What Went Wrong for the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs?

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What Went Wrong for the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs?
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There stood David Clarkson in the visiting locker room at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, a $37 million mistake answering questions after the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from postseason contention by the Lightning.

How did it happen? How did a team that took four of six points during a three-game California swing to move into third place in the East on March 13 have its season end 26 days later by dropping 10 of 12 games?

"You always try to learn from things, though," Clarkson said. "I think personally or as a group, you try to learn from things."

The inability of the Leafs to learn from things is what ultimately led to their demise in 2013-14. The writing was on the wall as far back as 2013, when the Leafs had their inefficiencies hidden by a shortened schedule that aided them in a undeserved trip to the playoffs. Be it hubris or an inability to see clearly through the smoke and mirrors created by the team itself, no one within the organization would allow themselves to make an honest assessment of a team that finally had its flaws revealed for the world to see during an embarrassing 26-day stretch that should have surprised no one.

"When we come out of the California trip, we thought that we had proven to ourselves we could compete with some of the good teams and we wanted to take the next step, but it went in the other direction for us," coach Randy Carlyle said. "We don't have the answers right now for why it happened that way."

It's one thing to lack answers; it's another to ignore them or not see them when they were punching you in the face.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

 

Pinpointing the Beginning Of the End

To stick a pin in the genesis of the demise of the 2013-14 Maple Leafs would be an arbitrary decision at best and impossible at worst. The Leafs had missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons before earning a spot at the end of a 48-game season in 2013. It's not as though the franchise was qualifying for the postseason on a yearly basis and the train went off the tracks this season.

Let us begin the story on January 9, 2013—the day the Maple Leafs fired general manager Brian Burke. The move itself wasn't as confusing as the timing of it: Burke had zero success after taking the post on November 29, 2008, so letting him go was understandable. Yet for some reason, the organization waited until three days after a prolonged lockout to lop off Burke's head.

In stepped Dave Nonis as Burke's replacement, and the Leafs began one of the luckier stretches a team has ever had, one the team deluded itself into believing was real. The delusion directly led to a false interpretation of the quality of the roster, which led to the jettisoning of several quality players and the signing of players that were destined to be busts or, at the very most, underwhelming additions.

It was all staring the Leafs in the face, who instead chose to look in the other direction. 

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

 

The Possession Problem

Corsi and Fenwick are "advanced" statistics in the same way OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is an "advanced" statistic in baseball. Corsi and Fenwick are nothing more than counting the number of shot attempts by teams. That's it. They have proven to be excellent predictors for team success, yet many remain resistant to them for reasons ranging from fear to laziness to stubbornness.

Occasionally, teams have success in spite of poor Corsi and Fenwick numbers. That's usually the result of abnormally high shooting percentages, outstanding goaltending or, in the case of the 2013 Maple Leafs, a combination of those two things along with the fact a 48-game season negates the impact of Corsi and Fenwick as predictors. The Leafs were dead last in Fenwick close differential last season but had a league-best shooting percentage of 10.7 percent, which pushed their PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) to 103.1.

NHL's Worst Possession Teams, 2013-14 (Fenwick close)
Team FD/60 Final record Standings finish
26. Calgary Flames -4.3 35-39-7 26th
27. Colorado Avalanche -5.2 52-22-7 3rd
28. Edmonton Oilers -10.5 28-44-9 29th
29. Toronto Maple Leafs -15.1 38-35-8 22nd
30. Buffalo Sabres -15.5 21-51-9 30th

ExtraSkater.com

Teams will generally come to rest right around 100 in the PDO category over an 82-game season as breaks balance themselves out. There was no time for that in a 48-game season, so the Leafs avoided any real comeuppance in a shortened NHL season.

If the 2013 season lasted 82 games, would the Leafs have made the postseason? That's impossible to say, as there are always a few outliers every season, but a front office that valued those numbers may have at least been a little skeptical of an out-of-the-blue postseason berth and would have tempered expectations going into this season.

Instead, an irresponsibly inept front office spent wildly and poorly in free agency and raised expectations about as high as possible after one lucky playoff trip that ended in heartbreaking fashion against the Boston Bruins.

Little did anyone know, there was more heartbreak right around the corner.

Derek Leung/Getty Images

 

The Cruel Summer (for Leafs Fans, Anyway)

Not long after the Leafs were eliminated from the 2013 playoffs, Nonis began putting his stamp on a team that was built by his predecessor. Just like Burke, Nonis loved the idea of building a team that was "hard to play against," which is just a fancy way of saying, "get tougher," which is a silly way of saying, "become much worse."

