Forget making up ground on other teams in the NHL. What must surely gnaw away at the soul of the Toronto sports fan is that the Maple Leafs have quite possibly lost ground this season to the Raptors.
Nobody could say they saw that coming when the NHL season started, probably not even Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo – although we won't know because Colangelo has been properly quiet this season. He hasn't picked fights with imaginary foes or put in his own trade deadline or made bold pronouncements on matters that have nothing to do with his team, nor has he called up radio or TV stations or newspapers to complain about negativity.
Mostly, he's stayed behind the scenes during what figured to be a tough season and let his new coach, Dwane Casey, teach defence and win more games than most people thought possible. He has created an environment where the seeds of a rebuild can take root. He's managed his payroll. He's left himself flexibility, knowing that in many nights his team is starting two or sometimes three players that would probably be non-starters on a really good team.
Then, there's the Maple Leafs, who mercifully lowered the curtain on the home portion of their 2011-12 campaign with a 3-2 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre. Talk about an unnecessary extra period, played between two teams with one eye on the game clock and the other on tee times.
The brief bit of Leafs brilliance was provided once again by Jake Gardiner, who bobbed and weaved his way through the Lightning end to set up Tim Connolly with a pass so perfect that not even Connolly could miss the net. Gardiner received credit for the tying goal at 17:05 of the third on a goal-mouth deflection off the Lightning's Brett Connolly.
Steven Stamkos had given the Lightning a 2-1 lead with his 59th goal at 8:48 of the third period. Martin St. Louis, who scored Tampa's first goal, had the assist, but it was Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf who scored the winner with 58.9 seconds left in OT, which meant this was one of the few times in the past two months the Leafs were not booed off the ice.
The lower bowl at the Air Canada Centre was perhaps 60-per-cent full during the first period, and after the Toronto Blue Jays dispatched the Cleveland Indians there were noticeably fewer vacant seats. One group of fans with paper bags over their heads – with '1967' on the back – appeared to be in their early teens. They kill expectations at a young age in this city, don't they?
Some time next week, after a meaningless bit of business in Montreal on Saturday, it will be time for Burke's post-mortem. Might as well take a pass: we've heard it all before. No doubt the script will call for Burke reiterating how upset he is that the team didn't make the playoffs, how goaltender coach François Allaire is a genius, and how swell it is that the Marlies are in the AHL playoffs, as though that's good enough in a city such as Toronto. Honestly, what's next: Burke leading the charge to have Toronto become Kraft Hockeyville next season?
The Leafs do have depth, but it's expensive depth, with upward of $58-million committed to next season and with how many cornerstones. Phil Kessel? Sure, although this might be the most disposable 80-point season in Leafs history. Gardiner? Certainly. But that's about it, and even if the new collective agreement does allow for a one-time amnesty for a bad contract, Burke's still going to have to do some weeding.
And that's the most damning indictment of Burke's tenure. When he came in, we all heard about how Job 1 was eliminating "Blue and White Disease." Then, stunningly, at the trade deadline, Burke offered the observation that his team's psyche – the psyche of the team he put together, not John Ferguson, Jr. – was so fragile that the deadline had been "murder" on it. Coupled with the fact that the season will end with Phaneuf's captaincy a matter of public debate, it's hard not to wonder whether all Burke's accomplished is replaced one strain of Blue and White Disease with another.
Only the true believers saw progress this season.