Talk about a team that needs a coach and players with a better attitude.

Leafs bask in joy of defeat
DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR



After he inserted himself into the sea of cameras and voice recorders parked on the doorstep of the Leafs dressing room yesterday afternoon, Paul Maurice was asked how his experience behind the Toronto bench compared to his pre-season expectations.

Coaching the Leafs, he said, was "so much more" than he thought it would be. "So much better."

"If you guys ever get the chance," he said, "it's an honour."

It probably wasn't the soundtrack fans were seeking to accompany the annual spring rite of removing the blue and white flag from the car before the playoffs begin. The folks who love this team want to believe their heroes will be hurting this week, when the NHL kicks off its annual Stanley Cup tournament by inviting a whopping 16 teams not named the Maple Leafs. But if you were hanging around the Air Canada Centre yesterday, it was hard to find evidence that anyone was dying inside.

There hasn't been an NHL playoff game in Toronto since 2004. And yet there wasn't anybody saying: "This is unacceptable" or "Never again." There was, on the other hand, plenty of delusion in place of truth, much self-satisfaction in lieu of self-blame.

"I'm happy, personally," said Andrew Raycroft, the goalie who was yanked from the biggest game of the season. "I got to play a lot of games and win a lot of games ..."

It's hard to say whether it was insulting or hilarious to hear Raycroft pat himself on the back repeatedly for winning 37 games. Raycroft, who put up some of the worst statistics of any NHL starter, needed 72 games to rack up his 37 dubyas. J.S. Giguere, to put it in perspective, played 16 fewer games and won 36.

But enough quibbling.

"The end goal is to get into the playoffs," Raycroft continued, "so it's a bit of a disappointment."

The end goal – and only Maurice and captain Mats Sundin correctly answered that skill-testing question yesterday – is supposed to be the Stanley Cup. But you understand Raycroft's forgetting the script. The cheques keep coming either way.

In what job do they give you more vacation for achieving less? In the best freaking job on the planet. What Raycroft clearly meant to say was: "See y'all in five months, suckers!"

The atmosphere, indeed, was hardly funereal. Sundin, the 36-year-old captain, scored one goal in his final 20 games. But he didn't exactly offer an apology for the end-of-season slump that offered a cautionary advertisement of what's to come in a waning career.

"Why is it always about who scores the most goals?" interjected Darcy Tucker. "It's about your team winning."

Um, precisely.

Said Sundin, to firm up the point: "I'm very proud of, I think, my own performance."

He wasn't alone.

Said Carlo Colaiacovo: "In the overall look of it, a lot of us accomplished a lot this season."

It all sounded a lot like Rob Babcock-era Raptorland, losers unnervingly enthused about losses.

Said Tucker, to cap the lunacy: "My personal opinion is I don't think we're far off where we need to be ... to get to a championship."

One supposes Mars, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, isn't far off from Cape Canaveral. But one suspects humans will land on the red planet before the Leafs next get their lips on a shiny mug that isn't brought to them by a waitress.

The club needs culture change. The fading captain needs to go to bring salary-cap flexibility and fire. The running-scared general manager, in over his head from the start, hasn't shown the acumen to play the required chess. But the status quo is lucrative enough. So meet the new season. Same as the old season. Everybody's happy except the loyalists.

"We're not trying to say it's okay not to be the best team in hockey," said Maurice, finally hitting the right note in his post-season address. "Because that's what we're trying to (be) ... I don't want to sit here today and start pumping positives out."

Indeed, the coach left the pumping of positives to Happy Raycroft and his suspiciously merry band of millionaire vacationers.