Folks in Toronto have been waiting for the Maple Leafs to falter. As far back as Nov. 8, when the Leafs sat in a tie atop the Eastern Conference at 11-5-0, the nonfaithful looked at the awful analytics and said there’s no possible way the team could keep up.
They were right, of course. Teams that give up an NHL-worst 36.1 shots per game aren’t true contenders. The Leafs have on-ice holes that are too big for their goaltenders to overcome.
But is there more to the descent from conference leader to playoff bubble team? Does the nonstop negativity in the Centre of the Hockey Universe impact the Leafs’ ability – or inability – to succeed?
“Sometimes, losing becomes a culture, an excuse,” said Tim Leiweke, who took over as president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment last April. “It almost grows into being acceptable. People have a fear about how you get out of it. The longer you learn to accept it, the harder it is to ultimately change it. It becomes a way of life.
“We’re changing the whole MLSE culture, but we know the hardest one to change will be the hockey team.”
Aside from a resting spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame, every Leafs fan knows the Stanley Cup hasn’t been to Toronto since 1967. The players know it, too. Leiweke wants to change that.
While he was president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings and 10 other sports teams, the company celebrated 11 championships in 17 years. The Kings joined the victory party in 2012, and he sees similarities between them and the Leafs.
“I’m fortunate enough to have come from an organization that went through what we are here, those dark rebuilding years,” Leiweke said. “I saw what it took. Guess what? We got spanked twice in the playoffs until we finally figured out what it took to win and added the necessary pieces. Thank God for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. But we’re changing it here, and we’re going to get there.
“At the beginning of the year, we never thought we’d compete with Boston at the top of the East. Internally, none of us think we’re there yet. We know we have some pieces.”
Leiweke is a big backer of goaltender Jonathan Bernier and captain Dion Phaneuf. He says betting against them would be a mistake. But like the rest of Toronto, Leiweke is interested to see if the Leafs can overcome their long-rooted problems. With Saturday’s loss to Detroit, they are losers of eight straight and outside of a playoff spot.
“We’re about to find out how much we’ve grown as an organization,” Leiweke said. “We’ll do one of two things: We’ll give up, which would tell us an awful lot about what we have to do here; or we’ll respond and get in.”
Wild woes help for Sabres?
Minnesota visited Phoenix late Saturday night in a Western Conference showdown. The Wild held the first wild-card spot with 85 points in 74 games, while the Coyotes possessed the second wild card with 84 in 74. Dallas was close behind with 81 points in 73 games.
The Wild have been doing their best to give up the spot. They entered the game just 3-4-5 since the trade deadline, though big-ticket acquisition Matt Moulson had been producing. The former Sabres winger put up four goals and eight points in the 12 games.
If the Wild slides into the playoffs in the final spot, the Sabres will essentially be one step closer to receiving St. Louis’ first-round pick. The Blues, who have to give up the selection if they reach the Western Conference final as part of the Ryan Miller trade, have won nine in a row against Minnesota.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, were ready to see where goaltender Thomas Greiss can take them. With Mike Smith out with an injury to his right leg (he’ll be re-evaluated later this week), the crease belongs to the 28-year-old Greiss. Phoenix tried to extend the pending unrestricted free agent, but he balked because he wasn’t getting much playing time.
“Here’s a player that’s been desperate to try to get in the net and show people he’s a No. 1 goalie,” General Manager Don Maloney said. “Now is his opportunity.”
Crosby on track for 82
Sidney Crosby has never played a full season. He’s one of the few Penguins who might. The Pens are expected to have 500 man-games lost to injury, a total reached only twice in the last five seasons. They are at 463. The Sabres, hardly a picture of health, entered the weekend at 230.
Despite the ailments – which have included losing Kris Letang to a stroke, Tomas Vokoun to a blood clot and Evgeni Malkin to a fractured foot – the Penguins have run away with the Metropolitan Division.
Crosby played just 46.7 percent of Pittsburgh’s games during the previous three seasons. He enters today’s game vs. Chicago a perfect 74 for 74.
On the fly
• Tomas Tatar projects to be a future star in Detroit, but he also might be homeless. The residents in his condominium complex have filed a lawsuit asking Tatar and co-owner Darren Helm (who is believed to have moved out) to adhere to the association’s rules or vacate the premises. The suit alleges there has been loud music, yelling and banging on the floors and walls between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. since October.
• Columbus, which is in a four-way race for the two wild-card spots in the East, will play eight games during the final 12 days of the season. They will become the first team to do that since the 1979-80 Quebec Nordiques, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. One outing is the rescheduled game against Dallas, made necessary when Rich Peverley collapsed with a heart problem.
• When the Leafs’ slide reached six games, fan and former boxing champ Riddick Bowe tweeted, “If the Maple Leafs lose tomorrow I’m going to knock out Randy Carlyle. One punch between the eyes.” They lost, which led to another tweet from Bowe about the coach. “See you in the parking lot Randy ...”