MONTREAL - The questions don’t have concrete answers, but finding solutions is going to be on the shoulders of Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke in the off-season.
Which was the real Leafs team of 2011-12? The one that had everyone convinced through the first week of February that it finally was a playoff club, one that was on the verge of ending a lack of post-season participation that stretched back to 2004? Or, the one that began to flame out on Feb. 7, with a loss in Winnipeg and then threw itself into one of the biggest collapses in recent NHL history? Or somewhere in between?
“Those are good questions,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said. “I think we showed in parts of the season we are that playoff-calibre team, we struggled with consistency. When we got into a hole, we got behind the eight-ball. We lost a couple of games, we could not dig ourselves out of it, and we did not have a pushback.”
The worst part of everything for Komisarek and his teammates? The past few years they have played their best hockey when they were out of true playoff contention. This season, two months away from the playoffs when all they had to do was keep up the pace that had them in eighth place just after the all-star break, they corkscrewed into the ground.
“This year, it’s tougher to swallow,” Komisarek said. “You work your butt off, spend the summer preparing for the season, and then all this happens.”
The Leafs won just twice in 17 games starting on Feb. 7, and before that skid ended, lost enough games to get Ron Wilson fired on Mar. 2, the night before a match at the Bell Centre against the Montreal Canadiens. They won their first game under Randy Carlyle, but then lost the following five.
“It’s tough to comprehend where everything went wrong,” defenceman Luke Schenn said. “Every team will go through ups and downs, but when you have those big falls, for a whole month, that’s when it hurts overall and you can’t recover from that.”
Inconsistent goaltending was a problem, but once the coaching change was made, the Leafs were unable to make the transition to Carlyle’s emphasis on defence from Wilson’s looser style, and elimination from playoff contention came with five games remaining.
Carlyle might have laid a foundation for the Leafs of the future, but knows the cement still is wet. Furthermore, whether all 18 skaters who dressed on Saturday night are suitable for the kind of hockey he wants, is debatable. The challenge for Burke will be acquiring players who can get a stronger grasp of the game that Carlyle likes and wants.
“We will be able to show that next year in training camp versus being able to show it now,” Carlyle said. “There’s a long time between now and then, too long.
“One thing we want to make sure is that our players have an understanding of our expectations and the way we are going to play, some of the systems we are going to play. There is a template we are going to try to create and sell here.”
Having an 18-game springboard helped. No matter what player changes Burke makes this summer, those who are Leafs again in 2012-13 will know what Carlyle requires from his players when they arrive next September.
“That has its advantages, but it’s up to the players to be the sponge and up to the coaching staff to know what players and personnel are taking what you are selling and buying it,” Carlyle said. “That’s all part of this 18-game audition, if you want to look at it like that.
“When I took the job, I didn’t really look at it that way, I looked at it as an opportunity to turn this club around and it didn’t happen. We have to take some responsibility for that as a coaching staff.”