TAMPA ó They say things have to get worse before they will get better.
The Maple Leafs keep coming back to that mantra around this time every year, when the optimism of October gives way to winter deep-freeze. But thereís another sad sign of the times around the corner, an ignominy on this yearís team that could arrive by the end of this trip in Florida.
Completing the erosion that started after the 2004-05 lockout, the Leafs are about to fall on the minus side for goal differential in their franchise history, one that stretches back to 11 Stanley Cups and further still to the Toronto St. Pats and Arenas, who helped christen the fledgling NHL in 1917.
Toronto enters Thursdayís game here with 18,326 goals for, 18,320 against, not quite the numbers worthy of a team with whose hierarchy still considers it a flagship in the league.
The Leafs have steadily lost goal ground since the work stoppage, now behind 136. That number has undone all the work begun by the first Cliff Fletcher administration in the early 90s and continued by Pat Quinn.
Fletcher inherited 12 seasons of 300-plus goals against, the legacy of the Harold Ballard ó Gerry McNamara era when young goalies and defencemen were sacrificed piece meal.
Coach Pat Burns cut it to under 250 goals against, while Quinn improved on that, getting it down as low as 204 before the league went on hiatus.
Now the Blue and White is almost back in the red, minus 40 this year alone, using up the last strands of their 46-goal rope it had in the autumn.
What Fletcher and Quinn had in their corner was steady goaltending in the Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour.
Just look at Quinn in Edmonton today without Nikolai Khabibulin, unable to repeat the turnaround the Leafs enjoyed with Curtis Joseph.
What Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson have to work with at present is Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala.
Not that the burden of guilt for years of decline should fall solely on those two goalies. Torontoís defence and penalty killing had issues for a long line time. But we arenít talking Bower and Sawchuk, either.
Gustavsson is called The Monster, but often resembles a lobster when he gets into the pressure cooker of game situations and starts flailing around, over-playing angles or mishandling pucks.
He must be given some leeway for adjustments to a new league, new country and two heart procedures, yet heíll turn 26 this year.
As good a goalie guru as Francois Allaire is, five months of tutoring has not made Gustavsson a Kwai Chang Caine to his Master Po, snatching pebbles from his hand to show the teacher heís ready to take on the world. There are technical deficiencies that Gustavssonís size havenít yet compensated for, but might with patience.
Toskalaís three-year tenure in Toronto has produced 62 wins. That doesnít make him a washout, but does nothing to prove the San Jose Sharks were wrong to keep Evgeni Nabokov and deal the Finn here.
Toskalaís a pleasant enough fellow, doesnít hide from the media after games, has had some fleeting moments of stardom. But his .874 save percentage sticks out, he was party to many of the 55 one-goal losses the team absorbed the past three years and to 51 defeats by three or more.
Mostly, he never quite steals that one win that might spark him and the team to ride a wave of confidence.
An unrestricted free agent at yearís end, Toskala could at least have had a chance to write a ticket to a contender at the trade deadline had he been better, even by three or four wins to enliven the playoff race.
Yet neither man had won two straight starts since Toskala more than a month ago. Neither could they hold the multi-goal leads the Leafs finally supplied them with early this week, though thatís a team-wide confidence issue.
If Wilson sticks with a rotation, it will be Gustavsson against the Lightning on Thursday and Toskala to wrap up the trip Saturday in Sunrise.
If the Leafs canít tread water above the differential line, at least this state has plenty of lifeguards on duty.