In case you couldn't tell by now, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a mess.
The latest episode in the team's ongoing reality-TV-worthy saga this season involved network TSN, which had been flashing Twitter messages on screen during its trade deadline coverage on Monday (because networks continue to believe this is something viewers want). In a failure of its screening process, the TSN scroll included a Tweet that made an inappropriate reference about Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Dion Phaneuf, and Phaneuf's wife, actress Elisha Cuthbert.
For once, the Leafs weren't to blame for the viral headlines, but they spread nonetheless, especially once Lupul expressed his outrage and the network apologized. And in the hours to come, things would only get nuttier.
Talking to reporters on Tuesday, Maple Leafs leading scorer Phil Kessel ripped into the Toronto press -- and in doing so took a shot at the organization's front office as well. Some sample quotes:
• "I think the way the media treats Dion Phaneuf in this city is embarrassing. And I think a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves. I'm embarrassed for them."
• "Is it his fault we're losing? No. Did he build this team? No. It's not Dion Phaneuf. And the stuff he takes, the crap he takes, the things people say, I'm just tired of it here. I think he's owed some apologies by some people, and it's disgusting the way people treat him."
• "You know what? I'm just tired of it. I've finally, I've had it. I think this city is a great hockey city and I love playing here. But some of the things that happen and Dion getting abused like he does, and things that are said about him. He's our best defenseman. You watch him play, he plays hard for us every game. I'm just tired of him taking it."
You can watch the whole thing below. Kessel said he wasn't prompted by any specific event, but in any case, this is a man who has finally snapped.
Some backstory: Phaneuf, the Leafs' captain, had been the subject of trade rumors in recent days, with buzz in the hockey world that the Red Wings were looking to acquire him at the deadline. Since arriving in Toronto in 2010, Phaneuf's been labeled in the press as overpaid and his leadership has been questioned. And it's not just media that have criticized him: In 2012, he was voted the most overrated player in the league in a Sports Illustrated poll of 161 NHL players.
It's not correct to say that Phaneuf alone is being blamed for the Maple Leafs' struggles --they haven't won a playoff series since 2004 -- but as the captain of a team in a hockey-mad city that also happens to be the country's biggest media market, any faults with his game (or his contract) are indeed magnified.
Meanwhile, on the same day Kessel blew off steam to reporters, there was still more weirdness stemming from the TSN Tweet, with Lupol, Phaneuf, and Cuthbert threatening to sue the network, even though Bell Media, the majority owner of TSN, is also one of the Maple Leafs' owners. Such a thing seems unlikely to happen, but two of the team's best players taking their bosses to court would be the perfect capper to a thoroughly dysfunctional season, even by Maple Leafs standards.
As you might remember, Leafs fans were banned for a year from the Air Canada Centre for throwing their replica jerseys on the ice in disgust. And in November, after a home victory, the Leafs skipped the traditional stick salute to the fans.
It's getting hard to keep track of who's sick of whom in Toronto, but let's try:
• The fans are disgusted with the players.
• The players are annoyed at the fans.
• At least one player is criticizing the front office.
• That same player is furious with the press.
• And two other players threatened to sue a media outlet that shares a corporate owner with the team.
Got all that?
This season was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era in Toronto. They hired Brendan Shanahan to serve as team president -- a role in which he'd have final say in all matters, and be able to overrule anyone who may have survived from the previous regime. More encouragingly, after years of resistance, the Leafs made an honest effort get into the analytics game, hiring Kyle Dubas, the stat-savvy former GM of the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, to serve as assistant GM. They also brought in Darryl Metcalf, the founder of the analytics site ExtraSkater.com, to work in the organization's new analytics department. They appeared to be on the right path.
But the first year of the Shanahan era has brought more of the same. The Leafs are well outside the playoff picture, and tensions are growing. Oft-criticized head coach Randy Carlyle was fired in January, but as they learned at the deadline, moving high-priced vets in order to wipe the slate clean won't be easy.
It's no surprise that it would be Kessel who fought back against the media. Earlier this season, his former coach Ron Wilson criticized him for inconsistent play, and blamed the Leafs core for the franchise's continued woes: "These guys, some of the core players, have failed under two or three different coaches, so it's gotta be the players' fault," he said. And the blockbuster trade that brought Kessel to Toronto in the first place -- for a package of draft picks that Boston turned into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton -- has long been debated.
In other words, Kessel knows as well as anyone that playing for the Leafs means increased scrutiny, and that the criticism that often follows can hurt, especially when the target considers it unfounded. In sticking up for a teammate, Kessel was doing what many athletes secretly wish they could: telling the press to shut up.
If Kessel's point was that Phaneuf alone isn't to blame, then he's right. But that doesn't mean that Phaneuf is above criticism. Nor are countless other players, coaches and executives who've been involved with the Leafs in recent years. In a situation as dysfunctional as the one in Toronto, there's plenty of blame to go around. All who remain can only hope that this was the week in which they finally hit rock bottom.