On June 23, the Leafs traded Ben Scrivens and Matt Frattin for Jonathan Bernier in an effort to bolster a goaltending situation that did not require bolstering. James Reimer had a .924 save percentage and was on the cusp of giving the Leafs their first postseason series victory in nearly a decade before his teammates threw up on themselves in Game 7 vs. Boston.

Essentially, Nonis' first order of business was to address the one thing that actually wasn't a problem with the 2013 Leafs.

On June 30, Nonis acquired David Bolland from the Chicago Blackhawks for three draft picks. Bolland is one of those "tough" players certain GMs love, even though his best offensive season was 19 goals and 47 points in 2008-09. Bolland never had more than 37 points in any other season and could not produce despite the Blackhawks using him on their second line with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. 

Bolland spent most of the 2013-14 season out of the lineup with an ankle injury and, despite his lack of production in his career, could receive a long-term contract from the Leafs this summer.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

On July 4, Mikhail Grabovski had the remaining four years and $22 million of his contract bought out. He was a three-time 20-goal scorer who fell out of favor under new coach Randy Carlyle, who played him on several occasions on the fourth line despite his quality scoring and possession numbers. The buyout freed cap space for what could go down as one of the worst free-agent signings in NHL history.

The very next day, Nonis handed Clarkson a seven-year, $36.75 million contract and center Tyler Bozak a five-year, $21 million deal. Sometimes hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to contracts, but looking through the archives of Twitter shows almost no one was on board with the Clarkson signing, and there were also skeptics who believed Bozak was not a No. 1 center.

Clarkson delivered five goals and 11 points in 59 games and has a contract that was built in a way that appears to be buyout proof, according to James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Bozak had 49 points in 57 games playing mostly in the middle of Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. The problem is, Bozak continues to rely on the presence of Kessel to get his offensive numbers. From 2008-13, Bozak has been a black hole of production without Kessel on his line; in nearly 90 minutes apart this season, Bozak has been dreadful and hardly justifies a No. 1 center's contract.

Clarke MacArthur, who unlike Bozak is a great possession player and is in no way kryptonite around the neck of Kessel, was allowed to leave for Ottawa in free agency. He had 24 goals and 55 points in 77 games for the Senators while playing on a two-year, $6.5 million contract. Only Erik Karlsson had better possession numbers on the Senators than MacArthur this season.

It was a very bad stretch of general managing by a general manager. It's bad in hindsight and was bad at the time, too. Pension Plan Puppets offered a delightful take on Nonis' free agency doings, comparing the job he did to that of a potato.

On July 25, Dave Nonis' six months of...I don't know...work, I guess you'd call it...was rewarded by ownership with a five-year contract extension. After one 48-game season playoff berth with someone else's team and a summer of questionable moves, a dump truck full of money was left on Nonis' front lawn.

Sadly, no one committed to the potato long term.

Norm Hall/Getty Images

 

A Parade of Good Fortune

“And I will say it, front and centre with the cameras rolling: Could not be more excited about the parade route. And we’re going to throw you one, I promise.”

That October 29, 2013 quote is from Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment President Tim Leiweke, who embodies the notion that someone with more money than you isn't necessarily smarter than you. That's not just him saying he had a parade route planned for the pending Stanley Cup win for the Maple Leafs—that's him reaffirming the quote he first said in July.

Through one month of the regular season, there was no reason for Leiweke to back off his comments that put added pressure on his team and inflated already high expectations among fans. The Leafs were 10-4-0 in October, good for the best record in the Eastern Conference. Why couldn't this be for real? Why can't this be a young team at the beginning of a long, successful run that would end with a championship?

Well, statistics. That's why.

Through 14 games, the Leafs had a Fenwick of 41.2 percent in all five-on-five situations. Only by the grace of Bernier having a .933 save percentage in 10 games and Reimer having a .949 save percentage in six games were the Leafs winning. It was about as unsustainable a rate as there can be for a team, but no red flags were raised.

