The bad news is, the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking more and more like the playoff bubble team many pre-season pundits believed they’d be.
The good news is, there was genuine good news for the Buds before the bad news kicked in. In Toronto’s first four games of the regular season, their forwards and defensemen played like they had actual confidence in their goaltending – an occurrence that’s been rarer at the Air Canada Centre than a missed opportunity to take Leafs fans by the ankles, hold them upside down, and shake them until all their disposable income falls out.
Those first four games also saw the Leafs play aggressive, up-tempo hockey, and their penalty kill – last season, a disaster of Gulf Oil Spill proportions – bailed them out as required.
So please, Toronto fans, spare us the hand-wringing and gnawed-off cuticles. You’re not allowed to get overly pessimistic before 10 per cent of the season is completed.
Besides, it could be much, much worse.
The Leafs could be the Ottawa Senators, winners of just two of their first eight games, and employers of a $5-million-a-year non-factor named Alexei Kovalev.
The Leafs could be the Edmonton Oilers, a team that won its first two games, but has since lost its next four – and in regulation time.
Toronto could be the New Jersey Devils, a franchise that has been a model of consistent competitiveness, yet which now languishes at the very bottom of the NHL (at least, in terms of win percentage).
The Senators, Oilers and Devils all have something in common: each has a defense corps that is shallow, soft and simply not as talented when compared to Toronto’s.
And that’s the advantage that GM Brian Burke is counting on to get the Leafs into the playoffs. Burke and coach Ron Wilson know the Leafs won’t be on the winning side of too many 6-3 or 5-2 games this year. Toronto needs its defense to lead the way.
So far – although obviously, not every night – the Leafs have shown the potential to do just that.