While only the deluded thought the Maple Leafs were going to be playing in June, this was supposed to be a team that would shine up the tarnished logo. What it lacked in talent, it would get in ‘truculence and testosterone’ as the general manager said.
The five-game trip they hoped would define their approach to the final 30 games of their season, became a crash and burn from the playoff race — just one win — and they were fortunate to get it.
To mark being 10-plus points out of contention, here’s 10 points to ponder why they’ve gone underground before Groundhog Day:
1. No October impact
The Leafs trumpeted seven new players in the season opener, but it can be argued only Francois Beauchemin has matched expectations.
Mike Komisarek, once considered the future captain, recovered from a terrible start, but has been hurt often and is hardly mentioned these days. Garnet Exelby was projected as a sixth defenceman, but even that hasn’t panned out.
Up front, Wayne Primeau spent the early weeks shaking off the rust and a chunk of January with a knee injury. Policeman Colton Orr can protect, but not serve in any other capacity, ditto for Jay Rosehill and Rickard Wallin, who still hasn’t scored.
2. Phil Kessel cornered
He insisted he wanted to come here, knowing he would have to score and be under twice the scrutiny of playing in Boston after the Leafs gambled two first rounders on him.
But after 13 goals in his first 22 games following shoulder surgery, he hit a wall, as the combined lack of camp conditioning and aggressive checking by foes almost neutralized him.
3. Vesa Toskala tainted
The UFA is down to his last strike and not exactly going down swinging. One Leafs GM over paid for him, two others have tried to be patient, but he’s just not a 60 to 70-game ace. Time to let Jonas Gustavsson learn to drive and find another veteran to work in tandem with him next year.
4. Brian Burke’s bravado
He’s a man with a plan, a Stanley Cup winner and a great promoter in a big market. After making significant moves on and off the ice, why not talk up his team with pride?
But after folks finally had been conditioned to accept a multi-year rebuild as in Pittsburgh and Washington, he boldly tried to fast forward the program. He spit out the p-word too often and though he didn’t guarantee a spot, the mere mention had too many players, fans and media drinking the spring Kool-Aid. Added expectations and pressure didn’t help.
5. Not-so-special teams
The worst penalty-killing numbers in recent NHL history are looming, intolerable for a group that considers itself hard-working. And does it not seem that the power play has been broken since Dave Andreychuk left 13 years ago?
6. Ron Wilson
It’s hard to disparage someone who sits eighth in NHL coaching wins, who is not afraid to step on sluggish players in public where his predecessors tip-toed.
But going on two years, it could be Wilson is ill-suited for this type of team or vice-versa. The Leafs aren’t quitting on him, but neither are they coming out of the gate with the requisite energy or confidence.
Staff must take heat for giving up the first goal 36 times, down 2-0 in 25 more, all part of 15 one-goal losses and no wins in 29 games when trailing after 40 minutes.
7. Home repairs
Every Leaf swears he wants to play in the hockey mecca, the centre of the universe, blah, blah, blah, but few truly embrace it. This year, they didn’t win a home game until Nov. 7.
8. Kid stuff
Fair or not, there was too much pressure on the team’s youth; Gustavsson in goal, Luke Schenn on defence and Viktor Stalberg, Christian Hanson and now Tyler Bozak all given high-profile roles, Bozak is now centring the top line. With 29 games to play out, there’s no reason not to expand roles to steel them for next season.
9. Crop failure
Jeff Jackson and Dallas Eakins are doing everything they can with the Marlies, but their best players are either here already or hurt.
10. Missing or miscast
Matt Stajan as the first-line centre was a noble effort, but he’s no Marc Savard. Water bug Jason Blake is fun to watch, but can’t score. Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Niklas Hagman and Mikhail Grabovski have been far too streaky.