TORONTO - Of all that drives Brian Burke crazy — and there are many things — little rankles him more than the fact the Montreal Canadiens have made the playoffs in the very same seasons that Burke’s Maple Leafs have not.
Burke has sat back and quietly stewed watching the speedy, under-sized, not terrifically talented Canadiens play their way into April and sometimes May while his own creation — and all that he has inherited — has yet to come close to the post-season.
And for the Leafs to have anything resembling a successful season, they’re going to have to be better than the Habs. That’s for starters. Then there’s a few other teams they have to be better than to find their way to the post-season for the first time in Burke’s control of everything here in the centre of the hockey universe.
The journey has been longer and more arduous than he might have imagined when he signed up for the job in November of 2008. He thought with a little weight, a little money, a little truculence, a little Toronto cachet, the world’s largest front office and just a pinch of his own historical ability to make the impossible possible, that would be the prescribed recipe for Maple Leafs success.
Instead, some poor decisions, some bad contracts, the worst special teams in hockey, not enough truculence, a steal or two on his part, and what they have is a team that should battle with New Jersey, the Rangers, Montreal, Carolina, and maybe Winnipeg and the Islanders, for the final two playoff spots. Six teams for two spots. If you believe that Brad Richards upgrades the Rangers, it’s more likely to be four teams for one spot, excluding Winnipeg and Long Island.
Which makes the Leafs about a 25% shot at qualifying for the post-season. And those odds may leave Burke with more explaining to do.
Which is why he is playing the distraction game these days. He’s talking a lot about 1967. It’s his new favourite hobby horse. He spoke about it in April when the season ended, claiming this group of Leafs bears no responsibility for all these years without a Stanley Cup. In that, he is correct, even though nobody really had held this group accountable for all that.
He repeated that same mantra the other day on television — once Burke finds a quote he likes, he doesn’t let go of it — claiming again that these Leafs don’t have to be responsible for Punch Imlach trading Darryl Sittler away or Pat Quinn making the Owen Nolan deal. In fairness, none of the Leafs were alive when George Armstrong slid the puck into the empty net to give the Leafs their last championship — against the Canadiens. Much like Burke, they have nothing to be responsible for except their time in Toronto.
And, so far, that time is about promises unfulfilled. And about finishing behind the Canadiens in each of Ron Wilson’s seasons in Toronto, which coincide with each of Burke’s Toronto campaigns.
The Habs have had superb goaltending — either with Carey Price now, or Jaroslav Halak previously — while the Leafs have searched for goalies. They believe they have one now in James Reimer. More importantly, he believes he can be that kind of franchise goalie and if you spend five minutes with Reimer, you would believe too. Matching the Price of last season is too much to ask of any goalie. Price was robbed of a Vezina Trophy nomination and was a reasonable candidate for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
Price has to equal his own brilliance to keep this ordinary Montreal team in the hunt, just as Reimer has to play to star level to keep the Leafs competitive. One has done it. The other hasn’t. That’s why, as they say, they play the games.
But playoffs or not, these are not your father’s Canadiens. Their captain is American. Their best goal scorer is a kid from Richmond Hill. Their best defencemen, a Russian, is injured again and his future is in doubt. Their future best defencemen is a wonderful talent who has the amazing ability to annoy the team he plays for as much as he annoys the team he plays against.
They are not Les Glorieux anymore. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since the four months before the Blue Jays last won the World Series.
Canada’s favourite team is equally confusing: They have an American running the club, a pseudo-American coaching, and since last season ended they have added three American forwards, two American defenceman, two American assistant coaches, but, remember, all of this is coincidental. But one thing Burke hasn’t done is sit still: Of the 20 players expected to dress against Montreal, eight are making their opening night debuts as Leafs.
It’s all fresh, all new right now. Burke is correct about one thing. The history is irrelevant as this new season begins. The last time the Leafs won the Cup, they beat Montreal in the finals. This much we believe: To get to the playoffs, they’ll have to do the same this season.