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article imageOp-Ed: Leafs demise is one based on high expectations, not failure

By Tyler Hunt     Apr 8, 2014 in Sports
Following three straight years of missing the playoffs heading into the 2008-09 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs hired head coach Ron Wilson to return the team to a winning culture.
What followed is one of the most confusing rides in professional sports
It was June of 2008, the Maple Leafs had just missed the playoffs for the third-straight season, and second under head coach Paul Maurice, who replaced the long-serving Pat Quinn following the 2004-05 lockout.
As Quinn exited (coincidentally finishing with more wins that year than any Leafs team since), the franchise initiated a turnaround that had been years in the making. It started with Ed Belfour being released to free agency, and former-Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft being brought in as the team's supposed answer between the pipes.
For the next couple of years, the team tried to remain competitive without blowing up the core, but despite improving on Quinn's point-total in his first season, Maurice failed to reach the playoffs and followed that up by having the franchise's worst season since 1998, ultimately leading to his demise.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 miles away in San Jose, California, Ron Wilson had taken the Sharks as far as they could go. Wilson took a Sharks team which had finished second-last in the Western Conference the previous year, and went on to amass a 187-97-12-22 record over the next four years - including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in his first full season behind the bench.
Ultimately what cost Wilson his job was his inability to make the Stanley Cup Finals in four years, a shortcoming that many Toronto-residents could only dream of (Wilson's Sharks finished 49-23-10 in his final season as head coach - Toronto, for the record, have never won 49 games in a season in the history of the franchise).
It was perfect timing - Wilson was a free agent, and the Maple Leafs had endured its longest playoff drought since 1927. Compounding this was Wilson's relationship with then-Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke, who had been widely thought as Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment's key target to bring in and shake up the franchise. Burke was indeed brought in November 29, 2008, after stepping down from his post with the Ducks.
But while the franchise sorted itself out at the management level to clean up the mess of years past, the roster underwent significant changes as it moved toward the rebuild it had been desperately trying to avoid for the past three years.
In Wilson's first year as bench boss, Mats Sundin played his final season as a Maple Leaf, and Toronto's top-3 forwards consisted of Sundin, Nik Antropov, and Jason Blake, who shockingly never scored 40 goals again after earning his meal ticket in his final season with the New York Islanders.
Wilson's second season was another step-back - Sundin was replaced by a young Phil Kessel, and Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Nik Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, and Antropov were his supporting cast. The Maple Leafs dropped to the bottom four in Goals For, and had by far the most scored against them league-wide in Wilson's first two years.
It was perhaps the worst Leafs team in over a decade, finishing with 30-38-14 record, and goaltending had become a reoccurring problem.
In four years, Wilson suffered through an .898 save percentage shared by the likes of Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson, J.S. Giguere, and finally James Reimer (who provided the first sign of stability since Belfour's last good year in 2004).
2010-11 saw the emergence of Grabovski, Kulemin, and newly acquired Clarke MacArthur as a productive second-line, and that coupled with Kessel setting a career high in points pointed to offensive upside down the road.
Dion Phaneuf had been named team captain in June of that year, and with the likes of Nazem Kadri nearing promotion, the turnaround seemed to be headed in the right direction. Toronto returned to .500 hockey that season, failing to make the playoffs again but finishing with the most points since Maurice's first season.
Despite the playoff drought reaching a seventh consecutive year, there was optimism about the direction of the club, and 2011-12 saw the Leafs re-enter the top 10 in Goals For, in large part due to the emergence of Joffrey Lupul as a compliment to Phil Kessel.
While the second line had an understandable regression following their breakout year, Kessel and Lupul were named to the All-Star team and both finished top-30 in NHL scoring (Kessel was 6th with 82 points in 82 games). In a show of confidence, Burke awarded Wilson with a one-year contract extension in late-December, as Wilson's deal would expire at season's end.
On the back end, Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson both made their debuts, and Kadri played in 21 games - the most NHL action he had seen up to that point. The foundation was laid down, but the team was still young (with an average age of just over 25) and had room to grow.
While the team stayed competitive throughout the season, sniffing the middle of the Eastern Conference but spending more time hanging around the 8th and 9th place teams, a fan base long deprived of playoff action latched on.
Once February and March arrived, the Leafs went 4-9-1, pushing them well out of the playoff race and causing Burke to famously compare the collapse to "an 18-wheeler driving off a cliff".
