If you ask me what was worse; the Game 7 collapse, the 18-wheeler going off the cliff or this recent skid, I would say this seasons collapse.
Why? It has been a 3 week soap opera that had no chance of a resurrection, I knew that the Leafs were in trouble when they lost to Tampa Bay (when Stamkos got the hat trick) and like many Leafs fans I do want changes, but you have to realize that it is not going to be easy.
The NHL is different from the NBA and MLS, so do not expect Tim Leiweke to magically turn this team around like he did the Raptors and TFC. Lest we forget that the Raptors were supposed to take a step back this year, but somehow they were able to rally together as a team and clinch a division title. It’s funny to see a team succeed when they have no pressure to do so. The Leafs made their first postseason appearance in 9 years after a 48 game season, lost in Game 7 to the team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the expectation this season was postseason or bust.
Like many I expected this team to make the playoffs but I also knew that it was going to be difficult to do so, especially with Detroit coming to the East. The Leafs made it to 2nd in the Atlantic and believed that they could stay in 2nd place, and with 15 games left in the season that did not seem impossible. Somehow the pressure got to this team and as a result they crumbled in a dramatic fashion.
Bernier sustains a groin injury and Leafs Nation expected James Reimer (who lost the starters job) to save the day. Good! let the guy who the team could not get more than 2-3 goals a game for come in and miraculously get the team into the playoffs!
The team had a difficult time finding consistency in their game. Yet Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly stepped up on the blueline (which is apparently lead by Dion Phaneuf) to provide a spark but that appeared to be for nothing.
The top line was getting their chances but they had a hard time getting the puck in the net. But that is why this team has 3 oth…..oh wait 2 oth…..nope the Leafs really had only 1 other scoring line which was Kadri, Lupul and Ray….Kule….Clarks…..not even sure who the other winger was. At least when Ron Wilson was coach you knew what the 4 lines were. Randy Carlyle never had a consistent lineup, yes injuries and suspensions played a role but keeping 2 enforcers also hurt this team. This team refused to give younger players from the Marlies an opportunity (D’Amigo, Ashton and Holland) to play consistent minutes, 10-15 minutes a night. Greg McKegg played 3 minutes in his NHL debut, how do you expect to show confidence in your younger players if you play them less then 10 minutes, the more opportunities you give them the more they can surprise you.
When Steven Stamkos went down with his leg injury Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat stepped up and kept Tampa Bay in the playoffs. When the Leafs lost Tyler Bozak during the season they gave Peter Holland a decent opportunity, but he still played behind Jay McClement at times. Frankly the Leafs played better with Peter Holland in the lineup, so why didn’t he stay in the NHL? Well the Leafs did not have the cap space when Bolland came back, and Holland did not have to clear waivers so Nonis thought that having him play consistent minutes in the AHL would be better.
However a team that had problems with secondary scoring and breakouts out their zone could have benefited from a player like Holland but they chose to leave him in the minors. Steve Spott, the Marlies coach, even said that he was an NHL center so Carlyle should have found a way to play him but I guess he couldn’t fathom the idea of two young center in Kadri and Holland in the lineup over Bolland or McClement.
The Leafs had a reputation for being a tough team to play against last season but other teams figured them out. Don’t let Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren fight, and keep the Leafs in the defensive zone. So the Leafs should go into the offseason figure out how to make this a competitive team again. They will have to look at each player and determine who does that and who does not.
Dion Phaneuf should not be the captain next season mainly because he was the captain during all three collapses and a change should be made in order to shake things up. You can see that there are times where Phaneuf does not play with an edge, the Leafs will have to find a partner for Phaneuf that will play with a chip on his shoulder and make the Leafs a tougher team to play against.
Maybe with Brendan Shanahan they can determine what tough choices need to be made. I think Nonis should stay as GM but he can benefit from another person that can have an input on what direction this team should pursue especially after another disappointing finish. Shanahan has tremendous experience in the NHL, he was a captain in St. Louis, a heart and soul guy on every team he played with and his time with the NHL front office makes him a logical candidate for the Leafs plus he would have the respect of the players as well.