TORONTO - Tough to be a Maple Leaf these days.
Consider the kicks to the groin the organization suffered this weekend, a double whammy that came in the form of Phil Kessel sitting all by his lonesome as the all-star draft dwindled down to one remaining player, or that a quarter of NHL players polled were firm in their belief that Ron Wilson would be the coach they would least like to play for.
Only the Leafs could lose more of the lustre that mostly has been gone for years when they’re lying on a beach, their thoughts hundreds of miles away from the Air Canada Centre.
Still, it was a somewhat, certainly not overly, optimistic bunch that returned to practice on Monday at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke, trying to convince themselves that a run to the playoffs could result in something tangible.
With the Florida Panthers at the ACC on Tuesday evening, the Leafs find themselves with 43 points, 14 behind the eighth-place Atlanta Thrashers in the Eastern Conference. It’s a safe bet that come April 10, those vacations can resume with the conclusion of the regular season.
“Everybody got their rest, and everyone had little bumps and bruises, and hopefully those went away,” Clarke MacArthur said. “We have to start winning games. That’s a lot of ground to make up. It’s going to take the rest of the season if we are going to get in there.”
The Leafs will try to comfort themselves with the fact that they will play each of the other six teams (as well as the Thrashers) that aren’t in the Eastern playoff picture at least once in the next three weeks. Even if they win out, which they won’t, nothing regarding a first post-season appearance since 2004 would be guaranteed.
To a man, the Leafs on Monday said that a) there’s little to not like about playing for Wilson, and b) the attention being paid to the fact that Kessel was the last picked for the all-star game in Raleigh, N.C., is ridiculous.
The common thread for both Kessel and Wilson, neither of whom were at practice (Kessel resting, no doubt, and Wilson in Hershey, Pa., to watch the induction of his late father Larry into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame) is that NHL players were doing the talking.
Kessel, many of his Leafs teammates pointed out, should be proud that he was considered among the top 36 players in the National Hockey League, and that those players who indicated they would not want to play for Wilson don’t know him.
We have to wonder how 24% of 318 players who were asked in the poll by Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL Players’ Association came to the conclusion that Wilson is not a guy they would want to play for. Are there some squeaky wheels, as Pat Quinn used to call what he thought might be dressing-room leaks, in the hallowed halls at Bay and Lakeshore? After all, players talk to players, right?
And as far as Kessel goes, is there something more to his last-pick draft status than just being that unlucky guy?
Whatever the case in either situation, the Leafs needed more negative attention like the Raptors need losses.
What both lightning rods point to in the bigger picture is that this is a bad Leafs hockey team that does not indicate it will be much better in the immediate future.
That’s where the concern should lie for anyone who works for the organization, not whether Kessel was picked last or that Wilson is unpopular.
“Right now, we are at where we are at because of us players, not our coaching staff,” captain Dion Phaneuf said. “Every team will say that, whether they are winning or losing. The coaches do not put the skates on, we do. Right now, we want to move up and we want to get better, and that is our goal in the second half.”