The annual collapse of the Toronto Maple Leafs came early this year. This time the collapse is being viewed differently and signs are pointing to the Leafs shaking up their core. In reality this collapse is just history repeating itself.
Looking back most people point to 2012 as the first collapse the Leafs had. Poised in a playoff spot the team went on a 1-9-1 streak in February and Ron Wilson was fired. The famous Leafs analogy of an 18 wheeler going off a cliff was coined that year but if you look closer the Leafs history of going on tilt goes back further.
In the 2010-2011 season the Leafs went on a 1-8-3 stretch that went from mid-October to mid-November. If you remove that stretch from their season they would have been on pace for 96 points, that would have been good for a three way tie for 6th between them, Montreal, and Buffalo.
One year earlier in 2009-2010 the Leafs first win came on October 26th, 9 games into the season. They ended with the second worst record in the NHL and could have drafted Tyler Seguin second overall if they had their first round pick.
There is a problem with the culture of the Toronto Maple Leafs was caused by a lack of patience of management post lock out. Brian Burke is the worst offender of refusing to rebuild properly. He brought a ton of sound bites, the promise of Truculence, and an impatient rebuild with him. While Burke was able to acquire talented players he never found true leadership the Leafs needed.
In Burke’s first off season he looked at a team that had Matt Stajan and Alexi Ponikarovsky as their most talented players and decided he was going to add to it and make a playoff run. He signed Mike Komisarek and Francois Beaucheman to bolster the defence and traded the next two years of first round picks for sniper Phil Kessel.
Kessel is an elite goal scorer. He has one of the best shots in the NHL and would be a great piece for any contender to have. Kessel is not a player you can build your team around. He is a shy and introverted and will not be a leader on any NHL team. Giving up two first round picks and one second round pick committed the Leafs to build around Kessel despite needing leadership.
Burke made trades to bolster the Leafs lineup and acquired a band of talented misfits. Players like Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, James Van Reimsdyk, Cody Franson and Clark MacArthur found success on the Leafs after being cast aside from their old teams. They developed together with Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri to become the core of the Leafs. There has never been anyone in the locker room with an exceptional talent and complete level that the other players on the team can follow the example of or look too in times of trouble. That kind of leadership is hard to find and something you will almost always need to draft. Developing this group together combined with the outdated coaching styles of Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle tainted a talented group of players.
Albert Einstein famously said the definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. After the 2012 trade deadline where the Leafs tanked and replaced Wilson with Carlyle Burke commented on his drafting philosophy
“At the trade deadline all of the deals we were presented were centered on where we had to wait,” Burke said. “You get a first round pick for a guy what is that? That is three years for most of them. That’s three years we wait and I said no.”
Nonis became the Leafs General Manager in a season shortened season where the Leafs did not have enough time to collapse. Toronto had playoff hockey for the first time in nine years giving the fans hope and excitement. That hope and excitement was crushed a little over ten minutes when the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in game seven.
Nonis decided to give most of the Leafs core players multi-year contracts while letting free agents walk without getting anything in return.
Two years and two collapses down the stretch later and here we are. By this point with most franchises the fans would have lost interest and the team’s revenue would decline. Instead of that Leafs fans managed to invent a new way to show their displeasure, jersey tossing.
The Lack of mental resolve the Leafs have can be heard in almost every interview where the players comment on unruly fans tossing jerseys and the hostility of the media. It gets under the players skins and makes the problem of their mental fragility even worse.
Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas will be evaluating the Leafs after this disappointing season. Hopefully they can take a sober look at the last ten years and history doesn’t repeat again.