Will next season be a race for the bottom, or another push at success?
For the third season in a row, our Leafs went out with a disappointing bang, although a bang nonetheless. Just enough to give us hope for next season... again.
Where does the blame lie?
Number one - John Ferguson Junior.
The final chapter of the legacy of Ferguson Jr. has yet to be written. The Leafs suffered this season, but the future is a little less dim. Some of the huge contracts he handed out were weighted, thus Blake and McCabe will be a little less painful on the upcoming cap hit.
His major gaffes are virtually untradable. Bell, Blake and Raycroft don't exactly have people lining up to buy out their contracts. For cap space reasons, if Toronto decides to max out again and make a push, all three players could theoretically be relegated to the Marlies.
Toskala is a great goaltender. But it still irks me that we picked him up for a first round pick, while Philly got a comparable tender in Biron for a measly second rounder! And the kick in the nuts is Bell's overpaid contract, but more on that later.
Number Two - Training and conditioning.
Toronto was sluggish out of the gate, which makes me think they weren't as fired up as they could have been at the beginning of the season.
Both goaltenders were pretty poor in the first twenty games. The goalie coach needs to be given a long, hard look.
Toronto was one of the most oft-injured teams in the league. While luck plays a role, so does conditioning. Professional athletes with excellent conditioning get injured a lot less and have longer careers. Case in point: Chris Chelios.
The blame is two fold in this instance. The players should have the drive to maintain the best physical health they can. If this means working out hard every day, and twice on off days, then so be it. Stronger players are better players and are injured a lot less.
Number Three - Andrew Raycroft
In Raycroft, we had a former Calder trophy winner. A guy who came into the league on fire and at one point, seemed to have the brightest future of any goaltender in the league. It was my hope that with good training, coaching and motivation, he would return to his former form.
Instead, in his first season as a Leaf, he allowed more goals than any other goaltender in the NHL. Faced with fighting for the starting position in his second season, he's been terrible. His awful record of two wins in the fifteen games he's started is a major factor as to why Toronto is going to miss the playoffs again.
Number Four - A Handful of Failed Expectations
Before the season, there was considerable optimism. We missed the playoffs by one point, and with the additions of Blake, Bell and Toskala, and the maturing of other players, Toronto should, in theory, have been able to make it over that elusive playoff hump.
Where did we go wrong?
To start, Wellwood wasn't anywhere near the player we'd hoped he'd be. Injury can be partly to blame, in which case we can only hope he comes back to his old self next season.
The same can be said for Tucker. Who took a break mid-season to recover from his nagging injuries.
The biggest dissappointments were Blake and Bell. Blake shoots the puck from horrid angles, while Bell just sucked. Bell was the guy who was traded for star Martin Havlat. He was the guy who was supposed to be Thorton's tough-as-nails line mate, but never materialized.
Mabye as a Leaf though, right?
Half way through the season, he was relegated to the fourth line of a non-playoff bound team. His wasteful salary makes the first round draft pick trade for Toskala seem even dumber.
McCabe and Kubina gave us a mixed bag. It wasn't until the second half of the season before they both started playing to their potential.
Coliacovo was his usual oft-injured self.
The remainder of the team, for the most part, lived up to expectations. But when a significant chunk of a team's top two lines don't produce, it hurts.
Number Five - The Fans and the harsh media.
Toronto might be the hardest market for a professional athlete anywhere in the world. They are under a microscope, and underperforming/overpaid players get booed relentlessly when the team is losing. Players may say it doesn't get to them, but it does. The stress compounds their bad play, and instead of a three game skid, they might go on a ten game slide, all because the scrutinizing fans and negative media attention.
There is a flip side to this argument. When the team is doing well overall, the fans can forgive a few bad games and be a real boost to help get the team out of a funk. Unfortunately, Toronto didn't put any consistency together until it was too late.
Better luck next year.