The 2011-12 Season is a special season in Leafs history. It
was the season the Leafs decided that they were going to go from being just
awful to being some kind of performance art celebrating how truly awful a team
can be. Really it was a season that was doomed from the start as trading up to
draft Tyler Biggs is a sign that your organization is being navigated towards
some choppy seas.
Just looking at the numbers on their own it’s pretty easy to
see why the Leafs wound up with the fifth overall draft pick in 2012. Pretty
much everything appears horrible across the board. Though the story of how the
Leafs got there was far more interesting, after all at game 55 the Leafs still
seemed to be holding down a playoff spot.
It’s here where the phrase “18 wheeler going off a cliff” is
first introduced to us, and for good reason. In Ron Wilson’s final eleven games
he had 1-9-1 record, after starting February with 3 wins, the Leafs would
finish the month with 4-9-1 and Wilson would be let go make way for Randy
Carlyle, shockingly, didn’t fare much better and finished
the out the season with 6-9-3 record. Carlyle’s 6th win being just
enough to move the Leafs from the third overall selection in the draft to the
fifth overall, but it doesn’t matter since Rielly was first on Burke’s draft
The two most notable trades happened before the start of the
season, and that was the draft day pick up of John-Michael Liles for a 2nd
round pick and the amazing acquisition of Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi for
Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney.
The Liles deal was Burke essentially replacing his Tomas
Kaberle with a fraction of the return for him, as the 2nd round pick
was acquired from Boston earlier. Liles heading into the final year of his deal
was a reasonable rental if he was left as that as he was clearly exiting the
prime of his career. Liles would be a solid contributor for the Leafs up until
his concussion, and inexplicably the Leafs decided to re-sign him to a
multiyear deal before Liles had even returned from the injured reserve. This is
one of the many examples of how Burke and Nonis were excellent at undoing one
of their better moves.
The Franson deal holds up relatively well. The previous post
in the Reliving Seasons series paints an
excellent picture of how bad Brett Lebda was and thankfully Burke’s
relationship with Poile and MLSE’s deep pockets allowed the Leafs to take on
Lombardi’s salary and acquire a talented defenseman who was buried in
Nashville’s blueline depth. Ron Wilson clearly struggled with how to use
Franson so much that it actually seems that Franson thrived under Carlyle.
Matthew Lombardi would spend the season doing an excellent Jason Blake
impression by speeding down the wing and firing wrist shots into the
goaltenders chest protector from the blueline.
Besides the Liles signing, there was also the re-signing of
Mikhail Grabovski which was significant. Under Ron Wilson the line of
Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur thrived, and with a weak crop of free agent
centers, and Grabovski clearly the Leafs best pivot at this point the deal made
sense. Consider this foreshadowing for the next couple of Reliving articles.
Finally there’s no ignoring what was clearing the most
significant transaction of the 2011-12 season, the firing of Ron Wilson, and
the hiring of Randy Carlyle.
The situation was made more bizarre by the recent contract
extension that Ron Wilson had signed over the Christmas break…
…but unfortunately for Ron Wilson a historically bad run
means that Burke needed a fall guy and out Wilson went in favour of Randy
Carlyle who had served under Burke was his head coach in Manitoba while Burke
was the GM of the Canucks, and again they were reunited in Anaheim and won a
Stanley Cup that unfortunately no one attributes to having Chris Pronger and
Scott Neidermayer on the blue line.
I’ll take an opportunity to be melodramatic and state that
at this moment the Leafs officially wandered into their darkest timeline. As
much as we were all excited that Ron Wilson’s defensive fronting was gone and
potentially someone was going to acknowledge that the penalty kill was on life
support, Randy Carlyle was wildly heralded as the worst possible option for a
Burke’s refusal to appoint an interim coach and explore the
wider market of coaches who would become available over the offseason might be
the moment when the “In Burke We Trust” mantra was retired by even his most
loyal foot soldiers.
Carlyle’s impact was immediately felt, as the Leafs declined
from the 49.9% CF% they had under Ron Wilson during the 2011-12 season, to a
47.5% in the remaining games under Carlyle. This again is some foreshadowing
for what is about to come.
Let’s start with what Leafs fans thought this season would
I feel bad for that guy. You want to like him because he has
Bozak on the fourth line when he’s rapping about line combos, and he would’ve
spent the first half of the season in a euphoric state. Unfortunately Colby
Armstrong could do plenty of wrong and the ranking system of “one to Schenn”
was heavily flawed.
