Editor’s Note: 1. This is our first entrant in our search for Fresh Blood at TLN. Every possible contributor will get three posts to strut their stuff and then we’ll ask you readers to help us choose who is going to join.
BY DAVE MCCLELLAND @DBMCCLELLAND
On March 29th, 2008 the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 in the last game of the regular season. Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty had a pair of goals each, Bryan McCabe led Toronto in ice time at just under 27 minutes, and the Leafs finished the season mired in the depths of the Eastern Conference, far from a playoff berth. And it just so happened to be Mats Sundin’s final game in a Leafs jersey.
It was an inauspicious end to a great career in Toronto for Sundin, and he was rightfully honoured for his thirteen seasons with the team at the Air Canada Centre last evening. But looking back on it now, what really strikes me about that final game is that, in my mind, it really marks a low-point in the Leafs post-lockout struggles. In both 2006 and 2007, Toronto missed the playoffs by a whisker, but that year not even Sundin’s leadership could lift the team past 12th. From there, things just seemed to get worse, and the Leafs floundered their way down to the bottom of the standings in 2010.
But what’s really remarkable is the change that’s taken place in the team between that last game Sundin played and today. The 2007-08 season was the final nail in the coffin of the teams that had done so well in the late-90s and early-2000s. After the lockout, it seemed like all Toronto needed to do was make a couple of little tweaks, and they could be a contender. As a fan, I know I was in denial about the state of the team. I told myself that they just needed an extra piece or two, that if only they’d had better goaltending, they could have gone all the way. Obviously, I was wrong, and it wasn’t until Sundin’s final year with the team that I realized just how badly off the Leafs were.
Of course, the rest of the story is pretty familiar. General Manager John Ferguson Jr. was run out of town, and temporarily replaced by Cliff Fletcher, and Brian Burke was hired to take over full-time. He blew up what remained of the team, and the lone remaining member of that 2007-08 team is Darryl Boyce (he played in one game for the big club that season).
So what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, I think that Leafs fans too often become enamoured of our heroes of the past, and that Leafs management of the past got too caught up in those feelings. Sundin was a great player, yes, but his last few seasons in Toronto were far from high points. But because he was Mats Sundin, the guy who led the team to the brink of the Stanley Cup finals, he kept getting extra chances, and it wasn’t until it was too late that most people realized what needed to be done.
None of this takes away from how good Sundin was, or the excellent years that he had with Toronto before the lockout, but it does provide a good message for future fans and general managers: no matter how good a player or team has been in the past, sometimes you need to know when to fold your cards and go in a different direction. Trust me. It might just save us all a lot of pain someday.