In the final installment of our series, we look at recent seasons to try to once and for all answer the question: is this the worst it's ever been?
The bad: There is no hockey thanks to the lockout.
When the owners and players finally sign a new CBA in summer 2005, the league signals the new era by introducing rules that will favor smaller, speedier teams. Ferguson responds by signing a bunch of big, slow free agents like Jason Allison and Eric Lindros. He also chooses not to buy out any veterans, signalling his keen understanding of the importance of cap management.
How bad was it? 80/100. We thought a full year without the Leafs was as bad as it could possibly get. Boy, were we wrong.
The good: The Leafs take a step back, but still manage 90 points under Pat Quinn. Bryan McCabe has a career year, scoring 68 points and making the Canadian Olympic team. A handful of younger players like Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen show promise. Tomas Kaberle plays well, then signs a very reasonable contract extension.
The bad: The Leafs narrowly miss the playoffs. Ed Belfour doesn't look very sharp, and is bought out at the end of the year. Allison is just OK, Lindros is hurt, and the veteran Leafs look slow and out-classed in the new NHL. Ferguson offers McCabe a huge five-year contract that introduces the phrase "no-movement" to NHL fans. McCabe actually waits for weeks to sign the offer, showing that his decision making is just as solid off the ice as it is on.
Ferguson also fires Quinn, replacing him with teenaged prodigy Paul Maurice. At the 2006 draft, Ferguson deals top prospect Tuuka Rask to the Bruins for Andrew Raycroft, a former Calder winner who has just had an awful season.
How bad was it? 80/100. Well, at least hockey is back. And the Leafs will be too, soon enough. Right?
Paul Maurice's defensive system.
The bad: Raycroft is inconsistent -- bad some nights, awful on others. Paul Maurice doesn't seem to have any sort of system, other than cracking one-liners for the adoring media. Despite clearly not being a contender, the Leafs bring in Yanic Perrault at the deadline for a prospect and high draft pick. (Fun fact: Perrault's grandfather was drafted by the Leafs in 1991.)
Sensing the team is weak in the critical "wasted shots" category, Ferguson signs Jason Blake to a contract that will last until the end of time. When Ferguson asks him if it's true that he's a locker room cancer, Blake shakes his head and laughs before adding "Wait, you did say 'locker room', right?"
How bad was it? 90/100. At this point it's becoming clear that Ferguson is a moron, the team isn't going anywhere, and there's really no reason for optimism. Or as we call it now, "the good times".
The good: You must be new here.
The bad: How much time have we got? OK, let's try to be brief... The Leafs are terrible. They don't play a system, they score into their own net, they let in 180-foot goals, the blow third-period leads every week, and they're the softest team in the NHL.
With the entire city begging for the team to be taken out behind a barn and shot, the team's five veteran leaders refuse to waive their no-trade clauses at the deadline because their wives really enjoy shoe-shopping at the Eaton Centre. Fans wear paper bags to the games. Paul Maurice stands behind the bench with his arms crossed wondering what the "T.O" on the scoreboard stands for.
Ferguson is finally fired, although not before Richard Peddie humiliates both of them my calling his hiring a "mistake" while he still works there. Cliff Fletcher is re-hired on an interim basis and has to sit there while Peddie mouths his words along with him at the press conference. The team forms a much-publicized search committee for a new GM, who end up not hiring anybody.
In the off-season, Mats Sundin backtracks on all that "I want to be a Leaf forever" nonsense. The fake fishing trip that he uses every off-season to avoid the media stretches into its fourth month before he finally re-emerges to shill for a gambling web site. McCabe reluctantly agrees to waive his no-trade clause after Fletcher breaks into his kitchen and boils his children's puppy, but only if the Leafs absolutely promise not to get anything good for him.
The Leafs prepare to enter the 2008-09 season with a roster that will feature 15 defencemen and four forwards. Somewhere in Finland, Vesa Toskala is on 24-hour suicide watch.
How bad was it? 95/100. We have a winner.
So there you have it... Yes, last year was the worst it's ever been. You are currently living in the worst days of Leaf Nation. Lucky you.
But wait... what about next year? Luckily I've obtained an advanced copy of next season's Year in Review DVD.
Spoiler Alert: Don't read any further if you want to be surprised.
You'll still be able to smell everything.
The bad: The Leafs flirt with last place overall for most of the year. Mikhail Grabovski is a bust, Alex Steen doesn't emerge, and Nikolai Kulemin struggles as a rookie. Leaf fans sing the national anthem at the home opener, then immediately turn on Jeff Finger. Meanwhile, Marlies coach Greg Gilbert successfully destroys whatever is left of Justin Pogge's confidence by making him wear a frilly pink dress as he sits at the end of the bench of every night, then goes to work on ruining Luke Schenn too.
With a half dozen teams driving up the bidding for him, Toskala tweaks his hamstring days before the trade deadline and Fletcher can't deal him. Meanwhile, Kaberle decides not to waive his NTC and the Leafs fail to land any decent picks or prospects for the second year in a row. Days after the deadline, Mats Sundin comes out of retirement to sign with a first place team. He puts his new poker skills to work by telling the media with a straight face that winning a Stanley Cup has always been his top priority.
Bryan McCabe scores 20 goals for the Panthers, leading to 800 identical articles about how the Leafs should have never traded him written by the same reporters who spent the last two years trying to run him out of town. Kyle Wellwood scores 70 points with the Canucks, Darcy Tucker pots 30 goals for the Avs, and Andrew Raycroft learns that you're legally allowed to raise your glove hand to stop a shot.
The Leafs find themselves firmly entrenched in last place overall heading into the final month, then reel off eight straight wins at the end of the year to move up to second-last. A team in a crappy US market that nobody cares about wins the draft lottery, bumping the Leafs down to the third overall pick in a draft with two franchise players. Days before the end of the season, Brian Burke signs an extension with the Mighty Ducks. Richard Peddie is rumored to be seriously considering naming himself general manager before mysteriously disappearing after accepting an interview invitation with an Ottawa-based hockey blogger.
How bad was it? 100/100. But try to act surprised.