Where did it all go wrong? The non-concussive concussion on Reimer from that intentionally unintentional non-elbowing elbow delivered by Montreal’s Brian Gionta? The dramatic falloff of Captain Dion Phaneuf starting in December? The league’s clandestine policy refusing pylons from taking over the net when your starters take an early vacation? Lupul falling into those old bad habits of sitting on his ass all game long during the end of the season?
It is hard to say but let’s get two things straight: it is neither Ron Wilson’s nor Brian Burke’s fault (at least not entirely). First with Wilson, he made his team lethal until the all-star break; even after the goals evaporated upon the arrival of Randy Carlyle and the injury to Lupul this team finished 10th overall in goals for and powerplay. Combine this with a reinvented penalty kill that went an entire month without giving up a goal and it becomes really hard to make an argument that Wilson is the main reason for the collapse. Carlyle’s team was considerably worse than Wilson’s.
As for Burke, would a trade or two really have made a difference this season? Sure a goalie would have been nice, but after stealing Lupul, Gardiner, Phaneuf and shipping out nothing but 3rd rate players to get them it is no real shocker that NHL GM’s are hesitant when dealing with the Leafs. Burke may no longer be able to oversell his players to wary GM’s who are now ensuring they get fair compensation to avoid getting burnt. Right now the Leafs are better off with their 5th overall pick instead of a veteran goalie and a matchup against the Rangers or Bruins.
Forgetting the Racicot-esque goaltending, the disappointment rests on the shoulders of the players; specifically Lombardi, Komisarek, Schenn, Armstrong, Kulemin, Connolly and Steckel.
Starting with the forwards on this list: Lombardi, a throw-in in the deal to acquire Cody Franson, was never high up on the depth chart, but came in as a reliable two way vet and former first line centre from one of the most defensively responsible teams in the league. What we got was an incredibly fast skater with no scoring touch whatsoever and defensive acumen rivaling Pavel Bure, finishing with a team worst -19.
With Armstrong and Connolly, both entered the season with lukewarm expectations but if they combined for 90-100 points it would have been a raving success. Instead they combined for 39 points in 99 games, or one point every 2.5 games. Nowhere near the production needed from a top centre or high energy agitator.
As for Steckel, his job was winning faceoffs and win them he did. Unfortunately after the draw was over he was a complete liability on the ice. He was too slow, not at all physical enough shut down the league’s top scorers and lacked enough defensive awareness to keep his 6’6” frame in the shooting lanes. This meant he would go out, win a faceoff and still get scored upon, finishing with a -14 rating. He was on the ice for more even strength goals against than he had points – not an effective shutdown man.
The biggest let down on the team this season was Kulemin. No contest on that one considering he had more goals last season than points this season. On the positive side his defensive skills are among the best on the team and if his scoring touch does not return then he could fit in nicely on the 3rd or 4th line with a different role. There is no denying that if Kulemin produced like he had last year the Leafs would have had a much different look, maybe even been a playoff contender. Toronto lost 22 games by one goal, 12 in regulation. It is not hard to imagine that if Kulemin netted an extra 20 goals this season this number could be much smaller. A big play from your hardest worker can inspire an entire lineup, and this team lacked inspiration when it mattered.
When dissecting the Leafs over the past 3 seasons there have been at least 2 constants: embarrassing penalty killing and defensive lapses. This was supposed to have been the main job of 2 players, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek. Both have been described as stay-at-home defenders ready to punish all who enter their zone. The reality has been 2 players who rarely use their strength to successfully defend their zone and have an odd inability to play any type of structured defense. Opposition need only to glide out of these bruisers’ line of sight and are forgotten, left alone to skate into some of the most dangerous scoring areas unchecked. Tap in after tap in are shoveled past Leaf goalies and replays often show Schenn or Komi idling in front of the net with a shocked expression, clearly puzzled as to why these players would so rudely return to that spot after being politely asked to leave. These 2 “defensive defencemen” have combined for a startling -41 in the past 3 seasons and played huge minutes on the league’s worst PK in that span.
Did Burke and Wilson do everything right? No, there have been problems in both approach and execution by both men. It certainly didn’t help that both had a different idea of what the team’s identity should be. In the end, though, both are proven winners and their plans have worked elsewhere. While blaming the coach and front office is easier, in the end the players didn’t do their jobs and had they even reached the minimum of expectations a few extra points could have been found in that disastrous 7-17-4 run that ended the season.