The Toronto Maple Leafs were having a great season and had been jockeying for a top-three finish in the Atlantic Division until an eight-game losing streak in March caused them to fall out of playoff contention entirely.
Does it feel like you’ve heard this story before? You’re not wrong.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that the Maple Leafs have gone through an epic collapse late in the season.
The team went through a similar meltdown during the 2012 season where it went 1-9-1 in February to fall out of the playoff race, which prompted then-general manager Brian Burke to make his famous “18-wheeler going right off the cliff” comment.
It’s worth noting that the 2012 collapse cost then Leafs head coach Ron Wilson his job and led to Randy Carlyle being hired as his replacement.
Burke himself was fired shortly before the start of the 2013 season and assistant general manager Dave Nonis was promoted to GM.
Under Carlyle, the Leafs made the playoffs last season only to lose in spectacular fashion during Game 7 of the first round against the Boston Bruins.
Many analysts believed that demoralizing loss—where Toronto blew a 4-1 third-period lead with under 15 minutes to go—was rock-bottom for the Leafs and that the team would learn from that experience heading into the 2014 season.
But yet another collapse for the third straight year has raised a lot of questions.
Is there something fundamentally wrong with this team which always starts off the season so well and then falters near the end?
Fatigue, lapses in focus and a lack of confidence during pressure situations could all be probable causes as to why this same breakdown is occurring year after year. Or it could be something else entirely.
The answer to this question won’t be easy to find.
One thing is for sure though. Expect lots of changes this offseason to both the team’s front office and roster.
Carlyle doesn’t deserve all the blame for this latest collapse. But his teams both last year and this season have drawn criticism for not having enough puck-possession time, being outshot on a nightly basis and folding under pressure. His relationship with the players has also been drawn into question.
There’s no doubting that the coach’s job is in serious jeopardy and at the moment it’s appearing highly unlikely that he’ll be back behind the bench next season.
Nonis, who signed a five-year contract extension at the end of last season, might also be in danger of losing his job.
The Maple Leafs GM has been soundly criticized for signing winger David Clarkson to a seven-year deal last offseason.
Clarkson, who has an annual cap hit of $5.25 million, has just 11 points in 58 games played this season.
Nonis’ decision to re-sign Dion Phaneuf, who has been a lightning rod for critics with his recent play, to a seven-year deal worth $49 million has also drawn a lot of ire from the media and the fanbase.
Tim Leiweke, president of Maple Leafs parent company MLSE, has been quick to make front-office changes whenever his teams have struggled.
Leiweke, who fired Burke last year, was also responsible for the ousters of Toronto Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo and Toronto FC GM Kevin Payne when both those teams were playing poorly.
Aside from the front-office personnel, the team’s roster also figures to see a lot of turnover.
Wingers Nikolai Kulemin, Mason Raymond and centre Dave Bolland are all notable unrestricted free agents and the team likely won’t bring all three of the players back.
The defense corps might also see an overhaul as the team will look to make changes to a group that ranked 13th in the conference in goals against with a whopping 251 goals allowed.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier was one of the team’s best players this season and will most likely return next season. The same can’t be said for fellow goaltender James Reimer who struggled this season in a backup role and might be moved elsewhere.
With the NHL salary cap going up next season to $71.5 million, the team can potentially have the capability to make a few significant moves if it can re-sign its own players to affordable deals first.
One thing is for certain though, after a third straight season where the team collapsed in the second half, it’s time to make some changes to ensure that this doesn’t happen against next year.