Clark's new article about the Orr re-signing got me thinking. I honestly believe that the Leafs have yet to move on from the culture of hockey pre-2005. There have been a lot of moves that Toronto has made that seem to stem from a very outdated mindset. I get that some people believe that building a team like the 2004 squad is a good idea. They were the last Leaf playoff team after all. However, that was almost a decade ago. We've had two new CBA's since then, and the league has been cracking down on penalties. Players can no longer hook and hold when a faster player skates around them. In every season since the 2005 lockout, the Leafs appear to be making the necessary changes to adapt to the new playing style, only to make moves which reverse that trend. Having both Orr and McLaren playing at the same time is the most recent example of this. In this three-part series of posts, I will go through each season after the 2005 lockout, detailing the moves that Toronto has made in an effort to show that the Leafs have yet to truly move on from 2004.
General Manager: John Ferguson Jr.
Head Coach: Pat Quinn
Key Departures: Gary Roberts (Winger), Joe Nieuwendyk (Centre), Brian Leetch (Defence), Owen Nolan (Winger), Alexander Mogilny (Winger), Ron Francis (Centre), Mikael Renberg (Winger), Robert Reichel (Centre)
The Toronto Maple Leafs were seemingly the first victim of the new CBA. The Maple Leafs could no longer afford to keep all their high-priced, veteran talent. So in an effort to maximize his cap flexibility, John Ferguson didn't bring back Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk and Alex Mogilny. Brian Leetch didn't want to come back, and signed with the Bruins for what would be his last season. Owen Nolan was embroiled in a legal dispute with the team, and would not play another game for the Maple Leafs. Ron Francis retired, while the ridiculously disappointing duo of Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg were simply let go. That left a lot of holes that needed to be fixed. Luckily, the Leafs had a few young players who could have taken their spots. Alex Steen, Matt Stajan, Kyle Wellwood, Nikolai Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky were ready to take on more minutes and more responsibility. What's important here is that these group of players were ready. GM Ferguson had a different plan. You see, instead of making this season a rebuilding one (Which was sorely needed), he opted to make a run for the playoffs. The timing was atrocious for such a run, seeing as how their window was completely closed following the 2003-04 playoffs. Aging goaltender Ed Belfour also opted to sit out the entire lockout, which would be disastrous for the Leafs.
Fear not however, Ferguson had a plan. You see, there's been one franchise player who has always wanted to don the Blue and White. His name was Eric Lindros, and Toronto finally acquired him. Lindros was considered the most talented hockey player since Gretzky. That was in 1995 however. Lindros ceased being a #1 player after the 2001-2002 season. He wasn't really that old when he signed with the Leafs. At the age of 32 he could have bounced back. But with a history of head injuries, his on-ice age was realistically about 38 or 39. Nevertheless, Leaf Nation was excited to see Lindros in a Leafs jersey. Ferguson backed up Lindros by signing centreman Jason Allison to play on a third scoring line. Jeff O'neill was also brought in to play with Mats Sundin, but his days as a legitimate sniper were long gone. Mariusz Czerkawski was signed to give the Leafs some depth, speed and a little scoring. The forward lineup was set, and on paper it didn't look too bad.
Toronto's main problem in years past however was their defence. The Leafs seemed to rotate through "impact" defencemen each season, with a D-Man carousel involving; Jyrki Lumme, Robert Svehla, Glenn Wesley, Calle Johansson, Drake Berehowsky, and yes, hall-of-famer Brian Leetch. None of these defencemen lasted very long. So Toronto featured a defence core consisting of the talented duo of Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe. After them however is a complete horror show. Aki Berg, Karel Pilar and miscellaneous 6-7 d-men (Berehowsky one year, Bryan Marchment the next) rounded out the defence for Toronto. The GM decided to bolster that lineup by acquiring supposed powerplay specialist Alex Khavanov. Pilar did not return to Toronto, so his spot was filled by Wade Belak. With the departure of Leetch, a spot was left open for a young defenceman to take over. His name was Andrew Wozniewski, and he was terrible. Luke Richardson was added later on in the season for some veteran depth.
