Looking back on the Leafs’ 2011-12 season 10 years later
1 year ago
When it comes to the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, no season in recent years has both fascinated and baffled me more than the 2011-12 campaign.
Or, as it is more infamously known, the “18-wheeler” season.
If you want to know why Leafs fans tend to get an uneasy feeling each time the team has a lead in a game or is doing reasonably well during the regular season, this season played a part in that narrative being established. You take a single glance at the roster and it is filled with names of players from a bygone era. Phil Kessel. Dion Phaneuf. Tyler Bozak. Joffrey Lupul. Mikhail Grabovski. Nikolay Kulemin. Luke Schenn. Jake Gardiner. Nazem Kadri. A majority of them are still playing in the NHL today. Unsurprisingly, none of them are with the Leafs as of the time of writing this.
Meanwhile, the goaltending situation was a different animal entirely. Leading the way was James Reimer, who was the original titleholder of the happiest Leaf netminder ever. Backing him up was Jonas Gustavsson, a goalie with so much promise a few years prior but had showcased inconsistent play in the net. Then there is Ben Scrivens, who started the year with the Marlies but would soon find his way into the show a lot sooner than expected. Shoutout to Jussi Rynnas who showed up at the tail end of the season and filled the role of “The Other Guy.”
Of course, no story of a lost season is complete without key figures in charge of directing this team off a cliff and into the abyss. Brian Burke, the loudmouth GM who was years removed from becoming an analyst on Sportsnet. Ron Wilson, the long-time coach who found plenty of success in California but could not translate it in Toronto (sound familiar?). And Randy Carlyle, the guy who has trouble with toasters and can summarize his goalie’s play as “just okay.”
All of these names listed are the main characters of a story that saw a team enter the month of February battling for a playoff spot and on track to achieve it, only to crumble at the seams and fall into the depths of the league basement and become a laughing stock all over again. They would go on to lose 10 of 11 during a critical juncture that included a six-game slump to end the month of February, and not win at home during a 54-day stretch that mercifully ended well after they were mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
This was the first time I followed the team closely, so I will often go back and watch highlights from a random game. Every time I do so, I remain flabbergasted that the Leafs collapsed in such spectacular fashion. That is why I wanted to write about one of the most interesting seasons in the storied history of this franchise to put into perspective how far they have come in the 10 years since. A trainwreck of epic proportions that resulted in the team using the fifth overall selection in the 2012 Draft to bring in Morgan Rielly.
Before we begin, we first need to bring ourselves back into the mind of a typical fan heading into this season. That way we know why the subsequent collapse hurts more and how it continues to resonate with the fanbase a decade later.
Heading into the opening night on October 6, 2011, there was a sense of genuine optimism around the team that most had not felt for several years.
This particular group was months removed from an inspired run in the second half of the 2010-11 season that saw them nearly claw their way into the playoffs. Propelled by the strong play in net by Reimer in his rookie campaign along with a dynamic line of Kulemin, Grabovski, and Clarke MacArthur, Toronto finished just eight points back of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. While there were no guarantees that the team would have done damage should they have made the playoffs, the hopeful feeling that the group assembled was good enough to at least challenge for a playoff birth gave upper management reasons to believe that a few more pieces would help ensure they could punch their playoff ticket for the first time since the lockout.
They may have been two years removed from finishing dead last in the NHL and had seen the Bruins use the two first-round picks surrendered in the Kessel trade to select Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but there was a sense of belief that this group was ready to reach new heights. Even if not everyone was on board right away.
After a major trade that saw them acquire Lupul and a young Gardiner from the Ducks at the deadline, the Leafs made some big moves during the 2011 offseason.
On the first night of the 2011 draft, the Leafs sent a second-round pick to the Avalance for defenceman John-Michael Liles. On the second day of free agency, they signed former Sabres centre, Tim Connolly, to a two-year contract. The following day, they made another trade that sent Brett Lebda (“Mr.-3” himself) and a few other pieces to the Predators for a package centred around Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson. Rounding out their acquisitions in the offseason was depth centerman Philippe Dupuis and then they made a trade with the Devils days before the start of the season for mammoth David Steckel, who was elite at winning faceoffs and nothing else.
Surprisingly, the Leafs were able to keep most of their roster intact as the only notable losses were Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Tim Brent (who was best remembered for blocking a ton of shots on a five-on-three penalty kill).
