Playing the blame game

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager John Ferguson Jr. has done a good job solidifying the scouting...

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager John Ferguson Jr. has done a good job solidifying the scouting and player development departments on the team. (Toronto Sun File/David Lucas)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

If the Maple Leafs somehow squeeze into the post-season, it would be the type of miracle even the 1980 U.S. Olympic team would ooh and ah over.

Odds are, it won't happen.

And when the moment arrives that Pat Quinn and Co. officially are given the last rites, the autopsies will officially begin. Some already have.

Who's to blame for the Leafs missing the playoffs?

Did they misread the climate of the new NHL?

Six months ago in The Toronto Sun's special 44-page NHL preview section, we listed 10 key factors that would make or break the Maple Leafs season.

After reviewing all of them, we have a much clearer picture of what caused this blue-and-white train to derail.

1. FERGIE'S CALCULATOR

General manager John Ferguson Jr. has done a good job solidifying the scouting and player development departments. But his wallet certainly shrivelled when the $39-million US salary cap was introduced, forcing the Leafs to lop off more than $20 million in payroll.

THE VERDICT: Why not buy out Ed Belfour at the beginning of the season? Why re-sign Aki Berg and Nik Antropov? Free-agent signings Alexander Khavanov, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison never had the desired effect.

2. BRYAN'S BUTT

Relax ladies. We're referring to Bryan McCabe's famous butt check, which was outlawed under the NHL's obstruction crackdown. Undisciplined penalties have been a concern with McCabe in the past.

THE VERDICT: Admittedly he has cooled off since suffering a slightly torn groin muscle in January, a trend which could cost him Norris Trophy votes. Nevertheless no one could have predicted McCabe would lead the team in scoring until the season's final month.

3. BELFOUR'S BACK

The Leafs rolled the dice when they shoveled all that money at Belfour in 2004. It backfired. By the time you crunch all the numbers, it cost the Leafs about $11 million US for a veteran goalie with a brittle back, a .500 record and a 3.29 goals-against average.

THE VERDICT: One of the most competitive characters in the game, Belfour indeed may return to the NHL next season. But his woes in 2005-06 cannot be ignored.

4. LINDROS' LEGACY

The Big E got off to a great start, putting the team on his shoulders while captain Mats Sundin missed a month with an eye injury. But a wrist ailment put him on the shelf in December and left him there, causing his father, Carl Lindros, to suggest the Leafs may have misdiagnosed the injury.

THE VERDICT: Lindros was almost in tears when announcing his season was over. His heart was into it; his body wasn't.

5. ALLISON'S COBWEBS

Coming into the 2005-06 season the injury-plagued Allison had not played a game since January 2003. It was a risk the Maple Leafs were willing to take.

THE VERDICT: Mixed reviews. At times he looked like he was clomping around in work boots while opponents whizzed by. And injuries were indeed a factor, including the hand/wrist ailment that ended his season. At the same time, his 60 points in 66 games cannot be ignored.

6. NIK'S NOGGIN

A skilled player, Antropov's consistency always has been an issue.The talent is there, but his critics at times wonder what's going on between his ears.

THE VERDICT: Despite recent flashes, he should be more productive, especially when he is playing on Sundin's wing. His skating is a concern, as are the number of poor line changes in which he has been involved the past month.

7. KIDDIE CORPS

At one time, the prospects' cupboard was thought to be bare. But the emergence of rookies Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Ben Ondrus, John Pohl, Ian White, Staffan Kronwall, Carlo Colaiacovo, Jay Harrison, Brendan Bell and Andy Wozniewski, along with increased ice time for Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan, suggests there is a promising foundation for the future.

THE VERDICT: Ferguson may not have drafted all the aforementioned players, but his decision to bring in Paul Maurice as Marlies coach has paid dividends in the development of many of these guys.

8. BACK-END BLUES

It seems like a decade ago that Brian Leetch wore the blue and white, doesn't it? They could have used him. After McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, blue-line depth was a real concern entering the season.

THE VERDICT: Berg and Khavanov simply are not good enough to be the No. 3 and No. 4 defencemen on a contender. There are some promising kids in the mix, but their time will come.

9. RED LIGHT DISTRICT

With Gary Roberts (28), Joe Nieuwendyk (22), Owen Nolan (19), Mikael Renberg (12), Robert Reichel (11) and Alex Mogilny (8) no longer on the scene, the Leafs needed to replace the 100 goals netted by those players in 2004.

THE VERDICT: Even in the so-called new wide-open NHL, only three players -- Sundin, Ponikarovsky and Darcy Tucker -- have cracked the 20-goal plateau. That's not enough.

10. NORTHEAST NIGHTMARE

Entering the final week of the season, the Leafs have a poor 10-15-5 mark against their Northeast Division foes.

Their records vs. these teams includes: Ottawa Senators (0-5-2), Buffalo Sabres (2-4-1), Montreal Canadiens (4-3-1) and Boston Bruins (4-3-1).

Particularly humiliating is the Leafs inability to beat the rival Senators, who have embarrassed Toronto in shocking fashion by 8-0, 8-2 and 7-2 scores along the way.

THE VERDICT: You can't go head to head with division opponents and collect just 42% of the available points if you expect to make the playoffs.


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