Other teams tried to help the Toronto Maple Leafs this week, even the Montreal Canadiens. But the fact they cannot help themselves, effectively ended their NHL playoff hopes.
The Canadiens, for example, beat Detroit on Thursday. On Saturday afternoon, the Boston Bruins helped out, too, dumping the Washington Capitals.
But the Maple Leafs made all that meaningless when they could not beat the Red Wings themselves. All they could manage was a token effort, a minor spurt of enthusiasm in the first period, before collapsing with their eighth consecutive loss. With the Red Wings fighting the Leafs for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference along with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Capitals, the 4-2 loss in front of a record crowd 20,270 – which booed them in the final minutes – essentially buried them.
Both the Red Wings and the Blue Jackets, who beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime – are now two points ahead of the Leafs and Caps in the race for the two wild-card playoff spots. And all three teams have two games in hand on the Leafs, who now have just six to play in the regular season.
The Leafs are not mathematically eliminated from the playoff race but their hopes are as faded as their work ethic.
“Things are looking a little bleak for us,” said Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul. “All we can really control now is winning the rest of our games and we’ve got to have every single one of them.”
Just two weeks ago, the Leafs looked like a decent bet to finish in the top five in the conference. But then came the eight-game losing streak, the first time since 1985 the Leafs lost eight games in a row. Two of those losses came to the Red Wings, who are staying in the hunt in the face of a long string of injuries on the kind of grit the Leafs simply do not have. Players like centre Darren Helm have stepped up to replace the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Helm scored three goals Saturday night to lead the charge against the Leafs. Gustav Nyquist who spent a good portion of the season in the minor leagues, scored his 21st goal in 26 games for the Wings. Lupul and Cody Franson scored for the Leafs.
“There’s nothing we can really say any more,” Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Well, Leafs Nation had plenty to say, burning up the Twitterverse and the call-in radio show phone lines after the game.
But firing head coach Randy Carlyle is not the answer even if the Leafs fell as fast and as hard as they did two years ago, which got head coach Ron Wilson fired and Carlyle hired.
At this point, though, even if a miracle occurs and the Leafs squeak into the playoffs all they are really playing for is the right to get blown out in the first round by either the Bruins or the Pittsburgh Penguins. It is now obvious this team nowhere close to being a serious contender. If its goaltenders do not put in a Hall-of-Fame performance, the Leafs cannot win.
What general manager David Nonis and his lieutenants Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle need to do now is sit down and analyze the team from top to bottom, including the coaches. Figure out why this group cannot understand how to play in the defensive zone, why there is little to no secondary scoring and then work on a solution starting with this year’s entry draft, where many important trades get made, and then the free-agency period, where there will be some additional room on the salary cap to fix a problem or two.
Some of the questions to ask:
Is Dion Phaneuf good enough to be the teams No. 1 defenceman long-term? Ditto for Cody Franson and the No. 2 slot.
Why did centre Nazem Kadri take a big step backward this season when the only thing big about his game was his ego?
Can David Clarkson shake off the worst season by a major free-agent signing in recent memory and become the gritty scoring winger the Leafs hoped he would be?
Is Dave Bolland going to be the stabilizing influence this team needs, a responsible two-way player, and can they accommodate his salary demands?
As always, there are no easy answers.
Now that Phaneuf has been signed to a seven-year contract extension at a cap hit of $7-million (all currency U.S.) per year, the Leafs are pretty well stuck with him. The answer may well be that he and Franson will have to be the top pair until rookie Morgan Rielly is ready to be the No. 1 man in a few years (at least he showed signs he can do this), barring a quick rise in the salary cap that might allow for a Phaneuf trade.
Given Kadri’s regression, the cap hit of $2.9-million next season in the last year of his contract is certainly not good value. But his value on the trade market is not going to be great, either, so he may not be going anywhere either.
And it will be the same story with Clarkson, who will only have six years left on his contract at $5.25-million per season.
Nonis is known as a patient man and this will be quite a test of that patience. He will also have to hope his boss, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chief executive officer Tim Leiweke, is just as patient.
Lord knows precious few other people around here are.
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