The Leafs were able to make some picks in the first round of the 2011 Draft thanks to a trade deadline move of Kris Versteeg to the Flyers and a draft-day move with the Ducks to move up a few spots. With those newly acquired picks, Burke went up the microphone and selected Tyler Biggs 22nd overall and Stuart Percy 25th overall. The Ducks got two picks in exchange for the 22nd pick and they were used to select Rickard Rakell and John Gibson. Surely this won’t come back to haunt the Leafs for years to come, right?
A preseason record of 4-4 did not give fans much of an inkling regarding whether to be concerned or excited, but the strong showing of Gardiner forced the team into inserting him into the opening night roster. Quite a few storylines emerged entering the season, which included whether Kadri would finally get a permanent call-up, how will young guns like Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne do, was Carl Gunnarsson expendable, was there enough on the backend, and can they rely on two inexperienced goaltenders.
All things considered, this was surely going to be a step in the right direction for a club that had seemingly gone backwards for the past half-decade and change. They even got a brand new alternative jersey to commemorate the last time the Leafs hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Things were going to be different in 2012. Or so we thought.
The Leafs got off to a hot start in October, even with a random one-week break after the first two games of the season. Aside from a 6-2 loss to the Bruins on the second half of a back-to-back, they were competitive in most of those games and pulled off impressive wins against contending teams like the Rangers and Penguins. While there were reasons for concern about the sustainability of the success since they nearly blew a 5-1 lead to the Senators and then saw Reimer get sidelined with a concussion from a collision with Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, the sanguine feelings were increasing.
After beating the lowly Blue Jackets 4-1 on November 3, the team sat atop the NHL standings with a 9-3-1 record and had plenty of confidence. That hopeful sensation quickly gave way to panic the way it usually does: an embarrassing loss to the Bruins. Spoiler alert: This won’t be the only time it happens this season.
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All of a sudden, a 1-4-1 stretch in mid-November saw seven lineup regulars suffer injuries and resulted in the Leafs’ record on the season dropping to 10-7-2. More concerning was the team was barely getting any scoring from their depth beyond their top duo of Kessel and Lupul and had one of the worst penalty-killing units in the NHL by a considerable margin. Fears of the season being doomed for disappointment loomed large, as fans had flashbacks to the first half of the 2010-11 campaign which had numerous key players go down with injuries and a 4-12-4 record that proved to be too high of a mountain to climb despite the heroic efforts as mentioned earlier.
Things turned for the better when they exploded for a 7-1 rout against a Capitals team that was on the verge of firing Bruce Boudreau. It led to a successful four-game road trip where they outscored their opponents 17-9 and went 3-1-0 to climb back into the upper echelon of the league standings.
Reimer made his return on December 1 and they celebrated by sinking into mediocrity with a 4-6-3 record. Although it wasn’t for a lack of effort since all but one of those games was decided by two goals or fewer. Take a wild guess who the outlier belongs to. Sandwiched in this month was some controversy in which Wilson seemingly antagonized the media by providing misinformation about the starters and then tweeting out a contract extension on Christmas Day. Regardless, the Leafs did not play well enough and slipped out of the playoff picture.
After losing to the Jets on New Year’s Eve, Toronto sat two points behind the Senators for eighth in the Eastern Conference. But a strange thing happened when the calendar turned over to 2012: the Monster woke up.
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After posting a 9-7-0 record with a .896 SV% and a 3.36 GAA through the first three months of the season, Gustavsson would have a strong January that saw him record three shutouts, win seven of his 11 starts, and record Vezina calibre numbers (a .926 SV% and 2.08 GAA). On top of that, the Leafs were firing on all cylinders to begin the new year by outscoring their opponents 37-26 in January and did not surrender a single goal on the penalty kill.
But there was a caveat to that success. In that same month, the Leafs had the fourth-highest PDO at a whopping 1.026 in all situations. A pretty clear indicator that they were getting fortunate bounces more often than not and a regression to the mean would eventually follow. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
When the All-Star break came and Kessel, Lupul, and Phaneuf represented their team in the nation’s capital, the Leafs were in a three-way tie for seventh in the Eastern Conference. They may have been riding a PDO bender up to that point that was never going to last forever, but the results were coming their way at an important juncture of the season.
Look, the Leafs have a 4-1 lead over the Penguins and are well on their way to a critical wi…oh my God, they blew a 4-1 lead.
The Leafs may have been able to recover from that embarrassing defeat by recording three straight wins, including a 1-0 shutout against the very same Penguins, but it would prove to be a sign of what was to come in the weeks ahead. Their 6-3 win over the Oilers on February 6 would put the team in seventh place and six points behind the Bruins for the Northeast Division lead. This would be the last happy memory of this year as not only would they not win again at Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) for a long time, but they also had only one other win streak of any kind afterwards.
