Slowly but surely, you get the sense it's coming. For all the lousy hockey being played by so many teams around the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and for all the fundamental flaws afflicting all of them, it certainly feels as if could-have-been-worse won't work any more.
So here's some free advice for general manager Brian Burke: Let everybody else spin their wheels getting a forward before the NHL trade deadline next week. Go get a goaltender, okay? (And, yes, this was written before Mark Fayne's overtime shot hit Tyler Bozak's stick and dipped and fluttered and bounced off the ice and hit Jonas Gustavsson and … how the hell did that go in, anyhow?) First things: The Toronto Maple Leafs' 4-3 overtime loss Tuesday to the resurgent New Jersey Devils aside, there is no more or less reason to believe this Wednesday morning that the Leafs can make the playoffs, as was the case when they left for western Canada and had losses to the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks sandwiched around an overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers. There's some bad teams out there, folks. But when does all this become points and opportunity lost, especially with the Leafs because of two achingly soft goals – including one with 1 minute 49 seconds left in the second period by Alexei Ponikarovsky that might be remembered in April. The winner was going wide before Gustavsson reacted, deflecting it into the net, and the puck sure seems to find the holes on The Monster, doesn't it? Soft? I don't know: But I'll bet you Martin Brodeur stops it.
New Jersey is the NHL's renaissance team: The Devils have eight consecutive road wins and are 9-1-1 since the all-star break and their own goaltender, Brodeur, has eight of them since making an adjustment to his goalie pads – adding height and width to them, shaping them a little differently at the knee, sacrificing a little of his preferred-mobility while staying within the rules.
In addition to the eight teams holding down playoff spots in each conference heading into the NHL's games Tuesday, seven other teams were within five points of eighth place in their respective conferences, and it seems as if everybody is looking for the same commodity as the trade deadline approaches Monday: a big forward or a shut-down defenceman.
Burke, it says here, should focus on that big forward in the off-season if, as it seems, Rick Nash is out of his reach, especially given the exorbitant in-season price being demanded for second- or third-line forwards. (Besides, at this rate that Leafs' first-round pick might be worth more in the summer.) But this past week ought to have reinforced in Burke's mind that this team is still core pieces away from getting where it needs to be – not just a touch here or a touch there. And nights like Tuesdays should push Burke toward adding a goaltender before the expiration of the deadline. It's the least he needs to do: bring in a veteran and then decide in the summer what to do with Gustavsson and James Reimer. There is no reason to be married to either of them. Maybe that goalie gets them into the playoffs. Maybe he doesn't.
It's nice that head coach Ron Wilson didn't throw Gustavsson under the bus after the game – "We have to do a better job of supporting our goaltender," he said – but the guess here is nobody in this city is buying it. The calendar says it's Feb. 22, Toronto, and where is your No. 1 goaltender? Not here, that's for sure. Not here.