The Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from playoff contention last night after an embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was not the fact that they lost to the Lightning that was embarrassing, as the Tampa Bay has proven to be a good team this year, but it was how they lost that should cause some concerns. In a must-win game for Toronto, they barely put up a fight. It took 16 days for the Toronto Maple Leafs to turn from playoff contender to fighting for their playoff lives and their lost playoff chance is bringing up the question of where the team goes from here.
Toronto seemed to defy all the odds to start the season. Despite being outshot and often outworked in almost every game, the team was finding a way to win. It seemed unsustainable, but many of the same factors applied to Leaf games last season and they still made the playoffs. Until about a month ago, it seemed like the team would somehow pull of the miraculous again and make the playoffs at a much higher seed. Toronto was 4th in the Eastern Conference on March 15, solidly in a playoff spot and looking like possible dark horses for the Cup.
Then the team started losing and could not seem to stop. They lost 4-2 to the Washington Capitals on March 16, giving up three goals in the first ten minutes of the game. Toronto coach Randy Carlyle would say after the game that the team “wasn’t sharp enough” and “didn’t play with enough energy or desperation.” Those words would seem almost prophetic, as the Leafs would lose eight games in a row, all of them in regulation. By the end of the month, Toronto had dropped down to 10th in the conference and were left scrambling for answers.
“Shock might be the words to describe it,” Carlyle said after the loss to Tampa Bay. “I think we have more than we were able to accomplish, and that’s the most troubling issue here. We didn’t find a way to compete and execute to a level that was necessary.”
The loss against Tampa Bay was their 10th loss in 12 games, with very few games giving much hope for the future. The Leafs are tied down to some massive contracts for the next several years. David Clarkson was signed to an outrageous $5 million contract this past offseason, overpaying him until 2020. The hope was that Clarkson would be the next Wendel Clark for the team, a big, physical goalscorer that would protect some of Toronto’s younger players in the process. Instead, the comparison has become somewhat of a punchline for the Leafs, with Clarkson only posting 5 goals on the season, well below the 30-goal mark that was set for him in the offseason.
Dion Phaneuf’s contract should also be a concern for Toronto. He is being paid $7 million a year until 2021, and while he has not been nearly as bad as Clarkson, his play still has not lived up to high expectations. Too often, the Leafs captain will put himself out of position going for a big hit or will be caught flat-footed against some of the speedier NHL forwards. His inconsistent play matches the inconsistent play of the team, bringing a question about whether Phaneuf should really be the one captaining the Toronto club.
It is not all bad news for the Leafs. Phil Kessel continues his impressive play since being acquired from Boston. He is a point-per-game player this year and his play for the US during the Olympics should give Toronto fans hope when the team eventually begins to make deep playoff runs. Likewise, James van Riemsdyk posted the first 30-goal season of his career, a stark change from his normal pace and a glimpse of what he might bring to the team on a consistent basis. However, two players, especially two wingers, do not make a team. There are too many holes in the makeup of the Toronto Maple Leafs to be fixed with a quick patchwork solution, leaving many to wonder; After 16 days changed the fate of the Toronto team this season, where do they go from here?
This article is one in a daily series providing coverage, analysis and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner