Brian Burke promised there would be changes when he took over as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And, there have been.
It’s just that nobody expected it would be a change for the bad.
Toronto is now the only city in North America with two teams that have American Hockey League rosters.
In rebuilding the Leafs, Burke has left this team naked of much of its recent history.
Maybe, that isn’t such a bad thing.
Maybe this was a dirty job that someone had to do.
There was general acknowledgement that big changes were necessary.
But in the wake of the tsunami Burke has unleashed on the roster, there is a quiet, uneasiness that has enveloped a restless Leafs Nation.
There is no denying that today’s roster is weaker than the one — flawed as it was — that Burke has blown up.
People want to believe in Burke.
They want to believe he can rebuild the Maple Leafs as he did the Anaheim Ducks.
They want to believe he is constructing an Iron Curtain defence like he did in Vancouver.
They want to believe Phil Kessel can do here what the Sedin’s did in Vancouver.
But when looking at a roster of mostly college kids, untested rookies and a sprinkling of second-hand veterans that faith is being severely tested.
People look at what Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is selling and who can blame them for wondering about what they’re buying.
“At my office, we pay $300 for a pair of reds,” says Dan Asquini, a west-end realtor and retired government worker who has been a Leafs’ fan his entire 69 years.
“Plus, I personally share a pair of greens and they’re $180 a pair and my wife is a hockey nut too, so we’re there all the time. And, I’m looking at the roster. We have maybe seven bona fide NHLers and one top-six forward. If we’re an American Hockey league team and you can get top of the line tickets for twenty-five to fifty bucks why should I be paying this kind of money for a team when only 30% of the roster is NHL calibre.”
Asquini is not the only fan who has wondered this and phoned a newspaper.
Problem is, everyone knows the chances of the Leafs cutting ticket prices ranks right up there with Colton Orr winning the Lady Byng.
Will Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment raise prices next year? For these souls of generosity — Mother Teresa of hockey owners — anything is possible.
“I’ve been a lifetime Leafs’ fan but it’s starting to wear on me,” says Asquini.
He has company.
Fans expected that Burke would have to gut the place before rebuilding but few expected that the hole could get this dark and this deep.
Toronto fans are familiar with tough times.
Asquini had a pair of greys at Maple Leaf Gardens, lived down the street from Harold Ballard and has watched his favourite team struggle for decades but this, he says, is the worst.
“I’ve been around a long time. My uncle played in the NHL with Detroit and Chicago from 1947 to 1952, his name is on the Stanley Cup — Enio Sclisizzi. My cousin is John Tonelli (formerly of the Islanders), so we’re a hockey family. And, I’m just absolutely disgusted.”
It’s difficult not to blame him and other fans for wondering where Burke is leading them.
It doesn’t leave much for fans to get excited about when the only forward this side of Phil Kessel hitting for double figures in goals is Nikolai Kulemin.
Luke Schenn, not two years out of junior, is already third on the list in seniority as a Maple Leaf and John Mitchell — a nice enough fellow but still so obscure he’d have trouble getting recognized on any street corner in Leafs’ Nation — is in the Top Five.
Some people could argue it just gives National Hockey League boss Gary Bettman one more reason today not to allow an NHL team to move to Hamilton.
After all, it wouldn’t be fair to let them have one before Toronto gets one.
Gone from the beginning of the season are seven regulars: Nik Hagman, Jamal Mayers, Ian White, Matt Stajan, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak and Vesa Toskala.
That was the easy part. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is a little more complicated.
In its place, Burke now has the most inexperienced lineup in the NHL including Schenn, Kessel, Jonas Gustavsson, Carl Gunnarsson, Fredrik Sjostrom, Christian Hanson, Viktor Stalberg, Dion Phaneuf and now, 21-year-old Luca Caputi.
The old guard never got it done but it will also be a long time before any of the fresh faces, except for perhaps Kessel and Phaneuf, can be expected to take over as impact players.
The politest thing to be said about Gustavsson, Burke’s suggestion as the goaltender of the future, is that he’s been inconsistent.
“I’m all for the Phaneuf deal. But I’m fed up with people knocking Matt Stajan. He is 26 years old. At the time he was traded he was 26th in scoring among NHL centres. People say he’s not a first-line centre. Fine. But ge-e-e-zz he’s not a bad second-line guy and you’ve got to start somewhere, but (coach Ron) Wilson was always knocking him,” says Asquini.
Burke continues to speak about a quick turnaround, noting he isn’t interested in a five-year plan and that it didn’t take that long to go from also-ran to Stanley Cup in Anaheim.
But he was never this bereft of talent when he was in Anaheim. While Burke is much respected in the hockey world and mostly immune from criticism, he has left some people wondering ...
“I just see the bonehead things they’re doing. Two first-rounders and a second for KESSEL? COME ON! I don’t think that’ll ever look good,” says Asquini.
It might not be anywhere near as bad as Russ Courtnall for John Kordic but what if this faceless Toronto outfit doesn’t get it together for next season?
What if they hand over not one, but two early first-rounders?
Toronto’s fire department could be working overtime plucking guys in blue body paint off Bay Street office ledges.
“That’s what’s sickening. That’s what is so terrible about where this team is going. I just threw up my hands,” says Asquini.
Never before has he called a newspaper or the team.
He’s not a complainer.
He, too, wants to believe in Burke and his team.
But when Jean-Sebastian Giguere, the supposed answer to the goaltending problem, is playing saboteur, it isn’t easy to keep the faith.
Burke will add some free agents in the off-season to speed up the rebuild.
But even if that’s enough to start to turn the team around, by this time next year he’d already be halfway through that five-year plan he doesn’t have.
In other words, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak may have golden futures and Gustavsson could still be the second coming of Johnny Bower but there doesn’t seem much chance of that happening any time soon.
Actually, never mind it happening while we’re young; while we’re still breathing would be nice.
So, it all comes down to faith in Burke.
“I’ve been around a long time and followed hockey a long time,” says Asquini, “and I’m reaching the end of my rope.
I’m 69 years old and
I don’t think I’ll survive to see another parade down Yonge St.”
Faith, after all, only goes so far.