TORONTO – The gravity of a late-season collapse was weighing heavily on the Toronto Maple Leafs the day after they were officially eliminated from the playoffs for a seventh straight year.
“It’s embarrassing what we’re doing here,” leading scorer Phil Kessel said Wednesday.
The most recent failed season came with even more pain than the six that preceded it.
There was no hint of an impending implosion when the Leafs came roaring out of the all-star break with back-to-back games against Pittsburgh—a 5-4 shootout loss followed by a 1-0 win the next night. After that, they travelled to Ottawa and posted a 5-0 victory before returning home to beat Edmonton 6-3.
At that point, the Leafs looked like a playoff team and there was even some talk about them making a push for one of the top four seeds in the conference.
That talk ended quickly.
Toronto has since been mired in a 5-16-3 funk that has seen coach Ron Wilson get fired and 10 straight losses at Air Canada Centre, a franchise-worst mark for futility it will try to end Thursday night against Philadelphia.
The Leafs still aren’t entirely sure what went wrong.
“We had meetings, we talked about it,” said captain Dion Phaneuf. “We just couldn’t snap out of it. We couldn’t turn it around and we’re very disappointed about that.”
New coach Randy Carlyle was willing to accept some of the blame despite being on the job for less than a month. He’s tried to get the Leafs to play better defensive hockey since replacing Wilson on March 2, but the team’s goals-against average has only dipped by a hair.
A number of factors contributed to Toronto allowing the NHL’s third-highest goal total this season, including a disappointing, injury-filled campaign from expected No. 1 goaltender James Reimer and a dreadful penalty kill.
As the season wore on and pressure mounted, the team’s inability to keep the puck out of its net started to erode confidence. There was often a feeling of “here we go again” whenever Reimer or Jonas Gustavsson allowed a bad goal and their teammates readily acknowledge that they didn’t react well once the losses started mounting in February.
“It’s our fault in the room here,” said defenceman Cody Franson. “We’ve got to take a lot of responsibility for what happened this year. We didn’t do a good enough job of facing adversity head-on, we kind of let it take over us.
“We lost some confidence and we lost our swagger that we had from the start of the year when we were playing really well.”
A major challenge moving forward will be maintaining the team’s offensive attack while tightening up the defence. Toronto was among the higher scoring teams this season thanks in large part to Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul, who suffered a shoulder injury earlier this month.
The goals have dried up a little under Carlyle, with the Leafs getting shut out in four of their last 10 games—including the 3-0 loss to Carolina on Tuesday that officially ended their playoff hopes.
“I think we’re playing a little different style of hockey than before,” said Kessel. “Obviously, I think everyone can tell it’s a different style than Ron used to play. We’re just not creating as many chances as we were before.”
With Florida currently closing in on a playoff spot, the Leafs will likely hold the NHL’s longest post-season drought heading into next season.
Fans have made their frustration known at recent home games, where a loud contingent successfully called for Wilson’s job and others have recently taken to showing up with bags over their heads. Carlyle clearly wants to mend fences with the paying customers.
“We actually talked about that this morning—about the fans and how passionate (they are) and how much the fans here in Toronto give to the hockey club,” he said. “We have to understand that there’s a higher level of responsibility back from us a hockey club to deliver more. …
“We’re very, very fortunate to have those people supporting our group.”
Like Wilson, Carlyle was drafted by the Leafs and spent the first couple years of his playing career in the city. And he’s sorry to see what has become of the organization.
“It’s a storied franchise and we feel that we’re somewhat embarrassed by what has happened,” said Carlyle. “And we should be.”
Notes: On Wednesday, Toronto signed forward Spencer Abbott, a 23-year-old Hamilton native from the University of Maine, to an entry-level contract. He’ll join the American Hocke League’s Marlies for the remainder of this year … Leafs GM Brian Burke has been appointed to the Hockey Hall of Fame’s selection committee along with former NHL player and executive Anders Hedberg and journalist Marc de Foy. They replace Harry Sinden, Yvon Pedneault and Jan-Ake Edvinsson.