April 09 2014 11:45AM
Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I'm here for the autopsy.
It's somewhat appropriate that T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men is the most oft-quoted piece of literature in season-ending pieces analyzing the fortunes of sports teams, if not only for its memorable final line "not with a bang but a whimper".
Literature is too easy to analyze, as the phrases can be convoluted in almost every way to appeal to any kind of meaning you want to attach to the piece (I'm reminded of this XKCD comic) and unfortunately, sports has gone down that path.
Anybody who stuck around and read the skeptics this summer should have known that the Maple Leafs weren't the likely playoff-bound team we'd seen last year and the start of this season. Somehow, exactly on March 14th at noon, the Maple Leafs decided that there wasn't a good-enough leader in the dressing room and they were going to lose eight consecutive and earn just four points in the next twelve games and piss away the playoffs.
This is a refrain you'll see often today:
-The Star (excellent typo by the way. The Leafs "do no compete for the puck")
To me, both pieces read as if the answer lies in the intangibles. It's not just Kevin McGran or Steve Simmons beating that drum either—Jeffler teed off on a few of the callers into TSN 1050 last night who complained about the same thing.
Are the Leafs The Hollow Men in that whatever you do, you can pluck a stray thread from your blue and white jersey and use it as the basis to weave any narrative you choose? It seems like it. The failure in the Leafs' intangibles stems, in my view, the fact that you can't really add or subtract intangibles to a hockey team. That is why intangibles are intangible. You can't add something that can't be, by definition, counted or quantified. The problem with suggesting intangibles are the issue is that this was a problem that was supposedly fixed in the offseason, so why has it become a problem now?
That's why the pickups of Davids Bolland and Clarkson were perhaps a little more disappointing than they were on paper. People had visions of Clarkson as a mucker and grinder who would get in the goaltender's face, step up for the little guys on the team and inject some much-needed size into the top six. What the Leafs got instead was a more talkative version of Nikolai Kulemin with less skating or shooting ability.
So in reference to the title, here are the "4 Maple Leafs season-killing offseason mistakes that could have been easily avoided":
1 - Find a cheaper replacement for David Clarkson
Ultimately, it was Clarkson's cap-killing deal that hurt the Leafs the most. As soon as Clarkson got suspended in the pre-season, the Leafs struggled to fit 21 players under the salary cap. The contract not only saw the Leafs pay a lot of money to a player who did not produce, but it prevented the team from adding mid-season or trade deadline reinforcements to a roster that had no secondary scoring.
Before the Leafs even signed Clarkson, I compared Clarkson to a current Maple Leafs who was younger and had better statistics than Clarkson did at the player's age. That player was Nik Kulemin. Not that Kulemin had a great year by any means, but he scored 9 goals to Clarkson's 5 while spending most of the season lower on the depth chart, only to replace the "Mimico Mishap" on the 2nd line later in the campaign.
(Was it preventable? Yes. "Three stray thoughts on a Tuesday" was published July 2)
2 - Not let Clarke MacArthur walk
Of all the Canadian teams, I'd suggest Ottawa had the most depressing year, somehow turning a 52.2% Corsi Tied rate into being mathematically-eliminated long before the final puck drop. The Sens got no goaltending this season, with Craig Anderson fully regressing to the mean and overall the team was 22nd in the NHL with a .907 and unable to out-score their defensive deficiencies.
However, the Senators did well in several places. The team's top line of Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan for most of the season dominated puck-possession and scoring. MacArthur led all regular Sens forwards in Corsi (54.1%), was third in points (55), all despite the second toughest minutes on the team (with a 29.2% opposition time on ice rate and a zone start rate of less than 50%). Across the board—save penalty differential—MacArthur lived up to his contract.
All last year I was campaigning to get Clarke M on the first line, and in his first tour of duty with big minutes in the NHL he really produced, even if the rest of the Senators didn't.
(Was it preventable? Yes. "Why Clarke MacArthur shouldn't have played his last game as a Leaf" was published May 17)
3 - Upgrade the defence
Since François Beauchemin was traded away, I've lamented that the Leafs have been missing a clear No. 2 defenceman, preferably a right shot who can eat up big minutes away from Dion Phaneuf and reduce the pressure on Dion, who plays the toughest minutes in the NHL.
Despite being out-scored 139-174 at even strength, Tom Gilbert managed to only be out-scored by two, 50-52, playing on a top pairing with Brian Campbell. That pairing was one of the lone bright spots of the Panthers season. Gilbert, though small, or soft, or whatever, had a 51.7% Corsi rate, played big minutes and took just 8 minor penalties in 73 games, all while making just $900K. This was the most obvious pickup the Leafs could have made to upgrade the defence in the offseason, but the Leafs went a different direction, picking up… nobody.
(Was it preventable? Yes. "Right-handed defenceman headed to free agency" was published July 3)
4 - Secondary scoring?
With the pickups of Bolland and Clarkson, it seemed the Leafs were counting on Nazem Kadri continuing to be a near point-a-game player. The expectations were ultimately too high for a 23-year old who had never cracked 20 goals or 50 points in the NHL prior to the season. The Leafs seemed to hope that their entire second line could be carried by Naz.
And yet, almost all the scoring burden seemed to be placed on the top line this season. The top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk accounted for 32.7% of Maple Leafs goals in 2013, and 37.0% in 2014.
That doesn't seem like much, but had the secondary scoring picked up where they left off and contributed as much as they had proportionally in the most recent season, that would have equalled about 19 more goals. Since 5.5 goals is worth approximately worth one win, and the Leafs will finish about three wins out of the playoffs, well… you do the math.
(Was it preventable? Yes. "Nazem Kadri's coming regression, and why it will happen" was published September 12)
There's a junk more stuff that I've glossed over that I wrote last summer that turned out to be a Harbinger for the Leafs, and a junk more stuff I wrote that turned out to be miscalculated (career seasons from Jonathan Bernier and Tyler Bozak, for starters) but ultimately, I'd put up my record against Dave Nonis' from last summer any day.
So where do we go from here?
The Leafs are in a difficult spot this offseason. I think they have a lot of money tied up in bad contracts, to Clarkson, Joffrey Lupul and to Bozak, and with the long-term extensions to Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel kicking in this summer they've really gone all-in on this current core of players that aren't really good together as it turns out.
The first thing to do is earn cap relief. They can't touch Clarkson's deal, but chances are Lupul and Bozak could be moved for a couple of spare parts. I'd avoid touching Dave Bolland, if just because the Maple Leafs should be plucking players off the free agency wire for cheap and find out if they're long-term options—as they did with MacA a few summers ago. The
five six core players with James van Riemsdyk, Kessel, Kadri, Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly is probably good-enough to be a contender within a few seasons, so long as they're surrounded by the appropriate players.
There will be some difficult decisions to make in the offseason, but all we want is a little bit of change and hopefully, at least the illusion that a modicum of thought is put into those decisions.