Maple Leafs dealing with playoff growing pains

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Maple Leafs dealing with playoff growing pains
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Toronto got on the board first in Game 1, but were blown out the rest of the game. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty …

There is a scene in the 1980s cult classic movie “Porky’s” where a group of teenage boys excitedly make their way into a strip club for the first time in their lives, only to be exploited by the owner, robbed of their money and unceremoniously deposited into a lake via a trap door. And that’s all I could think about watching the Toronto Maple Leafs get their eggs scrambled by the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

But just because Toronto looked like boys among men for most of the night, that doesn’t mean I’m joining in with the serial squawkers of Leafs Nation who in the wake of the thrashing are calling for all kinds of changes – including, but not limited to: (a) firing head coach Randy Carlyle; (b) trading Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and the entire defense corps; and (c) time-traveling back to the trade deadline and acquiring Roberto Luongo to replace James Reimer. Unless you’re a scientist interested in joint experiments, there’s nothing to be gained from a mass-jerking of knees.

Leafs fans can feel free to rip whomever they please, but a dispassionate view of Toronto’s Game 1 loss doesn’t interpret the drubbing as an indictment of any player, coach or franchise philosophy. Instead, you have to take the long view and understand the Leafs are still in the process of building a bona fide Stanley Cup contender out of the ashes of disappointments past and present.

An ass-kicking or two – or four straight, which could be the case by the end of this series – at the hands of the Bruins isn’t the ideal result for anybody associated with the Leafs. But as hard as it may be to stomach, this is all part of the ongoing evolution of a very young, playoff-inexperienced squad.

Indeed, it was no coincidence one of Toronto’s only players to show up for Game 1 was first-year Leaf James van Riemsdyk: the big left winger has the most playoff experience (39 games) heading into this post-season of any player wearing Blue and White and knew he had to raise the intensity of his game. Conversely, the grand majority of his teammates were getting their first taste of playoff action and their collective gag reflex was understandably sensitive.

Now, I’m not arguing Leafs management won’t need to make changes in the off-season regardless of the way their post-season plays out. Soon enough, they’ll have major decisions to make on the future of Kessel and Phaneuf, both of whom are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next summer. One or both could be traded or allowed to leave as a matter or organizational strategy, but anyone who would make rash decisions based on the results of one or two playoff series is fueled by madness. Even legendary NHL dynasties had to learn how to lose before they figured out what winning in the post-season was all about, as Red Wings GM Ken Holland told me last month.

“Do I think really young teams can win four rounds? Probably not, but they sure can win a series,” Holland said. “In Round 1, the young inexperienced team can beat a veteran team, but four rounds? Look at the Oilers in the (Wayne) Gretzky years. It’s an ongoing process. With a veteran-heavy team, the odds are you know what to expect. But it’s only the odds. You have to play the games to find out what you’ve got and what you need.”

That is precisely the prism through which Leafs fans need to see the Bruins series. With every game and shift his team plays, Toronto GM Dave Nonis is learning what strengths and deficiencies his roster has. And let’s not forget, the Leafs were expected to be on the playoff bubble this season and wound up fifth in the Eastern Conference. Progress has already been made. It may not be enough of a spoonful of sugar to help this present-day medicine to go down, but it is a stark reminder of the incredibly difficult challenge that is building a Cup contender from scratch.

Oh, and remember – those teenagers in Porky’s eventually returned to the strip joint and exacted revenge on all who wronged them. But they had to learn a tough lesson to have that revenge taste sweet.

If it all goes according to plan for Nonis & Co., that day will eventually come for the Leafs as well. But taking lumps in the short-term is a necessary part of the equation.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.

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