As the team's play deteriorated throughout the bad stretch, fans eventually took out their frustration on Wilson, and he was let go following a 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers in which fans chanted "Fire Wilson!" for the final minutes of the game.
Enter Randy Carlyle - the former NHL defenceman who had been fired by the Anaheim Ducks after just 20 games. Carlyle, who coached Anaheim to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2006-07, had never recorded a losing season in his time as a head coach, but after a first round playoff exit the year prior, Carlyle's leash was short and there were reports that the players had tuned him out.
Carlyle took over the Leafs bench with 18 games remaining and went 6-9-3 to finish off the year with Toronto.
Over the offseason, the Maple Leafs stayed mostly intact, but brought in James van Riemsdyk via trade and signed free agent Jay McClement to a two-year deal. Due to the lockout, however, those signings wouldn't make their mark until January, when labour talks finally struck a deal and it was determined there would still be enough time for a 48-game schedule.
For a young Leafs team, this was a perfect sprint to the finish, and a 12-8-0 start over the first two months of the season made another late-season collapse extremely difficult. They managed to stay consistent, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 with a 26-17-5 record.
A heartbreaking loss to the Bruins is fresh in the memory of most, but few bring up the fact that the Leafs were not given much of a chance against the Bruins heading into the series. A first-round exit is all that most Leaf fans would have asked for heading into the season, but because of the three-goal lead and the ability to compete with one of the league's best, higher expectations were put on a team which still hadn't proven it was capable of making the playoffs in an 82-game schedule.
Over-evaluation. It's a syndrome that a lot of hockey fans around the Toronto-area suffer from, and it leads to expectations the players will likely never live up to. The 2012-13 Maple Leafs still weren't quite there, but Leafs management made plenty of changes over the offseason to try and get them to that point.Grabovski (buyout) and MacArthur (signed with Ottawa as a free agent) were shipped out, and the duo of David Bolland (trade) and David Clarkson (free agency) were brought in to add a level of grit and playoff experience to the lineup.
Despite the fact that Reimer and Scrivens provided Toronto with the best goaltending it had since 2003, Jonathan Bernier was acquired from Los Angeles to upgrade the position. While Bernier has been outstanding this season, it was the one position the Leafs seemed to be doing okay over the past couple years. Carlyle has enjoyed a .918 team save percentage in his two years as Leafs head coach, with both Reimer and Bernier taking over the starting job at different times.
The Leafs were back in the Top-10 in Goals For during 2012-13, and once again this past season. However, they're also back in the bottom-5 for Goals Against.
It raises the question, if the goaltending is much of the same (or better, depending on who you ask), and the offense is producing at an even higher level, is the issue a defence corps whose biggest upgrade following the Game 7 loss to Boston was a 20-year-old Morgan Rielly? If Ron Wilson had the same core of players, with much worse goaltending, and even less to work with on defence, was his inability to make the playoffs on him, or the personnel he was provided with?
The upcoming summer will be a huge one for the Maple Leafs, who have many of their players locked into long-term deals. They're almost too far in to turn back on this core now, and not bad enough to commit to a proper rebuild - whether or not the fan base could even stomach more losing. If Randy Carlyle is going to be the man going forward, he needs to be provided with players who will fit the identity of the team - whatever that is.
For too long the coaching staff and management have disagreed whether or not this is a skilled team or a tough team - and it might cost the second coach in three years his job. Wilson was committed to a counter-attack speed game, but Burke failed to provide him with the right players to do so, instead trying to force his brand of 'pugnacity and truculence' onto a core group that lacked much of those qualities to begin with.
Carlyle is now focused on a tough, physical brand of hockey - yet the fourth line has been made up of players who fail to provide either production or energy, and it's caused Carlyle to lean more heavily on his top-three lines, very few of which are designed to play that style of hockey.
The players themselves can't possibly escape blame, especially since there are several who have been around for all three of the most recent collapses. But the players cannot be blamed for their shortcomings - that is the fault of management in their evaluation of the team.
The number one priority heading into the offseason should be upgrading the defence, and if Carlyle isn't going to return, the right coach needs to be brought in to motivate these players. They are still the fifth-youngest team in the league, but with many of their stars approaching their best years, the time to upgrade this team into a contender is now. Carlyle has enjoyed elite goaltending and a highly productive offensive unit since coming in - which is much more than you can say for his predecessor Wilson - now Leafs management needs to focus on strengthening the back-end before this team should ever be considered a playoff contender heading into a season.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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