There are eleven points on the logo of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the first time in team history, you can attach the date of a loss to every point without skipping a win. This is rock bottom; ninety eight years later, this is the longest losing streak in Toronto Maple Leafs history, amidst the worst stretch of long term success in Leafs history.
Sign Of The TImes
These past several years are by no means going to be justified by me, or anybody else. We’ve seen teams go up and down multiple times in the salary cap era; to have swung and completely whiffed nine out of ten times (the outlier was a pop fly) is inexcusable.
But the worst it’s been in nearly a hundred years? Well, no. I don’t think it’s that simple. The climate of the league has obviously changed. The first fifty years of the team’s existence (where coincidentally, they won all of their Stanley Cups) should basically be null and void; not being terrible for a few games, let alone a few seasons, is basically mandatory when you’re by far the richest team in a league that ranges from four to ten teams. They did still find a way to do it in 1967, however; losing ten straight and tying their eleventh from January 15th to February 11th. The team eventually got their crap together, won a seven in a row, made the playoffs, and won their last Stanley Cup; but this was also a season where only two teams had a positive goal differential.
Obviously, this started the cup drought we saw today. But even as the league grew bigger and bigger, the format was tailored to allow bad teams to not be horrendous unless they were just coming off of expansion. The division-based system revolved around playing the same opponents many times, and at some point, sheer luck / punching out all of their stars was going to get you a win. Even in 1984/85, Toronto’s worst ever year in terms of points percentage, the Leafs couldn’t get past a losing streak of seven. They snapped it against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that at Game 42 they had already faced twice, including a few nights before. Not to mention the fact that there was no cross-over or Wild Card like in the NHL today; if you were the 4th best team in a conference with 2 or 3 good teams, you headed to the playoffs!
Divisional playoffs were also the reason that the Leafs’ longest playoff drought before recent times was only three years; six teams under a 0.450 winning percentage have made the playoffs. The 1985/86 team, ranked fifth last all time in Leafs percentages, even won a round! The 1948/49 Leafs won the Stanley Cup coming off of 0.475 season. The Leafs have made the playoffs twelve times with a record under 0.500, which is insane in the modern era. The 2006/07 Leafs, who missed the playoffs, actually have the 29th highest winning percentage in team history.
Is It Still Rock Bottom, Though?
Absolutely. The above is just a long-winded explanation of why a team that doesn’t even have the longest losing streak in the NHL this year has broken an all time record for the second oldest franchise in the sport. Or an explanation of how the Leafs had their god-awfulness in the 80’s hidden by a crappy standings system. Your call. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a disaster.
I don’t know how to explain what we’re seeing out of the Leafs right now. On paper, the nosedive makes no sense; scoring chances and shots have remained high heading towards the opponent’s goal, and they’ve decreased going back the other way. Numerically, this is the most competitive the Leafs have played in years. If you watched the game without a clock and scoreboard, they don’t appear to make you hold your breath in panic as much either.
But here we are. For about a month now, we’ve seen the shooters dry up and the goalies stop, well, stopping. It’s gotten worrisome, and many casuals and old-schoolers have begun to ponder whether it’s time to go back to “what was working” before.
How To Move Forward
But let’s say that this isn’t a complete and total fluke. Let’s say that this team isn’t capable of playing with structure, and needs to live and die by the sword. Why would you go back to what was working a little bit better?
Here’s the reality; if this theory is right, you’re still looking to go back to a system that was slightly more successful but still wasn’t an actual success. The Leafs may be losing more games right now, but they weren’t exactly darlings beforehand. Trying to restore mediocrity at this point, if it is that simple, is not the way to go about things.
Let’s say the fantasy land is real, and Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are only capable of stopping pucks when they’re left out to dry. Do you go back to that system? No, that’s dumb. That would make those two outliers to the rest of the league, and when you eventually need to replace one or both of them, you’re stuck with this allegedly magical system and nobody to play it. If these are goalies who are somehow being inflated by terrible defensive structure, wouldn’t it make sense to sell high and pick up a couple of replacement level guys on the bargain bin told hold the fort for now?
The same goes for the players. Do you think that there’s a magical system of shooting percentage, but without it, your players can’t shoot? Trade the assets people are interested in before they get wise. Surely, guys who are decent in the “boring” structured systems could be turned into beats if allowed to “let loose”, or whatever we’re calling the dump and pray system that was being used before.
Maybe you’re on the other end of the spectrum, and believe that the coin is just hitting tails more than it should. Wouldn’t this still be the time to sell? Teams will be focused on more than just the current cold streaks when inquiring, so it’s not like they’ve really depreciated in potential return. There are a lof of contracts taking up both dollar figures and roster spots in the long run, and if you can take this opportunity to shed some, even better.
This way, you can afford to resign the younger core, these cold players don’t get a chance to “turn up the heat” and ride the mediocrity train out of McEicheltown city limits. Keep the guys who you feel you might have trouble acquiring comparables of in a few years. Basically, shop anybody over 25 not named Phil Kessel and possibly Cody Franson. Turn the rest of the year into a make-shift training camp while hovering near the bottom. Don’t let this become a 2007/08 situation, where the scouting staff goes from “Stamkos over Doughty at 1, right?” to “Trade some picks to get up to 5” in the span of a few weeks because a bunch of guys didn’t want to leave.
Even if the returns for the middling guys aren’t that good, it’s probably worth it. Grabbing another blue chip talent and restocking the cupboards in the lower tier couldn’t hurt. Being far away from the cap ceiling and roster limit would be nice too. Even if this isn’t a Pittsburgh-model flatline rebuild, the team could use a gasp for air if they’re going to try to keep swimming across this ocean.
This post is evolving with each paragraph. I came into it wanting to talk about the significance of the losing streak, and ended up downplaying its scope, replaying its severity, defending a coach, and requesting a firesale in the span of moments.
I think that’s a good encapsulation of what’s going down, though. Even though this losing streak has bits and pieces of every other collapse this team has had in recent years, it’s still got a unique flair of its own. Just like the others, the individual games have often defied logic. In some of them, we all know what was coming specifically because we’re used to the story reading like a dollar store comic book.
In just a few weeks, we’ve seen a hockey team fly across the five stages of grief. The blowing off of the streak’s beginnings as growing pains. The anger as it kept going. I guess the bargaining stage is a little bit different, as this one involves bargaining for better players. Eventually, you accept once again that multiple players here can’t be turned into a useful asset and get as depressed as the players as nothing they seem to try solves the problem.
Which brings us to acceptance. The team is obviously not going to join the fanbase on this one; it’s their job to score more goals (remember those?) than the other team. But as Tank Nation dusts off the digital military vehicles, it might be time for the guys upstairs to accept that this is how the year is best played out. Obviously, with a win or two mixed in for everybody’s self esteem, but if this team is going to have a hard-to-explain stretch of catastrophe drop them into the gutter, maybe it’s time to worry about later instead of spending the present looking for shovels.
It’s probably the best bet for the long run, in any event. Because this is more than just eleven games. It’s eleven years. It’s a team that’s about to enter its eleventh decade, having the worst long and short term stretch of its life. It’s a team that hasn’t been competitive since I was, well, about eleven years old. It’s… eleven minutes later than I planned to go to bed.
I should go sleep. The Leafs can’t lose in my dreams. Probably.