They were one point ahead of the 8th place Ottawa Senators, while having two games in hand. They trailed the New Jersey devils by one point for sixth place, the Pittsburgh Penguins by two points for fifth, the Philadelphia Flyers by four points for fourth, and were just six points behind the Boston Bruins for the Northeast Division lead.
The Maple Leafs looked like they were on their way to potentially becoming a dangerous team. However, they soon hit a roadblock and hit it hard. After a competitive 2-1 loss the following night to the Jets in Winnipeg, the Leafs slowly began their transformation into the mess we currently see.
Although they only lost 4-3 two nights later to the Flyers in Philadelphia, the score was complimentary, as the Flyers dominated the game and out-shot them by a 39-27 margin.
The next two games marked the beginning of the end as they suffered a 5-0 home loss to the Montreal Canadiens and followed that up with a 5-1 loss in Calgary two nights later.
With the Maple Leafs stumbling to the finish line, there’s a strong chance that they could find themselves in the bottom five and enter the draft lottery for a chance to select top prospects Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Filip Forsberg or Alex Galchenyuk.
With only five games remaining, logic suggests that the Leafs might be best-suited to call up some of their younger players and see what they can do at the NHL level, since the remaining games are no longer significant this season.
However, as we saw last week when Nazem Kadri and Ryan Hamilton were called up from the minors, the Leafs gained three out of a possible four points against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers as both players contributed offensively. Kadri’s shoot-out goal stood as the winner as he beat Martin Brodeur with a terrific move.
Perhaps bringing up the younger players may not be a good idea after all as they could compromise the team's draft position. The truth is that Kadri should have been with the big club much earlier this season when the Leafs were still in a playoff race. Matthew Lombardi, Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly were not going to stop Toronto’s sinking ship this season, so why not bring up Kadri earlier?
Everything about the Maple Leafs is flawed, starting with the way they have been built. They are arguably the softest team in the NHL. They acquired Dion Phaneuf in a January 31, 2010 trade with the Calgary Flames and introduced him as team captain later that summer.
However, the only place that he’s led this team is straight into a ditch. In the 2010-2011 season, the Leafs finished 10th in the East with 85 points, despite another late season "playoff surge" that allowed the Boston Bruins to select Dougie Hamilton with the ninth overall pick that completed the Phil Kessel trade.
Currently, the Leafs are 14th in the East with 75 points after a horrific stretch of hockey that saw them go 5-16-3 since February 6.
Ron Wilson wanted the Leafs to play a run-and-gun type of game when the team clearly didn’t have the right goalie to play that style. After the Maple Leafs fired Wilson, GM Brian Burke hired Randy Carlyle to take over. Carlyle likes to play a much rougher brand of hockey, which the Leafs again cannot successfully play because they do not have the personnel to do so.
After watching the Maple Leafs this season, it is painfully clear that they need to make some changes heading into next year.
First, they must look at replacing Brian Burke. They haven’t come close to the playoffs since he was appointed GM on November 29, 2008. He grossly miscalculated on the Phil Kessel trade with the Boston Bruins that has possibly set the club back even further. Few people would offer Tyler Seguin straight up for Kessel at this point, never mind the additional first- and second-rounder that Boston also obtained in the deal.
He also overpaid for Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly. He was fleeced by the Nashville Predators in a deal that brought Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson to Toronto. After watching Lombardi with the Leafs this season, it is no surprise why Nashville was willing to include Franson in the transaction. Lombardi is scheduled to earn $3.5 million next season.
While Franson seems to be a good young player, he has been a healthy scratch too many times this season. If the coaches have no plans on playing him, then why even make the trade in the first place?
Second, they must either trade Dion Phaneuf or remove the ‘C’ from him. Since when does changing the music in the locker room signal a leader? Where was he in Toronto’s humiliating 8-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on March 19? Even Mike Komisarek stepped up against Milan Lucic. Although he lost the fight, he at least showed up and even initiated it.
Earlier this season in a game against the Lightning, Steve Downie—then a member of Tampa—was in Phaneuf’s face the entire game and there was no response. As team captain, he should have done something about it.
The best part of the Dion Phaneuf trade was Keith Aulie, who the team traded away at the NHL trade deadline for Carter Ashton.
Third, find a number-one goalie. Between Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer, too many weak goals found the back of the net which ultimately killed the Leafs. The Los Angeles Kings have Jonathan Bernier and the Vancouver Canucks have Cory Schneider, while the Leafs have prospects to offer. They should pursue Bernier, who should come cheaper.
The Leafs have too many holes on their roster and we can all agree that changes need be made as the city hasn't seen playoff hockey since May 2004. It appears as if fans have finally had enough of Toronto’s losing ways, and if losses continue to pile next season, could we see MLSE’s bottom line affected?