Listicle: 4 Maple Leafs season-killing offseason mistakes that could have been easily avoided

Commentary_Listicles

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 april 9

The Star (excellent typo by the way. The Leafs “do no compete for the puck”)

the sun april 9

The Sun

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)

The Conclusion

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.

Stats via ExtraSkater.com

  • MaxPower417

    Corsi is great way to measure overall compete (intangibles). Players that battle for the puck, take a hit to complete a pass, backpressure and check, maintain proper defensive gap control to limit shots against etc all show up in puck possession.

    Carlyle is right. The leafs don’t “compete” to a high enough level. Or said differently, the leafs don’t “corsi” to a high enough level to win.

    This is like ying and yang or matter and antimatter. Compete and Corsi are saying the same thing. But most of us are too positional in how we view to see we are all one.

  • MaxPower417

    Can you please put Corsi & Fenwick to bed. I guess for the summer. I guess for the Bean Counter types it is a telling piece of info. For people who know the game it is a meaningless tool. The numbers for the Leafs only went into unnecessary detail about what was painfully obvious & really just wasted everyone’s time. The reality is that with rare exceptions even when the Leafs were winning at the start of the year there were serious issues with this team. The only numbers needed were shots on goal, scoring chances by their opponents & hits (if your winning the # of hits stat you’re obviously not winning the possession game). The real issue is was it the system or was the players inability to play the system. Time for you Bean Counters to start doing Tax Returns, only 3 weeks left for you guys to get your customers returns files.

    • MaxPower417

      I don’t know squat about systems. I understand the left wing lock, thats about it. What I hope I never see again, by Leafs anyway is that dammed “torpedo play”. Did that work….once even? It reminds of the back door play the Leafs were always trying under Wilson, especially on the PP, but after it works 3 time in 100 attempts, it may be time to try something else. They just keep doing the things that don’t work, that I put on the coaches who should all be canned. RC is just RW’s cousin, both hired by the same regime, time for a change, a younger, more player friendly coach. Also, I’d like to see Dion give up the C and let someone else carry the load, 2 18 wheeler collapses in 3 years is not working, time to try something else.

    • MaxPower417

      If it was so obvious, you’d think that some of the media and fans that now proclaim their problems as blindingly obvious would have mentioned them instead of clapping for the Leafs like trained seals.

    • Back in Black

      “Can you please put Corsi & Fenwick to bed… The only numbers needed were shots on goal, scoring chances by their opponents & hits (if your winning the # of hits stat you’re obviously not winning the possession game).”

      Do you know what Corsi & Fenwick are?

  • Cam, no blame for good old Randy Carlyle? I hate to say it, but even if Nonis made your 4 recommendations instead of his craptastic ones from last summer, I just can’t see the Leafs being much better than they are now due to systems. The bad powerplay is exhibit A, given they had good goaltending.

    But you’re right that Nonis pooped the bed and will have his hands full figuring out what to do with a roster that has holes everywhere! I can’t even name one forward line or D-pairing that I’d want going in next year. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

    p.s. keep up the good work. This is going to be a long summer and hope to read your articles to help pass the off-season.

    • I have to agree here and just look at how bad Grabbo and Mac were under Carlyle. Kessel is probably a 45 to 50 goal scorer under a different coach.

      The worst part is that Carlye couldn’t figure out that the blue line was the problem. And he though ditching Grabbo and adding Clarkson would solve all his problems. With these changes, he would simply scratch the players he did not like and give Orr an extra shift.

  • Do GMs in the NHL today ever look at these kind of statistics? I have no idea as the main stream media rarely mentions fenwick or corsi or anything like that. I’d love to see someone in Toronto try them out this summer. Can’t really do any harm.