Brace yourselves, it is about to get ugly.
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It started innocently enough with two close losses in a three-day span where the winning goal was scored in the second period. But the fortress began to crumble on February 11th when the lowly Canadiens came into town. On a night in which they raised Mats Sundin’s number to the rafters, they honoured their former captain by losing 5-0 on national television. The lowlights linked above just barely scratch the surface of how embarrassing an effort the Leafs gave their fans that night.
Around this time, the NHL announced that the Leafs would head to the Big House to play against the Red Wings in the Winter Classic the following season. An imminent lockout spelt trouble for the status of the game, as if Toronto needed more reasons to feel anguish.
Then came a tough road trip through Western Canada where they were outscored 14-7 and went 1-2-0 during that stretch. Their lone win came at the expense of the Oilers in overtime, who would go on to win the “Fail for Nail” sweepstakes to take Nail Yakupov first overall. It’s a pretty telling sign of how quickly things were spiralling, but we’re not done yet.
A few days after getting blown out by the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks, the Leafs had a critical game against the Devils that proved to be a spirited affair. With his team desperate to right the ship after dropping five of their last six games, Gustavsson turned in a solid performance despite surrendering three goals in regulation. Kessel scored in the final minute to earn a crucial point and force overtime, but the game would end in tragedy with Gustavsson deflecting a Mark Fayne shot from long range into his own net.
Of Fayne’s 17 career goals, this particular one was the second furthest and most angled one he recorded. It is especially damning because the replay shows that the shot was going wide of the net for what would be his only career OT winner. This was a shot that should have never gone in but the minuscule chances that it could ultimately prevailed.
This would be the last point the Leafs would earn in February as four more losses in regulation would drop their record down to 29-28-7, 11th in the East, and five points behind the Jets for the last spot. Fans were growing restless and longing for change when the ACC was rained down with chants of “Fire Wilson” during a loss to the Panthers.
On February 25th, they lost Darryl Boyce on waivers to the Blue Jackets. Two days later, that season’s iteration of the trade deadline did not see the Leafs make any major moves to help right the ship with only two trades made that day. One was the swapping of Keith Aulie for Carter Ashton, and the other was the acquisition of Mark Fraser, who currently works with the team in player development for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Wilson would only last one more game as a loss to the Blackhawks would extend the losing streak to six. Burke finally showed mercy on his longtime friend as the Leafs fired Wilson on March 2nd and replaced him with Carlyle. Burke’s press conference of the coaching change mere hours before the Leafs faced the Canadiens in Montreal would forever linger as one of the lasting memories of this forgotten season:
I’ve had dips, I’ve had slumps, I’ve had rough patches. But this is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff. And I’ve never seen it before in my life. I don’t know what happened? I’ve never experienced this.”
Carlyle’s first win and Grabovski getting a five-year extension brought some hope back that the team was beginning to turn things around. But hopes were quickly dashed as during their next game against the Bruins, Lupul suffered a season-ending shoulder injury that broke up the Leafs’ dynamic duo for good. The Leafs responded in kind by going on a five-game losing streak to bring their record down to 30-32-8 on March 13th and were now 10 points out of a postseason birth. It was no longer a question of if the Leafs could salvage the season, but rather who they should draft in the first round.
Signs of life were shown when the Leafs miraculously strung together two straight wins against the Lightning and Senators, but that was the prelude to their most embarrassing loss yet.
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Not being satisfied with being blown out 7-0 by the Bruins in November, the Leafs decided to play even worse and lost 8-0. The lackadaisical effort defensively and porous performance in an arena that continues to haunt this team was rock bottom for a season that had spiralled into nothingness. This may not have officially ended their chances at a playoff berth (that would come eight days later against the Hurricanes), but on this night the wind was definitely knocked out of the team’s sails, rendering the release of a Leafs playoff emblem meaningless. That’s what happens when you lose six games to a division rival and get outscored 36-10 in those games.
Following more losses and hearing their fans chant “Let’s Go Blue Jays” during a 7-1 loss to the Flyers, the Leafs finally won their first home game in 54 days on March 31st. That win came at the expense of a Sabres team in a desperate push to nab a playoff spot but would ultimately fall three points shy. It would prove to be the closest Buffalo came to a playoff spot in the past decade as it is now in an 11-year postseason drought.
When the horn sounded after a 4-1 loss to the Habs on April 6th, the season mercifully came to an end with the Leafs finishing fifth-worst in the league with a 35-37-10 record. With it came drastic changes to the organization that were sorely needed.
As mentioned earlier, the Leafs would use the fifth overall pick to snag Rielly but that wasn’t the only major addition made that summer. They finally got Leo Komarov signed to an NHL contract, traded Schenn to the Flyers for James van Riemsdyk, pulled the plug on the Gustavsson era, signed Jay McClement in free agency, and drafted some guy named Connor Brown in the sixth round. Finally, Burke was fired by the Leafs on January 9th, 2013 and replaced by his former assistant, Dave Nonis.
I think these two graphs that my boss, Jon Steitzer, made when assessing this season a few years ago perfectly encapsulate how things went sour for this iteration of the Leafs. The first is looking at their rolling PDO throughout the season:
The second is their point ascension when compared to the league average that year:
By all accounts, this iteration of the Leafs was not good and it should not have been a surprise that they would not make the postseason. It’s what happens when you have a very top-heavy team, an inexperienced blue line, shaky goaltending, and horrific structure on the penalty kill. Toronto gave their fans fool’s gold that the 2011-12 season would see the club take the next steps but pulled the rug from under their feet just when they could taste the postseason.
To put into perspective just how much the Leafs relied on their top-line to carry the offensive burden, here are the top ten scorers on the team that campaign:
Kessel and Lupul certainly held up their end of the bargain as both had their best seasons offensively speaking up to that point, and Grabavoski did well enough to earn a multi-year extension. But there is a major drop-off in points between second and third place while the only other player to hit double digits in goals was Joey Crabb.
Part of it had to do with two-thirds of the Grabovski line taking major steps back offensively, as MacArthur dropped from 62 points to 43 and Kulemin only scored 7 times after recording 30 the year prior. Connolly was expected to be the answer for who would be the number one centremen, but missed time with an injury and would post one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. His reduced role after years of being a consistent threat on the power play didn’t help matters, but he would be sent down to the Marlies before the 2013 season and never again play in the NHL.
Colby Armstrong getting paid $3 million to record just three points in an injury-ridden year, Kadri barely getting a chance beyond the fourth line to showcase his talents, and both Frattin and Colborne not moving the needle in a significant way also didn’t help matters. It’s no wonder that once Lupul went down with his shoulder injury, the Leafs were outscored 56-32 in the final 16 games.
Wilson may have had success in the past coaching teams with strong shorthanded units, but the 2011-12 Leafs were riddled with a horrific structure that resulted in one of the worst penalty-killing percentages in the league.
They finished third last at 77.27% efficiency and were as low as 73.4% at the start of the calendar year. It was not due to the team taking a lot of penalties since they were the fifth most disciplined team that season, but instead because of the defensive coverage being unorganized and the goalies giving up too many rebounds. Here are a few examples of why the Leafs had such porous results when down a man.
The Leafs were scrambling all over the place as they chased the puck instead of trying to clog the middle of the ice to prevent the Jets from getting anything set up. There were far too many instances where a man was left wide open and they were either bailed out by a big save or an unintended block. Blake Wheeler would cash in here and this would prove to be the winning goal.
For some reason, two of the Leafs decided to back off and Schenn was slow to react to the loose puck. The Panthers would cash in here, and this would again stand as the winning goal.
After Lombardi failed to clear the puck out, Steckel was sluggish getting back in position and the Canucks got the Leafs to deviate from their assignment. This left an open lane for Sami Salo to add an insurance marker.
Phaneuf was not aggressive enough on Patrick Marleau who was parked in front of the net. He was able to easily get a deflection and score the winning tally.
Again, the Leafs were lethargic getting to the puck carrier and the Panthers got a back-breaking goal in a must-win game for Toronto. Gardiner was caught in a tough position trying to clear the puck out but he didn’t put enough power in the shot which went right to Jason Garrison.
Having dreadful coverage on the penalty kill is one thing, but the goalies not coming up with the save is another. Both Reimer and Gustavsson were among the worst goalies in the NHL that season in terms of SV% and GAA both as a whole and in high-danger areas.
Simply put: the penalty kill was appalling under Wilson and did not fare much better when Carlyle took over.
Shaky Goaltending and Young Defence
While we are on the subject of goaltending, it is pretty clear that the netminders as a whole were not good enough. We have already highlighted Reimer and Gustavsson’s poor play, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Scrivens who was forced to play in 12 games due to the former two missing time. His lack of experience at the NHL level was apparent in his two stints with the team, though he provided some hope for an upgrade at the backup position for the following season. Rynnas only made two appearances for the Leafs that season and his lone start saw him surrender seven goals against the Flyers.
So with the Leafs finishing 10th in goals for and power-play percentage, average goaltending could have been enough to change the outcome of this season. It’s no wonder Gustavsson was on thin ice entering the season and Leafs fans were clamouring for the team to trade for Roberto Luongo.
By contrast, the defensive unit was young and offensively talented but prone to some lapses in their end. Gardiner had an impressive rookie season and was named to the All-Rookie Team, Phaneuf had his best season with the Leafs points-wise, Liles was as advertised when healthy, and Schenn matched his career-high. Five of their defenceman recorded at least 20 points on the season and Gunnarsson was one shy of being the sixth.
One of those five blueliners was Franson, who was inexplicably a frequent healthy scratch through the first few weeks of the season despite being far better than Mike Komisarek, who was known for his hits and recording mediocre underlying metrics. It wasn’t until Komisarek went on the sidelines for two months with a broken arm that Franson got an opportunity to showcase his talents and he ran with it. This helped make it easier for the Leafs to send Schenn in the trade for JVR in the subsequent offseason.
For the most part, the Leafs had a talented back end with plenty of offensive firepower but were held back by their overall lack of experience at the NHL level. Fans should have known there would be growing pains that year when their most experienced blueliner was an injury-riddled Komisarek.
A Decade Later
It has been over 10 years since that infamous season came to an end and the Leafs have gone through quite a lot since then.
The major shakeup in the summer of 2012 sparked a bounceback performance and the team snapped their postseason drought during the lockout-shortened campaign. They took their arch-nemesis to Game 7 in the first round but blew it in record fashion. A three-year dry spell saw them build together a new core of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews that found immediate success by earning a proper playoff spot for the first time since 2004. Two years into this new era of Leafs hockey, they shocked the hockey world by convincing John Tavares to come home and play for his boyhood club.
The Big Four were joined by some members of that 2011-12 squad for the first few years of the era. Gardiner and Kadri were the last two players to make their exit from the club following another loss in the first round to the Bruins in 2019, which makes it three years since the last remnants from the 18-wheeler season played for the team.
Over a decade since the Leafs fell off a cliff, this version could not be any more different from that one. They may still be talented offensively and with one of the top power plays in the league, but their penalty-kill is far superior in every way, the team has better depth both at forwards and defence, and they have mostly reliable goaltending in Jack Campbell. More importantly, they have punched their ticket to the playoffs and have since established franchise records in wins and points.
But as has always been the case, fans remain on edge because of fear that they will not get past the first round which has been the case for the last 18 years. Whether it ends up being against the Lightning or Bruins, the city of Toronto won’t be able to breathe a sigh of relief until the team wins that fourth game for the first time since 2004.
This scenario is something a Leafs fan in 2012 would have longed to see when they saw their team collapse in spectacular fashion for the whole world to see. All of this is to say that while there are things about the 2021-22 team that can be annoying or frustrating, it could be so much worse.
The 2011-12 Leafs were a team that gave their fans optimism that things were finally beginning to turn a corner, only for them to come up with fool’s gold and get a reality check on just how mediocre the group assembled was. They never really stood a chance even if they did find a way to reach the 2012 playoffs. Maybe they find a better fate if they play Franson more from the start, trade away Gustavsson before the season, or even hire an interim coach instead of Carlyle, but having unreliable goaltending, a horrific penalty kill, a lack of depth, and an inexperienced blueline would be difficult to overcome. Perhaps they sneak in a win or two, but they would have been bounced out of the first round by either the Bruins or Rangers.
It may have been torturous for the fanbase to watch that group sink from the edge of the playoff bubble to the draft lottery in the span of six weeks, but it was all worth it cause it resulted in the team drafting Rielly.
He is nine seasons into his career and has lived up to Burke’s lofty proclamation that he would have taken the Vancouver native first overall. Rielly has played in 652 games with the Blue and White and has registered 371 points in that span and has grown into a lockerroom leader at 28 years old. He has been through it all and seen this team evolve from basement dweller to playoff contender while progressing his game to greater heights.
The Leafs have been able to enjoy regular-season success in the last six years thanks in part to Rielly’s steady presence on the backend. This is something that would not have been possible had the organization not had an 18-wheeler fallen off a cliff 10 years ago.
As I said, things could be so much worse right now had the Leafs changed their destiny and made the 2012 playoffs. But it was through that 54-day stretch of no wins in Toronto that the Leafs earned themselves one of their most important pieces that will be part of the team for the next eight years.
It’s like the saying goes: things happen for a reason.
Chart from Evolving Hockey.
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