Since there’s more than enough wrong with this season let’s
start with things that weren’t awful. It was in the 2011-12 season that we got
a glimpse that Nazem Kadri was going to be a very good player, and we found out
how nifty his mittens are:
The 2011-12 Season was actually Kessel’s best season in
Toronto. He had his career high 37 goals (which he’d repeat) and set his career
high for points with 82.
Of course it’s necessary to focus on how terrible the Leafs
were once the calendar switched to 2012 and leading the way to bottom of the
standings was Jonas Gustavsson. It’s easy to blame the goalie and I will. Not for
everything, but this highlight pack has some terrible goals in it. I think we
can all fondly look back on that overtime goal against New Jersey where he
redirected a puck going wide back into the net and say “why the hell hasn’t he
been waived yet?”
One of the most amazing parts of the season to me remains
the fact that the Leafs were so quiet at the trade deadline. The team was on
such a sharp downward spiral and had an extremely marketable asset in Joffrey
Lupul that Burke refused to part with. The case for retaining Lupul was that
the Leafs needed to add and not subtract from their roster, but an even better
case can be made for the fact that Leafs could give up a winger to improve a
more critical gap in the roster. Of course, according to Burke, the trade
deadline is when GM’s make most of their mistakes so the day passed with the
only change being the acquisition of Mark Fraser. The air had officially been
let out of the season and led to the remaining home games being filled with
Team Leading Scorers
You can fault the Leafs for a lot of things under Ron
Wilson, but producing offence was never one of them. Strong years from Kessel
and Lupul lead the way, but there was a decent balance of offence from the
point too as Phaneuf, Gardiner, and Liles all made the top ten scoring list. As
was tradition Bozak was outperformed by Grabovski playing behind him in the
Nikolai Kulemin had a year he would like to forget, and Tim
Connolly was probably wondering why he signed in Toronto to play on the third
line, but with three million dollar man Colby Armstrong only registering three
points on the entire season they were far from the biggest disappointments in
the Leafs top nine forward group.
Rethinking the Team
It’s debatable whether it’s healthy to rethink this team or
whether it’s preferable to drink to forget this team. Utilizing the awesome
power of hindsight, that for most was also foresight at the time, there are a
few things that could’ve been done differently.
I’m never going to say that firing Ron Wilson was a mistake.
It wasn’t. Firing Paul Maurice was a mistake and not hiring him back in 2012
when he was available again probably was. Not considering Davis Payne, an up
and coming coach for the Wilson vacancy was also a miss. In fact, not waiting
until the offseason to do a proper search for a bench boss and instead going
with someone who had nothing going for them but familiarity was a bad idea. Burke
isn’t really one to go away from his inner circle though and here we are three
years later removing the last of them from the organization.
The Liles contract is one of those things I remember getting
a ton of flack for hating at the time, and I remember thinking how odd it was
that people were okay with signing a concussed player to an expensive multiyear
deal. Instead Liles could’ve been a nice player to dump at the trade deadline
if there was any interest or at the very least maybe signing him to a one year
deal to see how he was post injury would’ve made sense.
Would I have played Franson more and Schenn less? Yes.
Would I have given up on Gustavsson before the season started? Yes.
Would I be capable of sending Colton Orr down without a ridiculous speech about
rats taking over the game? Probably.
Would I trade Joffrey Lupul? At the time I would’ve debated
this since he wasn’t ridiculously old, we didn’t know what his next contract
would be, and sixty games of a point per game player is hard to replace. Of
course we did also know that he is injury prone, he was leaving his prime, he
would need a new contract soon, and his numbers seem to be dependent on playing
with a star player. Yeah, whatever the best offer was for Lupul it was probably
That rumoured first for Schenn, Burke wouldn’t have been a
fool for taking that either, but I won’t complain about him holding out for JVR
as a return.
I would love to put a bow on this season as the worst thing
I’ve been through as a Leafs fan, but there are preceding seasons and a couple
of seasons to follow that probably make it so this mess doesn’t even crack the
top five. Instead this season was a realization that Burke shouldn’t be blindly
trusted and even worse than that this season was the beginning of the Carlyle
era which we will see over the next few days can be a rather painful era to