(MONTREAL) — It’s over. A season that began with a lot of promise came to a slow and painful end for the Maple Leafs on Saturday after posting a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens
The game itself was inconsequential with both teams well out of a playoff spot. The good news is the Leafs failure to grab any point in the match resulted in a 26th overall finish, meaning they go into Tuesday’s draft lottery with an 8.1% chance of winning the first overall selection.
On February 6th, the Leafs were nine games over .500 and looking as good as they have in several years. Despite some weaknesses, they managed to gut out victories.
But something changed… The team’s ability to compete suddenly vanished. A slide of epic proportions saw them fade into obscurity.
In the early stages of their slide, Leafs GM Brian Burke said he felt trade deadline talk being a distraction the locker room.
“I think it’s remarkable that players have kept their focus through this time” Burke said when the NHL Trade Deadline passed without any current roster moves made by the team at the time. “I think the trade deadline is hard on players, but I think it’s murder on players in Toronto.”
The first game following the trade deadline saw quick goals against induce a lot of booing and fire Wilson chants. Without any options left, Burke did the only thing he could do, replace Ron Wilson with Randy Carlyle. The new coach wasn’t able to produce immediate results as he tried to install new systems in order to get the team playing to a style of hockey he felt necessary in order to win.
While there are many reasons a team can go into a slide, the most evident for the team this season was a lack of goaltending. There were maybe two games you can point to this season where the goaltender stole you a win.
If you look at the 16 teams that are in the playoffs, you will see quality goaltending across the board. When James Reimer was awarded a 3-year $5.4 million dollar contract last off-season, the Leafs decided to hedge all their bets on their rookie while going with Jonas Gustavsson as the backup. No move was made to acquire an experienced goaltender to backup Reimer or someone who can effectively play the 1B role should Reimer go through the motions. This ended up being the largest factor in the Leafs unraveling this season.
At that February 6th date, all the Leafs had to do was essentially play one game over .500 the rest of the way and we would be talking about their playoff opponent. Instead we’re talking about another year of an early April finish.
Brian Burke has made some good moves in his tenure in Toronto. Getting Dion Phaneuf in exchange for the roster players he gave up changed the makeup of the franchise in dramatic fashion. The ability to void themselves of Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala for J.S. Giguere was also a brilliant move.
Where Burke has had his shortcomings lie with some of the free-agents he has signed.
Tim Connolly at $4,750,000 for another season is a cap nightmare. Brought in to centre the top line with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, Connolly never found that chemistry on the top-6. While used often on special teams, it’s a hard sell at that salary for being relegated to 3rd line winger by season’s end.
Colby Armstrong has another year at $3,000,000 left. Hurt almost as often as he has been healthy since his arrival, Armstrong appears to have fallen out of favour by management. He was a healthy scratch for several games towards the end of the season and when in the lineup, his minutes were minimal as a fourth line winger.
Mike Komisarek’s contract is the one most often pointed out as a major disappointment. He’ll take up another $4.5 million in cap space for the next two seasons unless a new CBA can say the team can do otherwise.
John-Michael Liles was a good trade acquisition this past off-season. While he provided a puck-moving presence that the Leafs badly needed, Liles hasn’t been the same since he suffered his head/neck injury in December against the Sabres. He continues to battle with his timing since his return and he’ll get the rest he needs this off-season. While out for an extended amount of time, Burke negotiated a four-year contract extension with Liles.
Given what we have learned about concussion/head/neck injuries over the past 18 months and the struggles certain players have gone through to get there timing back, wouldn’t it have been prudent for Burke to see how Liles recovers before locking up the defenceman longterm?
I think Brian Burke has done a decent job of reconstructing the current face of the Maple Leafs from where they were. His ability to trade for young players in exchange for taking on big contracts has by far been his biggest strength (see Gardiner and Lupul for Beauchemin trade).
But it is time for Burke to acknowledge where he’s gone wrong. To his credit he did so in a small way by acknowledging that the game has evolved beyond his declaration of building a team based pugnacity, testosterone truculence and belligerence.
The game is evolving on a daily basis. GM’s and league officials are constantly revisiting old rules based on instances that happen based on games of the previous night. It’s time for Burke to acknowledge some of the errors of his ways. He’s got to be ok with signing someone to an extended long-term contract if that’s what it takes to land the player that is necessary. No more self-imposed trade deadlines and limits. We understand that you are loyal to players. But in the ever-evolving world of the NHL, all options have to be explored and opportunities to make a move can happen at any time. It’s owed to your employers and more importantly, to the fans who have been ever so patient.