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Toronto Maple Leafs (L-R) Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier, Tim Gleason, and James Reimer react against the St. Louis Blues during the last minute of the third period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto, Tuesday March 25, 2014 (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Maple Leafs (L-R) Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier, Tim Gleason, and James Reimer react against the St. Louis Blues during the last minute of the third period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto, Tuesday March 25, 2014 (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

Maple Leafs fall out of playoff spot after listless loss to Blues Add to ...

So, it turns out James Reimer isn’t the problem after all. What a surprise.

But anyone who thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs’ latest stinker – a complete failure to show up for the return of No. 1 goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who held off St. Louis as long as he could – is the reason to push the panic button and fire head coach Randy Carlyle and the managers of this team misses a larger point. This is not a group that is ready to take a place among elite NHL team like the visiting Blues, who rocked the Leafs’ playoff hopes with a 5-3 win Tuesday, the host team’s sixth consecutive loss.

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Granted, the Leafs made the score respectable in the third period thanks to goals by Carl Gunnarsson and James van Riemsdyk, but it was the usual story of not being ready when it mattered.

Despite their strides in the last two seasons, the Leafs are still a developing team, stuck among the NHL’s bloated group of average teams, capable of some good moments when their one dangerous line is scoring and their goaltender is standing on his head. But the Leafs have too many holes to fill.

Bernier was magnificent during the first period of his return from injury, turning aside 21 of 23 shots (the Leafs managed seven against the Blues’ Ryan Miller) in a stretch that severely tested his freshly healed groin muscle, and that kept the score to a respectable 2-1. But the Blues pulled away in the second period. One can only imagine what would have transpired had Carlyle decided to rest Bernier one more day and start minor-leaguer Drew MacIntyre ahead of the rattled Reimer.

It was not a game that Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf will keep in his video scrapbook. The defenceman botched a clearing attempt that gave the Blues the lead for good on a power-play goal by David Backes with 33 seconds left in the first period. Then he lost the puck in the offensive zone to set up the Blues’ third goal, also by Backes, who finished with a hat trick. And Phaneuf completed the trifecta by falling down in front of the net, allowing Alex Steen enough time to kick the puck from his skate to his backhand and put it in the top corner.

By the end of the night, the Blue Jackets beat the Detroit Red Wings and the Washington Capitals picked up a point in a shootout loss, which tied them both in points with the Leafs and Wings at 80 but left the Leafs officially sitting tenth. And this, of course, gave rise to more cries for the head of Carlyle, who was reviled in January, celebrated in February and is now back on the hit list.

But since when is an average team getting outclassed by the best one in the league a good reason to fire the coach? This kind of thing is the hallmark of mediocre franchises.

The bosses in St. Louis could have axed head coach Ken Hitchcock a couple of times using that rationale. He was hired in November, 2011 to get a good regular-season team over the playoff hump and has yet to do it. The Blues finished second in the Western Conference in 2011-12 but were knocked off in the second round of the playoffs by the eighth-place Los Angeles Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. Last year, they were fourth in the conference but lost again in the playoffs to the Kings, who were actually a weaker team than the previous year despite finishing fifth.

But owner Tom Stillman and general manager Doug Armstrong held the course with Hitchcock and now, with the addition of goaltender Ryan Miller, they are playing like a team that will go all the way. The Blues do it by sticking to a system, something the youthful Leafs have yet to learn, as Carlyle can tell you.

“In this game specifically, we did not have the puck and when we did we just slapped it around,” the Leaf coach said. “It’s like we were frozen for 30 minutes of the hockey game.

“When you play against a team like St. Louis, they did a lot of the things we are trying to convince our hockey club to do as far as hanging on to the puck a little bit more, play that low to high game. Play the change of sides. We understand we’re not as big and strong and physical as some of those teams that are able to do that. But that is more the style at this time of year, if you watch the games, that is being played.”

The Blues’ minor-league players learn that system and then play it when they get to the big team. It’s something the Blues have in common with teams like the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils, two other teams that know a thing or two about winning in the playoffs.

It is also something a lot of teams, including the Leafs, say they want to do as well. But the teams that do it well have something else in common – they don’t fire GMs and coaches every two years. If you want your choirboys singing off the same page year after year you don’t change the choirmaster every two years.

It can be argued the Blues have been building their team around the same number of years as the Leafs, yet are much farther along the path of success. Despite the current wobbles, the Leafs are making progress and they can also argue that when former GM Brian Burke, who started the rebuilding, was hired in 2008, he inherited a smoking crater rather than an NHL team.

Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts

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