Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, back centre, looks on in the final minutes of the game against the Winnipeg Jets during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, April 5, 2014. The Jets defeated the Maple Leafs 4-2.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies