Well, they are who we thought they were. At first we were over-optimistic, then extremely pessimistic, then guardedly optimistic, and now it’s back to realistically pessimistic.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a good hockey team.

We knew this, ignored it, and paid the price of missing expectations. Playoffs, while a nice goal, was not a realistic jump-off point for a team in Year One Point Five of a complete rebuilding.

The team’s best player, who they sold the future-farm to get, raising many an eyebrow in the process, is still young, inconsistent, and searching for chemistry with his teammates. How much of this can be blamed on Phil Kessel himself is up for debate, as his carousel of linemates have yet to play well enough to warrant a permanent spot beside him. There is no bigger Matt Stay-HAN fan than myself, but the results weren’t there. Maybe the infusion of youth alongside Kessel, via Nikolai Kulemin and Tyler Bozak, will reignite the flame we saw for a few weeks when he first debuted for the Leafs. Or maybe it won’t, and it will take until the offseason to find Kessel some linemates.

The goaltending situation also hasn’t cleared itself up at any point. Yes, Vesa Toskala is pretty bad (with a disgusting .870 SV%), but Jonas Gustavsson, the heir apparent to The Felix Potvin Memorial Throne of Toronto Goaltenders, has done nothing to differentiate himself (with a pedestrian .900 SV%). He hasn’t been bad by any stretch, but for a team searching for the long-term answer in net, The Monster has done little to prove he should be given a long-term extension at season’s end. I hope that changes between now and the summer.

The biggest disappointment of the season thus far has probably been Luke Schenn, who has regressed to the point that people have begun to criticize how he was used last year, when Toronto fans were handing him future Norris trophies. Schenn’s game lacks physicality (hit, goddamit, don’t lightly nudge) and he has looked largely confused and unaware, to the point that I’m expecting NHL 2010’s next roster update to drop his Awareness rating somewhere in the range of a manatee on skates. Schenn still has a lot of upside, but he was Franchise Building Block Number One, and hasn’t looked the part yet.

I’d like to say it hasn’t been all bad, because I was as guilty as anyone for getting over-optimistic in November. However…a defenseman (Tomas Kaberle) leads the team in points and is followed by a center everyone but me hates (Stay-HAN), a winger who has played with every combination of linemates and struck chemistry with nobody (Alexei Ponikarovsky, who obviously misses BFF Nik Antropov), a guy who seemingly scored all of his points in one week (Niklas Hagman), and The Human Spirograph (Jason Blake, King of the Failed Wraparound).

Oh sorry, Lee Stempniak, didn’t notice you there. Mikael Grabovski? Thought you were doing better, but whatever. And then we get to Phil Kessel. And Ian F’ing White.

And there’s your list of players on pace for even 40 points. Nobody is even on pace for 70. I’m not saying it’s bad to have a chunk of players in the 40-70 point range, because it isn’t, but those type of players are generally called your second and third line, not your shining stars.

Things could get better. Bozak has been called up, Kulemin has played better, Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson are close to returning, and maybe Gustavsson will be able to get into a groove playing on a regular basis without two-week breaks every six weeks. At the same time, maybe Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson will stick at the NHL level on their next call-up, and maybe someone on the Marlies will do enough to warrant a call up.

More importantly, maybe Brian Burke can shake things up between now and the Olympics. The team is obviously going to be shopping some players, and while I’m hesitant to deal Kaberle, they have to explore any option that brings back building blocks.

For fans, it’s important to remember where in the rebuilding process we are. Yes, the team is bad, and no, they don’t have a first round pick for a couple of years. The farm system isn’t the greatest, and Kessel hasn’t been awesome. But Kessel is still just 22, there are a few good apples in the bunch, and the team has a shit-tonne of salary cap space to play with in the offseason. It might not be Oklahoma City Thunder style, out-of-the-park rebuilding, but it’s a process, and unfortunately we’re expected to be patient.

It would be easier, of course, if we were treated to a few wins here and there.

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