All that’s really left in Toronto is the blame game.
The Maple Leafs will certainly have a lot of time for that after their latest listless performance, a dud turned in against Winnipeg on Saturday that very well may end up being the 60 minutes that defines their season.
With a chance to hang in the playoff race, albeit as a long shot, they instead were essentially blown out, with the 4-2 score not doing justice to just how lopsided the game was.
But how on earth does that happen?
How does a team fighting for relevance offer such a no-show?
Toronto being Toronto and the Leafs being the Leafs, the postmortems of this group – one many were heaping praise on three weeks ago – have already started.
They haven’t been kind to the team’s core skaters, with captain Dion Phaneuf and most of the blueline taking a beating, and the forwards only now being held responsible for what’s been a season-long shirking of their defensive duties.
Which is fair enough.
The tough part here in blaming just the players, however, is that there are not a lot of glaring under-performances in this group, looking back at the season as a whole.
The entire top line had career years, offensively, and provided timely goals again and again.
Up until his injury, netminder Jonathan Bernier was a Vézina Trophy candidate in his first year as a starter.
Nazem Kadri had a very respectable 20 goals and 50 points in 75 games as part of his first full NHL season, a decent portion of which was spent with an anchor in David Clarkson on his one wing.
And Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly showed plenty of evidence they are the future on the back end, flirting with the 30-point mark despite only second unit power-play duties.
There was a lot that went right, individually, this season. Where things fell apart for the Leafs was in the collective whole, and a lot of that was predictable.
What went wrong?
If you look at the success Toronto had a year ago, in the lockout-shortened half season, there were several red flags there that went into finishing fifth in the East.
No. 1 was the team’s shooting percentage, which was an incredibly high 11.5 per cent, driven in part by Kadri and Cody Franson, who became darlings of last year’s run but weren’t going to be able to repeat their success.
No. 2 was the team’s possession figure, which was 29th in the NHL at 43.7 per cent and fell steadily throughout the year as the coaching staff’s system set in and they started benching some of their key puck-moving players.
(The Leafs were a 47-per-cent possession team in January of 2013, a 45.5-per-cent one in February and March, and then a 39.5-per-cent one in April a year ago. Only the shortened season and good goaltending prevented the kind of collapse they’ve had this year.)
No. 3 was a sky-high save percentage on the penalty kill, another trait that can often be driven by luck and unsustainable year to year.
And No. 4 was the fact the Leafs were exceptionally fortunate with injuries.
So what happened this year?
The Leafs scored substantially fewer goals this season, down to 2.78 goals per game, as their shooting percentage dipped to 10 per cent. (That 1.5 per cent drop is the equivalent of losing 37 goals in a season for an average NHL team.)
They were outshot even more substantially, as last year’s downward possession trend became a season-long one (41.6 per cent).
The penalty kill went from the NHL’s second best to third worst, in large part due to the goalies simply stopping closer to an average number of shots against.
And the Leafs had a couple significant injuries, although not anything beyond what an average team puts up with in an 82-game season.
That’s a highly simplified way at looking the two seasons, but those four areas are the main culprits behind Toronto’s decline. All of them should have been foreseeable and, in some fashion, acted upon by the coaches and management.
Instead, some of the off-season decisions intensified the problems.
Who’s to blame?
There’s no question this Leafs roster could use improving. There are still too many players playing in slots that are too high and without enough support, holes that will be difficult to fill with limited cap space.
When you get right down to it, however, Toronto’s two biggest issues are (a) a lack of depth and (b) a lack of defensive structure.
The first is on management. Pencilling in Paul Ranger as the only solution on the blueline hurt. Losing possession players like Clarke MacArthur (tops on the team) and Mikhail Grabovski for Clarkson and Dave Bolland did, too. Not having an answer on the fourth line beyond Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, not wanting to develop kids in those minutes, and giving up on others like Joe Colborne to preserve the enforcers’ roster spots compounded the issues.
Ultimately, what that meant was Toronto was incapable of replacing injured forwards with ones who could chip in a few goals, leaving the entire burden for offence on the top two lines.
When they failed, the team failed.
But the bigger problems came in the Leafs’ own zone, and the fixes there fall on a coaching staff that was late realizing the extent of the issue (despite the fact it went back to last season) and ultimately couldn’t correct it when they did.
Right up until Saturday’s loss, in the fourth-last game of the year, Toronto was a mess defensively, something that consistently nullified any success they had in other areas this season.
(One example of the extent of the issue? The Jets had 26 faceoffs in the offensive zone at even strength in that game. The Leafs had five. And that hasn’t been all that uncommon.)
It’s easy enough to blame this group of players for being inept defensively, but their abilities haven’t substantially changed from a year or two ago. The Leafs would certainly benefit from having more two-way players and better acknowledging the limitations of Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak et al.
Some changes are necessary. Some changes, if they’re the right ones, will be good.
The trouble with that as the only solution, however, is that for the past two years, any player that has been plugged into Randy Carlyle’s system has gotten worse at driving play. Those leaving, meanwhile, have been better wherever they’ve landed, almost without fail.
That puts the onus on the staff to solve the problem. Or management to recognize they can’t and make a change.
It’s really as simple as that.
As it is, the Leafs are on pace to finish with the eighth-worst goal differential and eighth-worst record (minus the shootout) in the NHL this season. With the roster they had last year, expectations were deservedly far higher, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be in the 95-point range.
There was potential there, if the Leafs recognized the issues and the areas they were likely to regress in, adjusted and improved. But that didn’t happen.
Aside from in goal, the roster got worse, as management overvalued what they had.
Despite adding personnel tailored to the coach, the systemic failings became more ingrained and more fatal.
And, in the end, the players are to blame?
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