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Mirtle: Epic collapse proves Leafs are far from being a Cup contender

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle looks on with his team during a break in play agianst the St. Louis Blues during the second period of their NHL game in Toronto, Tuesday March 25, 2014.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

This could have been the headline, save the fact that, at this point, it's no longer news.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a good hockey team.

That we can finally, unequivocally state that only now after their latest collapse speaks to just how persistent the idea was in Leafs Nation that this group could somehow continue to win the way they had earlier in the year.

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They couldn't.

They didn't.

And what we're left with in the smouldering ashes of their playoff hopes is a portrait of how far away they truly are from being a contender.

Consider this: Since a luck-driven 10-4 start to the season, the Leafs have actually been the sixth-worst team in the NHL, posting a better record than only Buffalo, Florida, Edmonton, the Islanders and Calgary.

In that span, they have won just 18 of 62 games in regulation or overtime – essentially once every 3.5 games – fewer than all but the Sabres and Panthers.

The takeaway from what has happened the past two weeks should not be that a surprising eight-game losing streak suddenly derailed what had been an otherwise successful season.

Instead, what really transpired was a fleeting and curious hot streak prior to the Olympics in the middle of an unmitigated mess, clouding the considerable problems this team had.

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There is going to (and should) be a lot of handwringing and a lot of blame doled out in the next two weeks as the Leafs play out the rest of this lost season. While there remains the tiny possibility they win five of six and still have a shot at the postseason, in the long term, the better outcome is that they struggle to the end and management is forced to come to grips with what's in front of them.

Fixing what ails this franchise will not be easy. Doing it while in continued denial about its faults will be impossible.

There has been an unearned hubris around this group for a while, going back well before last season's half season run, and it permeates the organization from the players to the staff, management and ownership.

There's perhaps no better example of that than when MLSE president Tim Leiweke saw fit to give general manager Dave Nonis a five-year contract extension in July, months before any of the significant additions he made even hit the ice.

This was a move made mere weeks after the Leafs signed David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75-million (U.S.) deal that may well go down as one of the worst free agent signings ever.

In practical terms, what a playoff miss would give the Leafs starts at the draft. Toronto is currently on pace to enter the lottery in 11th position, a spot that can improve to as high as seventh or eighth should they continue to lose games.

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While this year isn't a particularly strong draft class, there will be a quality prospect available in the top 10, the kind that this group still desperately needs more of to continue its rebuild.

More importantly, failing to squeak into the postseason should end the parade of excuses coming from the Leafs the last five months, where everything from injuries to third line centres to a few poor games from the backup goaltender have been fingered as the root of what ails the roster.

It should also end the idea that those in charge are always the smartest in the room or that there's little to be gained from the richest team in hockey pursuing creative leads in areas such as hiring, scouting and analytics to combat some of the groupthink going on.

It's time, in other words, for some ownership of this team's issues from those who contributed heavily to them, beginning behind the bench and going to the very top.

If that happens and the organization learns from this, missing the playoffs will be well worth it.

If they continue to simply seek out scapegoats on the roster – as they did last year with Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and others – the futility will continue.

Your move Mr. Leiweke.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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