It was all set up perfectly for the Toronto Maple Leafs: The team was in obvious rebuilding mode. Interim general manager Cliff Fletcher was keeping a warm seat for Brian Burke until he got out of his contract with the Anaheim Ducks.
Expectations were low in LeafsNation, and at the end of the Maple Leaf-blue paved road sat the building block to help turn their fortunes: John Tavares.
The Toronto media was already envisioning Tavares wearing the maple leaf on his chest; and for every victory by Maple Leafs, bemoaned the fact (now mentioning it in game recaps) that progress in the standings was eventually going to be all for naught as a Stanley Cup parade wasn't going to be in the cards this season.
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Now, as they sit eight points out of the final spot in the Eastern Conference and nine points from the bottom four in the National Hockey League, Burke and the Maple Leafs aren't looking for a savior when the NHL Entry Draft comes in June; they're looking for another piece of the puzzle.
There's been no secret about Toronto's love affair with the next wunderkind of hockey. Over a year ago, while Tavares was fighting with the NHL to waive the date of birth deadline of September 15 so he could be eligible for the 2008 Draft, former Leafs GM John Ferguson reportedly was looking for a loophole that would allow Toronto's American Hockey League team, the Marlies, to sign the phenom. When word got out that Curtis Joseph was taking the start on Saturday against the Ottawa Senators, rumors were running rampant about the Leafs, who were on a three-game winning streak, deciding to throw in the towel and hope for the best tank job possible.
Going along with the "Tank for Tavares" campaign, Sportsnet's Mike Brophy wants those Leafs fans who cheer every win to stop criticizing after each loss and embrace the fact that the team is moving towards the ultimate (see: media's) goal:
Shouldn't the Leafs Nation (not to mention the team's coaching and management staff) celebrate each defeat? Doesn't each loss get them one step closer to the ultimate goal? I don't expect the Leafs to hold a celebration with each defeat, but do they actually expect anybody to believe they are truly heartbroken when they lose?
The Leafs couldn't exactly announce its intention to lose this season, but based on what we have seen, is there anybody out there who doesn't believe they are quietly doing whatever possible to be in the bottom five to get that cherished lottery pick - the one that could bring them John Tavares or Victor Hedman?
The bottom line is the Leafs want the high draft pick and the players they have chosen to wear the blue and white this season give them the best opportunity to get it. So let's stop acting like losing is a bad thing. I'm not buying it.
I think it's about time that the Toronto media and some fans come to the realization that the Maple Leafs likely won't be finishing low enough to be eligible for the either of the top two selections.
The Leafs have 19 games remaining, and unless Brian Burke decides the purge the entire Toronto roster and call up the entire Marlies team, a John Tavares (or Victor Hedman) in the lineup next October is nothing but a pipedream. That's not to say a Jared Cowan, Matt Duchesne or any other possible top 10-12 pick wouldn't be a nice addition.
Having Ron Wilson behind the bench and recently adding Brian Burke to deal with player personnel moves, it's hard to believe with those two in charge that Toronto wouldn't be putting a competitive product out on the ice on a daily basis.
To go one step further, the Leafs are a consistent goalie away from challenging for a playoff spot on a serious level. Vesa Toskala, who's only won more than three games in a row this season twice, has seen his goal-against average go up half a goal from last year and is down from .904 to .889 in the save-percentage department.
In the next 24 hours, Brian Burke will be making numerous roster moves to set his club up for the long-haul and attempt to build a championship caliber team.
The "Tank for Tavares" dream is over, and the sooner those on board with the campaign realize that, the sooner the Canadian media can go back to focusing on bringing the Phoenix Coyotes back up north.