Things Lost, Things Delayed – Maple Leafs Edition

There’s some hope the NHL lockout, now about two months old, will end and there may even be a 60-70 game regular season commencing by December. There’s interest, if not enthusiasm, that a CBA may be near, even though some fans have satisfied their hockey fix with the AHL, junior hockey and even KHL.

There will someday be NHL hockey again. We’ve lost games, salaries, revenues, all of it tracked. But more than that has been lost, or at least delayed. There’s storylines, points of interest and intrigue that each teams’ fans looked forward to. In Los Angeles, they wait to start the season when they’d reign as the league’s best, defending the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. In Minnesota, they’re eager to don their new Suter and Parise sweaters, wondering when they’ll get that chance. It’s no different for Leaf fans.

The Leafs’ collapse in the second half of the 2011-12 season, the firing of Ron Wilson, Brian Burke’s perceived inability to make significant deals and a continued lack of playoff hockey put a great deal of pressure on the 2012-13 season. The off-season offered a mixed bag of pluses and minuses – the acquisition of a promising power forward; no deal for a top-notch NHL goalie; anticipation for the 2013 Winter Classic – in addition to the ‘normal’ questions – is Gardiner that good? Will Kadri make the team? How does this team get better? Now, all of that is either cancelled or put on hold.

Likely the biggest disappointment is the cancellation of the Winter Classic. Leaf fans as a group are fairly sensitive, enduring slings and arrows over their team’s poor record over the past four decades. Still, the Leafs have a huge and devoted fanbase. For many of those fans, the 2013 Winter Classic was far too long in coming. In the two Heritage Classics and five Winter Classics since 2003, the Leafs were never participants – despite that the other five ‘Original Six’ teams have been, and Montreal, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have participated in two of these events each. Many teams, some very worthy of being rewarded with a premiere event such as a Winter Classic, are also waiting for their first turn. That doesn’t ease the pain of having this event scheduled, where the Leafs would play one of their traditional rivals in front of possibly the largest crowd gathered for an ice hockey match, and then wiped out by lockout. Who knows when or if the chance will come again, as it’s too early to know for certain there will be other Winter Classics or if the Leafs would be asked to participate.

Along with the loss of the Winter Classic goes HBO’s 24/7 Road To The Winter Classic. Fans were eager to see their favourite players featured in this popular HBO series. The cancellation of the game, and the fact there is no NHL hockey (the ‘road to’ part) eliminates the series altogether. And again, who can say if there would be a feature such as this in the future. The documentary is but one of the ‘added-value’ type of features to the Winter Classic, which was to include additional supporting events, including AHL, NHL Alumni, junior and college games, many of those to be held at Detroit’s Comerica Park. All of these things are, for the foreseeable future, not going to happen.

Mats Sundin
Mats Sundin will go into the Hall of Fame, but will have to wait to be honoured at the Air Canada Centre. (Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI)

Speaking of alumni, another casualty of the lockout is the annual ‘Hall of Fame Game’. Beginning in 1999, the league scheduled a game as part of the Induction Weekend between the Leafs and a visitor, before which the year’s class of Hall of Fame inductees would be honoured. The 2012 Induction Class includes Mats Sundin, the former Maple Leaf captain and all-time leading scorer. Now, Sundin has been honoured by the franchise already, and it’s not like he and the other inductees can’t be honoured with a ceremony once the NHL gets working again. But there is something special that people attending the game in Toronto and watching on Hockey Night in Canada were able to do – show their appreciation during the Induction Weekend for the Hall of Fame’s newest members. That one of the great Leafs of all time will have that delayed is another unfortunate consequence of the lockout.

Of course, it’s not just the special events that we’re all missing. Each season begins with a certain amount of hope – a good season, a playoff berth, perhaps the chance to win a championship. For Leaf fans, there’s a number of questions on their minds, and only NHL games can provide answers. For Toronto, still without much success and approaching the fourth anniversary of Brian Burke’s hiring, the delay in on-ice activity means not knowing the state of the team.

Randy Carlyle coach
Coach Carlyle must wait until a CBA is in place before he can try to right the Leafs’ ship. (John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE)

Randy Carlyle took over as head coach to start March 2012, and was unable to do better than a 6-9-3 record. The hopeful in LeafNation believe that if Carlyle had a full training camp, and the proper opportunity to evaluate his team, choose his roster and teach them his systems, he’d produce a much better record. But that work cannot begin until a new CBA is in place. Unfortunately for Carlyle, it’s quite likely he will need to work through a shortened camp and hope his charges are able to improve on what was a woeful team defence last season.

Hopes also rest on a group of young players, especially guys named Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton. Yes, these players are currently playing in the AHL with the Marlies. Luckily for fans, the Marlies play just a few miles away from the Leafs, and a few games have made it onto premium TV broadcast channels. But, the faithful are much more interested to know if the young talent assembled by Burke are bonafide NHL players. Gardiner was a pleasant surprise in his rookie NHL season, and he continues to play well with 4 goals and 7 points through 11 games. Playing in the AHL while the NHL is out can only benefit him. However, the lockout delays answers where Kadri, Colborne and Ashton are concerned. Time with the Marlies can’t necessarily hurt them, but it was thought that certainly Kadri and Colborne (and to a lesser extent Ashton) are at a point where they will win NHL jobs or be ticketed as career minor-pro players. As long as the NHL is locked out, the organization and the fans will have to wait to see if these guys are, in fact, ready for the big show.

Similarly, there are two guys in James Reimer and James van Reimsdyk who also have question marks surrounding them. Reimer is tabbed as the number one netminder in the organization, and started 2011-12 well until he was sidelined with injury. He never quite looked the same upon his return. And now there is uncertainty because Reimer is still a relatively untested commodity. With only 71 games of NHL experience, is he the 2010-11 world-beater? Was his 2011-12 derailed by the injury? LeafNation will have to wait to see if Reimer can be the rock-solid backstop the franchise needs or if he is simply a stop-gap.

The thing about van Reimsdyk is that he’s Burke’s major summer acquisition, and fans are anxious to see what they’ve got in the big forward. The long-rumored deal was finally consummated, seeing Luke Schenn sent to Philadelphia. Van Reimsdyk is a big body, with good offensive potential, but he is not known for physicality and has a reputation for being easily injured. There has already been much speculation as to whether the coach will use him as a centre or a wing, and fans wonder how he fits in to what was already a decent offense (the Leafs were 10th in goals/game last season). Will this additon vault the Leafs’ forward corps to ‘elite’ status? Will the Leafs miss Schenn more than they’ll appreciate van Reimsdyk? Those answers must wait until a season is announced.

The bottom line for Toronto is that everything is on hold. In many ways, 2012-13 is (yet another) pivotal season for the franchise. The Leafs are not alone in that regard, many teams have issues and questions surrounding them. With GM Burke well into his mandate, looming questions on player personnel, and now the loss of a couple of special events, the lockout is making for an uneasy start to what should have been a very interesting season.

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