OTTAWA – “Frustrating,” “embarrassing” and “disappointing” are just a few of the words the Toronto Maple Leafs used to describe the downward spiral that took place this season.
While it’s unclear as to how and why this team suffered such an ugly late-season demise, one thing is certain: it will take time to digest.
“It sticks with you for a while definitely,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “When you take time to look back and reflect, it’s something that doesn’t go away in a couple of days.
“This is our job. It’s a business and we’re in the business of results and we didn’t get results. We were in a very good spot and we let it slip away and that’s the extremely disappointing part of everything.”
Things began to unravel following the Olympic Winter Games.
On February 26, the day the NHL schedule resumed, the Leafs were tied with the Montreal Canadiens for third in the Atlantic Division with 70 points.
The Leafs lost their first three games after the break, but went on to win the next three and on March 13 sat second in the Atlantic Division with a three-point lead on both Montreal and Tampa. Things looked good and no-one could have predicted that within two weeks the team would be out of the playoff picture.
On March 16, the Washington Capitals defeated Toronto 4-2 in what was the first of an eight-game nose dive. Adding to Toronto’s problems was the fact all eight losses came in regulation.
Toronto went on to win just six games following the Olympic break for a record of 6-14-2 down the stretch.
“We started playing some worse hockey the tighter it got and that’s not what good teams do,” said defenceman Cody Franson. “For some reason we couldn’t nail down our defensive structure and system in the neutral zone and in our defensive zone.
“For some reason, we just kept allowing too many odd-man rushes, where our goalies need to make big saves and allowing missed coverages in our own zone that forced us into tough situations.”
Most of the criticism fell on the shoulders of goaltender James Reimer who was forced to carry the workload as Jonathan Bernier was sidelined with, first, a groin injury that kept him out of five games, and then a knee injury that ended his season.
Reimer wasn’t getting much support from his teammates, but a bigger problem was the lack of his coach’s confidence.
When asked about Reimer’s performance following a 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, coach Randy Carlyle answered: “I thought he was OK, just OK.”
The ripple effect from those words was significant. The normally-unflappable Reimer was clearly disturbed by the comment.
The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent and ultimately the Leafs have the final say on whether he stays or goes, but there’s a sense that Reimer already knows the writing is on the wall.
“This was a team that I just wanted to play here for my whole career,” Reimer said. “It’s just sad that now there’s a question mark over it because I would have wanted it to be a sure thing for 20 years.”
Despite the difficulties of the season, Reimer admits he learned a great deal about himself as a player and an individual through the adversity.
“A lot of it is just trying to stay level-headed through adversity and through the ups and down or the major ups and downs of this season,” said Reimer. “I think I learned that trying to find that even ground. That’s so important and not getting caught up in how you feel or how you think you’re playing or how others are thinking you’re playing. I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a good season for learning.”
It’s clear there will be changes. No team can escape unscathed after falling as hard and as fast as Toronto did.
Friday the organization announced Brendan Shanahan as the team’s new president and alternate governor. Shanahan will be formally introduced at a press conference Monday.
Reimer is not the only one who could be looking for a new landing spot. The Leafs have seven unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents, including Reimer.
Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis will have to make decisions on the future of defencemen Jake Gardiner, Paul Ranger and Franson as well as forwards Jay McClement, Mason Raymond, Carter Ashton, Troy Bodie, Nikolai Kulemin, Peter Holland and Dave Bolland. Goaltender Drew MacIntyre is also set to become an unrestricted free agent.
One also has to wonder what lies ahead for Carlyle and his staff. Carlyle was not immune to the sadness of this season.
“It’s terribly disappointing and emotional,” Carlyle said. “It’s like you almost get in a state of depression because it’s such a negative in your life. We’re embarrassed about the way things unravelled for our hockey club.”
Carlyle is well aware that his future is uncertain, but said he would still undertake the difficult task of breaking down what and where things went wrong.
“It’s going to take some time to decipher everything that’s gone on,” added Carlyle. “There will be a lot of questions and a lot of internal banter going back and forth on what we feel and what we needed to do and what we should have done and what they could have done. There are all those things and it’s going to take time to go through.”
When asked if he could have done anything differently Carlyle was honest.
“There’s always going to be things I could have done differently for sure. There’s nobody here that is absolving themselves of any responsibility.”
Franson said to a man this team will struggle with what went down, but they have no-one to blame but themselves and they will live with the consequences.
“We didn’t get the job done and unfortunately this is the situation we’re in,” said Franson. “I’m sure management will take some time and let the dust settle a little bit and look and see what they feel is best for our team in moving forward, and us as players, we just have to wait and see I guess now.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated James Reimer was an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and not a restricted free agent.