There must be nights, Tuesday night being one of them, when Brian Burke must cringe when watching his hockey team play.
So often, the Maple Leafs lack purpose. So often, they seem to be none of the things he wants them to be: truculent, abrasive, belligerent, pugnacious. Those are his words, not his team.
So often he must look at the Leafs roster and decipher the difference between his players -- those he acquired and those he inherited -- and realize just how far this franchise has to go to be anywhere near what he wants them to be.
This was Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, almost empty enough that it took on the look of a Florida Panthers home game. This was another sleepwalking weeknight with a sleepwalking crowd who only seemed to react when Bryan McCabe had the puck for Florida or when a Team Canada score was flashed on the large scoreboard.
Same old, same old
Otherwise, another week night of same old, same old, and if you were watching from home at least you could turn the channel. If there is one thing Burke doesn't want to be it's boring. He has an actual appreciation for the fans. He doesn't want a team like this. He wants more. He wants, at least, a sense of the occasion, which was barely evident on another sleepy night at the ACC.
This wasn't just another scheduled game for the should-be desperate Leafs. They were playing the Panthers. The Leafs are 14th in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers 13th.
This is the kind of game necessary to make any kind of playoff run in the watered down conference. You need two points. You can't afford to give up any. You have to make things count when you have the chance.
But if there was a sense of desperation from the Leafs, I suppose I missed it. They did bounce back from a 2-0 deficit in the first period and they've shown that capacity throughout the season. But what they canít show, and too often have, is an inability to rise to the occasion, to beat the Islanders when theyíre playing the Islanders, or the teams sitting between them and a playoff position.
It is nearly ridiculous how close and how uneven the Eastern Conference race is. Heading into last night there were eight points separating the 7th place New York Rangers and the 14th place Leafs. To even be able to move up is a combination of luck and good fortune.
You have to win your games and hope everybody else either loses theirs or avoids those foolish three-point spread the wealth games. The Leafs can at least control their end of the situation, when they play well. But that's been a week to week proposition with this team.
A team that was supposed to be hard to play against, in your face, with more sandpaper than Leaf teams of recent years. But the statistics don't bear any of that out: truth in numbers, the Leafs haven't taken this few penalties in a year, which wasn't what Burke was talking about in the summer. Maybe they canít be as truculent as he wants them to be because they canít kill penalties.
Bad enough that this Leaf team is last in the NHL shorthanded, but theyíre last in the NHL over the past 25 years. Yes, no team has been this bad killing penalties, which had to have been corrected by coach Ron Wilson, but hasnít been. This is Wilsonís second season as coach. In each season, the Leafs have been worst in the league when playing a man short. In fairness, Paul Mauriceís teams werenít much shorthanded either, but at least they were 29th and 27th in his two seasons.
Also, in Wilson's two Toronto seasons, the Leafs have been 29th and 30th in goals against, which is hardly playoff material. In two the previous Maurice years, the Leafs were 27th and 25th.
Translation: The seven players Burke added to the Leafs since last season represent nothing more than a beginning. This remains a roster crying for change. Too many of the incumbents are just good enough to get you beat. Truculence is more about the future than the present.