Canucks fans have a favourite habit of pitying the Maple Leafs from afar; it’s a happy distraction from the misadventures of the home team. Losing is easier to take so long as someone else is worse.
I’ve argued the position in recent years that the Maple Leafs are trapped in a self-sustaining state of mediocrity created by their need to compete each season. Toronto fans are notoriously demanding, and their high expectations have controlled the way the team is run. Unfortunately, the Leafs sit in an impossible position: they’re just good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but haven’t had the talent to be a serious Stanley Cup contender since they won the division in the 1999-2000 season. Since then, they’ve finished 8th, 4th, 6th, 4th, 9th, 9th and 12th last season.
Consistent middle-of-the-pack finishes have meant that the Leafs have missed out on top drafting positions for several years running, and they’ve also had to trade away several early-round picks to patch together a respectable lineup each year. While some teams (the Red Wings in particular) have managed to collect star talent in the late rounds, most of the NHL’s best players were drafted in the first five picks. Beyond that, it’s a lot of future second- and third-liners. In the salary cap era, stockpiling low-salaried young talent is the most reliable way of building a winner; the current editions of the Penguins and Blackhawks are prime examples of teams built in this way. Besides, the new NHL is a young man’s game. With the revised obstruction rules, speed is king and youth is served. Compare last season’s top ten scorers to the 1999-2000 season leaders:
Powerhouse lineups have their price, though; the Pens and Hawks both spent years in the basement while they collected draft picks. That would never fly in Toronto, hockey’s biggest market. Building a Cup contender through free agency is only possible with an already-present core of young talent.
As much as this Vancouverite likes to ridicule the Leafs, I’m starting to see this phenomenon afflicting my beloved Canucks. The Canucks haven’t picked in the top nine since 1999, the year they picked the Sedin twins. Since then, the team has held up reasonably well thanks to the lopsided trades that brought in legit front-line talent in Naslund, Bertuzzi, Luongo and Morrison. Even with the stars gond, expectations have remained high in Vancouver: fans want to see a team in playoff contention every year and aren’t willing to wait for rebuilding. With a lack of serious offensive talent on the team’s prospect list, the Canucks look like a team that will be putting up a string of mid-table finishes that will keep them squarely out of the Stanley Cup picture. Every year it happens will prolong the cycle; the Canucks have too much money to ever roster a bad team.
With the increasing likelihood that the Canucks will miss out on the Mats Sundin sweepstakes this year while other Western Conference powerhouses like Detroit, Anaheim and San Jose show no signs of slowing, the Canucks look like they’re headed for another season in the league’s also-ran middle class.