Toronto Star

Toronto class of Canadian division

- Dave Feschuk Twitter: @dfeschuk

The Detroit Red Wings had their ceremonial octopus. The Florida Panthers had plastic rats. But it was 10 years ago this week that the home ice of the Toronto Maple Leafs was repeatedly bombarded with an object that momentaril­y stood as a bizarre symbol of fan disenchant­ment: the waffle.

Or, to be more accurate: the waffles, several of which were hurled from somewhere near the top of the platinums near the tail end of a 4-1 loss the Philadelph­ia Flyers. One hit defenceman François Beauchemin, who thankfully was not injured. Another just missed forward Colby Armstrong.

The still-unknown waffle tosser, who was reportedly observed wearing an Edmonton Oilers sweater and denouncing the Leafs as “losers” as he hurled his chosen projectile­s, surely had his reasons. And he had at least one copycat, who unfurled an Eggo barrage in the midst of a loss to the Atlanta Thrashers 11 days later.

At the moment in question the Leafs were running in 28th place in the then-30-team league; they’d finished 29th the season before. They hadn’t won a playoff series since 2004; they hadn’t even made the post-season since then, actually, which was a franchise record of ineptitude. Six months earlier, the Boston Bruins had drafted Tyler Seguin with the second-overall pick in the NHL draft — one of two inexplicab­ly unprotecte­d first-round picks handed over by GM Brian Burke in the ill-fated Phil Kessel trade.

It was around the time of the waffle tossing that an outraged

Burke derided Toronto’s fan base as “disgracefu­l” for booing captain Dion Phaneuf, never mind that Phaneuf was clearly miscast as the wearer of the “C.” A little more than year after the waffle tossing, in another Burke misstep, coach Ron Wilson would be gifted a Christmas-season contract extension less than a few months before his firing.

So the dysfunctio­n was real. The disenchant­ment was understand­able. But still, in some minds, the waffles perplexed.

“Who brings waffles to a hockey game?” Armstrong wondered at the time.

It was a question to which there’s still no great answer. But a decade on, with hockey optimists waiting intently for the NHL and its players to give the go-ahead on the start of a new season that, according to the latest plan, could begin as soon as Jan. 13, fans of the Maple Leafs can purge themselves of the grim memory. Hold the waffles. But bring on the maple syrup. Recent reports that the coming NHL season figures to see the Maple Leafs compete in an all-Canadian division is a tantalizin­g notion, indeed.

Toronto has had plenty of problems since it made the playoffs in 2016-17 for the first time in the Shana-plan era. The Leafs have suffered from various bouts of substandar­d defence and anemic backup goaltendin­g and inconsiste­nt focus in failing to win so much as a playoff series despite employing a collection of talent that suggests they ought to have done better.

But one of their biggest problems has been their division — and specifical­ly, the two teams that have dominated it, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. Over the past four seasons combined, the

Lightning, along with winning the bubble Stanley Cup and going to the Eastern final in 2018, have played at a leaguebest 110-point pace. The Bruins, along with advancing to the Cup final in 2018, have played at 107-point pace. Which has only meant that the Maple Leafs, though they’ve played at a respectabl­e 98-point pace over that period of time — the ninth-best record in the league — have essentiall­y been doomed to a playoff inevitabil­ity that was almost certainly going to include a couple of seasoned juggernaut­s.

Thanks to the absurdity of the NHL’s playoff format, at one point last season Toronto’s four most likely first-round playoff opponents happened to be the four best teams in the NHL at the time — Tampa and Boston plus, if the Maple Leafs would have dipped into the first wild-card spot, one of either Pittsburgh or Washington.

Given that Tampa, Pittsburgh and Washington have accounted for four of the most recent five Stanley Cups — and given that Boston has won a Cup and been to two league finals going back to 2011 — it was a ridiculous­ly arduous path born of an unfair system.

Speaking of unfair systems, the proposed division alignment for the coming season certainly has its benefactor­s. And the Maple Leafs are among them. Freed of their annual early-round run-in with the NHL elite, now they figure to find themselves in a seven-team division in which the competitiv­e pickings are slimmer.

Every hockey-loving Canadian knows precisely how many Stanley Cups our great hockey nations NHL teams have won since Montreal hoisted the jug in 1993; that’d be zero. It was a little more than four years ago that all seven Canadian teams missed the playoffs entirely.

But since then, the Maple Leafs have compiled the best regular-season record among their northerly competitor­s. And in head-to-head matchups against the other six north-ofthe-border franchises, Toronto’s more than held its own. In 15 games against Canadian opponents last season, the Maple Leafs were 7-3-5 — equivalent to 103-point pace over an 82-game run. Over the past four years combined, they’ve played those teams at a stunning 106-point pace.

In other words, there are good reasons why the Maple Leafs are 2-to-1 favourites to win the all-Canadian division, should it come to pass. Toronto, for one, was stymied by great goaltendin­g in the play-in round against Columbus in the NHL bubble. Outside of Winnipeg’s Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck, there wasn’t a goaltender on a Canadian team that ranked in the top 15 in five-on-five save percentage last season. The Maple Leafs, for another, can struggle against defensivel­y superior competitio­n. All seven Canadian teams ranked in the bottom 16 in five-on-five goals against last season. In other words, expect Auston Matthews to take a run at the Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s top goal scorer.

Ten years after those airborne Eggos bruised Maple Leaf egos, there’s no reason to waffle on a still-theoretica­l forecast: if there’s a Canadian division, the Maple Leafs are the best team in it.

In 15 games against Canadian opponents last season, the Maple Leafs were 7-3-5 — equivalent to 103-point pace

 ?? KEVIN SOUSA GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO ?? Auston Matthews may be in for a big year playing against Canadian teams that were among the worst in five-on-five goals against.
KEVIN SOUSA GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO Auston Matthews may be in for a big year playing against Canadian teams that were among the worst in five-on-five goals against.
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