The Toronto Maple Leafs have just lost six straight games in a free-fall that has knocked them out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And given the franchise’s lack of success over the past four decades, it’s so very easy to rip them right now, like I did here.
But there are always two sides to every story and Devil’s Advocate, and all that, so I’d like to take the opportunity to look at the bright side – to not rip the Leafs at this time, even though we’re all so frustrated here in Leaf Nation.
The Leafs organization has made several mistakes, yes. But I believe they have truly thought that their terrible signings, trades and draft choices were smart moves at the time, and hindsight is 20/20. Besides, not every move the Leafs have made backfired: acquiring Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner for veteran defenceman Francois Beauchemin has worked out well, and the addition of goaltender Jonathan Bernier seems to be a massive steal for the Leafs. Bernier has been excellent this season – he was even named as a potential Vezina candidate by BR’s Dave Lozo.
Sure, the fact that interim GM Cliff Fletcher gave up on a young Alex Steen and then traded up in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory to acquire struggling defenceman Luke Schenn, doesn’t make you over confident.
But, to look at the bright side: Steen took years to develop into the player he is today under the guidance of Ken Hitchcock, who is one of the smartest minds in hockey, without question. And Luke Schenn became James van Riemsdyk, and JVR is real good, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.
The David Clarkson signing looks awful now, but at the time, how could anyone have known he’d fail to meet expectations the way he has? Several NHL clubs were interested in Clarkson’s services this summer, not only the Leafs. And, it’s not uncommon for big UFA signings to underachieve – in fact, it happens all the time to lots of different NHL clubs. A few summers back the New York Rangers paid a hefty price to sign centre Brad Richards. At the time, the Leafs were reportedly interested in Richards, as well, but didn’t get him. You win some, you lose some, and sometimes the ones you lose are the wins.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle is taking a lot of heat for the club’s recent struggles. It’s no secret, Randy’s coaching has not helped the Buds excel at puck possession, which raises the argument: is Randy Carlyle the right coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Maybe he’s not. But when he was hired he had a Stanley Cup ring on his resume, and since he’s been hired the Leafs are 1 for 1 at making the playoffs – possibly 2 for 2, if they qualify this season, which is still possible, keep in mind.
If Carlyle has failed as Leafs coach, and you think he should be fired; I ask, who is this great replacement coach waiting to step in? For the most part, all the good coaches already have jobs, because, well, they’re good at coaching, which makes them very employable.
Perhaps one of Kevin Dineen or Peter Laviolette is the answer, or maybe some fresh thinking up-and-comer is the correct solution behind the bench, but whoever replaces Carlyle – when his tenure with Toronto ends – will need to manage the same group of players that play the games and have the largest impact on the team’s success.
The players: The Toronto Maple Leafs have a bad habit of looking for a quick fix, or at least that is the rep they’ve earned in the past by trading away picks and prospects for veterans. But, let’s be happy that some of Toronto’s current top players are the youngest on the team.
Defencemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly possess several world class qualities they display regularly on the ice, every night. The latter, Rielly, just turned 20-years-old and is playing in his rookie season. The future is bright on the back end, look forward to it.
Nazem Kadri may never become a superstar number one centre, but keep in mind this is only his first full season in the NHL – he hasn’t had the opportunity to peak, yet. Kadri should be better next season; be very surprised if he isn’t.
This season is not over. The Leafs have eight games remaining and sit tied in points with four other teams for the two available wild card spots. It’s not a comfortable situation, that is clear, but they are by no means out of it. And sometimes when a team hits a low point like the Leafs did last night they look themselves in the mirror and think this can’t get any worse, and that realization lifts a massive weight off the team’s shoulders.
I remember in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs the San Jose Sharks – who had a reputation for choking in the post-season – went down 2-1 in games to the underdog Colorado Avalanche in the first round. The Sharks lost Game 3 in OT on a goal defenceman Dan Boyle shot into his own net. It was one of those “here we go again” moments for all who were used to watching the Sharks crumble under the pressure of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Boyle’s own goal could’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back, which is what was expected, but that’s not what happened – the Sharks stormed back revitalized and won the next three games, sparking a run to the Conference Finals. Since 2010 the Sharks have played in the Conference Finals twice, and the they’ve advanced beyond the first round in three of the last four playoff tournaments. This season San Jose is expected to challenge for the Cup again, and based on how great they’ve been all year, maybe they’re finally ready.
It could be that it can’t get any worse for the Leafs after last night’s loss to the St. Louis Blues. Maybe they can only go up from here? Up is a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. We’ll see.