The Streaky Maple Leafs
Time Period Record Place in standings
Oct. 1-30 10-4-0 First in East
Nov. 2-Jan. 10 11-16-5 10th in East
Jan. 12-Mar. 10 15-4-3 Third in East
Mar. 11-Apr. 12 3-12-0 12th in East

NHL.com

Love or hate possession statistics, they are not very complicated. Watch a game and notice one team spend most of its time in its own zone yet win the game. You'll get a feeling of, "Man, they really got outplayed but won the game anyway." Teams can win a game playing like that; they generally can't win a lot of games playing like that. Eventually, playing that way catches up to you over the long haul, like a poker player chasing flushes despite the odds—yeah, he'll hit that flush once in a while, but over time, he will lose more than he will win.

And lose the Leafs did in November and December, going 10-12-5 to slip to the final wild-card spot in the East. They lost four of their first five games of January before lady luck carried them through that three-game California stretch, which will go down as the Leafs' high-water mark of the season.

From Jan. 12 to March 13, the Leafs went 15-4-4 to climb to third place in the East, seven points clear of ninth place in the conference. There was no reason to believe the cracks in the Leafs' hull would turn into a gaping hole that would take on enough water to sink the season.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Well, unless you looked at statistics.

During that 23-game stretch in which the Leafs amassed 34 points, they had a Fenwick of 41.6 percent in all five-on-five situations. This time, it was mostly Bernier (.925) saving the day while Reimer (.901) saw his playing time diminish. The Leafs had a five-on-five shooting percentage of 10.1, which is about 1.5 percent above their full-season average and would be the best mark in the league over a full season.

In those three games against the Ducks, Sharks and Kings that gave Carlyle the impression his team could compete with good teams, the Leafs had a Fenwick of 32.1 percent in all five-on-five situations; in close situations, it was 31.9 percent.

The dam broke after that, and it's short-sighted to say that Bernier's injury that sidelined him for most of this late-season debacle didn't play a role. He was able to make the Leafs look far better than they were all season, and there's nothing that says he couldn't have done it for one more month to propel the Leafs to a second straight playoff berth.

But the math caught up to the Leafs. 

Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

A look at what Carlyle's teams have done with him at the helm in terms of possession numbers shows it could be his system that's the biggest culprit. The Globe and Mail has a chart that shows what Carlyle's teams did with him at the helm and without him at the helm, and the numbers show he could be the biggest problem.

It also didn't help that the coaches and front office didn't deal in reality.

Travis Yost of Hockeybuzz posted a screenshot of a handful of incriminating quotes by Leafs coaches and front-office types from this season. The ones that are the most disconcerting if you're a Leafs fan are the ones about statistics vs. standings and how shots on net don't matter to Vice President of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin, including this little slice of gold:

"Instead of micro-analyzing things, nobody is looking at how high we are in the standings. That's the beauty of sports though."

Debora Robinson/Getty Images

Rough translation: "It's bad to focus on how the results were achieved as opposed to the results themselves, because who cares if those actions that created the results are repeatable or sustainable? That's the beauty of sports, though—math isn't required and I am scared of it."

I don't think members of a hockey organization are required to say to the media, "Man, our team stinks. I have no idea how we keep winning when we are being thoroughly outplayed every night. Someone should fire me because I can't figure it out. No one told me math would be on this test." 

But everything out of the mouths of people within the Leafs organization reads less like an attempt to deflect criticism and more like a group of people who just don't get it. They display a pattern of ineptitude that has justifiably earned the derision of the stats community and will likely result in people losing their jobs this summer.

Then again, Leiweke's first order of business with the Leafs out of the playoffs was to hire Brendan Shanahan as team president despite his total lack of front-office experience. This move gives Shanahan control over hockey decisions less than a year after Leiweke handed Nonis a five-year extension and allowed him to make the moves he did last summer.

So maybe nothing will change internally after all.

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

 

They Should Have Seen it Coming

It's easy to say this collapse came out of nowhere, like the Leafs were a car going along at the speed limit through an intersection, nearing the end of a long journey, when a bus T-boned them, killing everyone in the car. To the passive observer, everything crumbled in 26 days, and there was nothing anyone could have done about it.

But really, the death of the 2013-14 Maple Leafs could be traced back to the hiring of Nonis or the hiring of Carlyle, or heck, even the hiring of Burke. If this season's team was a movie, there would have been blatant foreshadowing of its demise during the opening credits, and your job as the viewer would have been to sit back in your seat, sip your soda, eat your popcorn and wait to see how the Leafs would be killed.

Instead, the passive observers were located in the front office at Air Canada Centre, and most of the people eating the popcorn were located in the statistical community.

Was this free fall obvious? Maybe that's too strong of a term, but the signs of trouble were there for all to (Cor)see.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com or ExtraSkater.com

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