0-for-3 after Tuesday's loss and is starting to show his age (41).

The league-high goals against has to come as a shock to Wilson who figured his team would be locked in plenty of low-scoring affairs.

Instead, bettors wise enough to back the "over" in Leafs games have been getting fat thanks to 11 of the past 12 games hitting a combined six goals or more.

Team defence has been atrocious at times as forwards camp in front of Toskala and Joseph and get clear wacks at loose pucks.

"Playing defence is not hard, it's hard work," Leafs assistant coach Tim Hunter said after yesterday's practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena, which was spent almost entirely working on defensive-zone drills.

FEW BRIGHT SPOTS

Back to the team of third liners. There hasn't been much up front other than the skill of Niklas Hagman and the resolve of Matt Stajan.

On Tuesday, Wilson put newcomer Lee Stempniak on a line with Jason Blake and Dominic Moore for his Leafs debut but quickly decided he wouldn't learn what skills he had in the recent acquisition with that line combo. So Stempniak got some time with the top unit of Stajan and Nik Antropov.

White, who spent the first chunk of the season as a healthy scratch defencemen, suddenly is one of the team's most consistent forwards. Good for White, but that wouldn't happen with many NHL teams.

So good luck to Burke this weekend or Monday or whenever he takes over as the Leafs general manager.

The cupboard is as bare by design as Fletcher said it would be in his pre-season state-of-the-franchise address. And that, Leafs fans, is no joke.


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