The Leafs failed to make the playoffs, missing them by a narrow two points. Eric Lindros only played 33 games, amassing 22 points. Jason Allison managed to rack up 60 points in 66 games. Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Darcy Tucker had career years, scoring 68,67 and 61 points respectively. Ed Belfour's age finally caught up with him. He posted an abysmal .892 save percentage, 3.29 goals against average, and putting up a record of 22-22-4. Jeff O'Neill never really got a chance to play with Mats, posting a disappointing 19 goals and 38 points. Alex Khavanov was a complete non-factor, and Andy Wozniewski was terrible. While the team's performance on paper wasn't completely atrocious, it was the direction of that squad which was most damning. Jason Allison and Eric Lindros, while talented, were too slow for the new NHL. Any positive contribution they had was cancelled out by their complete lack of skating ability and speed. The defence was no better. Aside from Kaberle and the occasional Coliacovo appearance, nobody on the back end had above-average skating abilities. Instead of adapting to new fast-paced NHL, the Leafs chose to remain in 2004, and it ruined any chance of being a contender. With a new salary cap and plenty of veterans leaving, Toronto should have used this season to start a rebuild. Unfortunately, the 05-06 season was the start of an epic free-fall for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
General Manager: John Ferguson Jr.
Head Coach: Paul Maurice
Key Additions: Andrew Raycroft (Alleged goalie), Pavel Kubina (Defence), Hal Gill (Defence), Michael Peca (Centre), Boyd Devereaux (Centre), Bates Battaglia (Winger), Yanic Perreault (Centre, deadline deal), Travis Green (Centre, waiver pick-up mid season).
Key Departures: Eric Lindros (Centre), Jason Allison (Centre), Alex Khavanov (Defence), Mikael Tellqvist (Goalie, traded mid-season), Brendan Bell (Defence, deadline deal), Tukka Rask (Goalie), Tie Domi (Winger) Aki Berg (Defence, waiting for his inevitable HHOF induction), Luke Richardson (Defence), Ed Belfour (Goalie).
After the Leafs failed to make the playoffs in the 2005-2006 season, big changes were needed. John Ferguson's goodwill among Leaf fans had run out following the previous year, so he needed to do something to prove he wasn't useless. He immediately fired long-time (And successful) bench boss Pat Quinn, in favour of the Toronto Marlies, and previous Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. Maurice was a lot younger than Quinn, and had a reputation of being effective with the younger players. Paul Maurice was Carolina's coach when they eliminated the Leafs in the 2002 playoffs (Fuck Arturs Irbe). I can actually remember being happy about this. I assumed he would be a welcome change, and that he was a very talented coach (I was 15). Ferguson then managed to sign veteran centre Mike Peca, known for his outstanding defensive play. There was a problem with this however. Peca's best days were well behind him, and he was already very injury prone. Remind you of someone? (Hint, it's Eric Lindros). He rounded out the forward core with depth moves, bringing in Boyd Devereaux, Bates Battaglia, and later on Yanic Perreault and Travis Green. None of these players were that great offensively, and only Devereaux had any sort of speed. Perreault was a faceoff machine who could chip in the odd point, but he couldn't skate very well at all. Travis Green was about seven years past his expiration date.
With supposed defencemen Alex Khavanov and Aki Berg leaving the team, the Leafs quickly replaced them with Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. These were two players I actually liked, and still do. They were good signings for Ferguson, but not a whole lot of Leaf fans believe me. Kubina was miles ahead of Khavanov, both offensively and defensively. Kubina wasn't a terrible skater either, but he wasn't that fast. Gill was a terrible skater, but he always had good positioning, and could play a ton of minutes. Gill was responsible and reliable in his own end, and that made up for his lack of speed. With a defence core of Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Carlo Coliacovo and Ian White, things didn't look so bad on the back end.
With Ed Belfour's laughable 05-06 campaign, John Ferguson bought him out, and immediately went about looking for a replacement. Taking a page from the pre-2005 playbook, he traded the Leafs best young asset for immediate help. On Draft Day, Andrew Raycroft was acquired from Boston for Tukka Rask. Ferguson took a gamble, sticking with Justin Pogge instead of Rask (Thank you Ferguson). While Raycroft wasn't old, he wasn't good either. After a great rookie season with Boston, Rayzor's stats started to plummet. Instead of letting Rask and Pogge develop into #1 goalies, or finally give Tellqvist a legitimate chance, John Ferguson jettisoned one of his best prospects for a huge gamble. It was an irresponsible move, one that lead to disaster for the Leafs until 2012. With an outdated mindset of "acquiring help now to just sneak into the playoffs", the General Manager prevented the Leafs from building a sustainable winner. For the second year in a row.
Toronto failed to make the playoffs yet again. This time, by only one point. Kubina was hurt for 22 games, so he failed to make the immediate impact that was expected of him. Michael Peca managed to only play 35 games, tallying just 15 points. He was the Leafs' best defensive forward, but just like Lindros, he was sidelined early on, and never returned to Toronto afterwards. Andrew Raycroft set the franchise record for wins, with 39. However, Raycroft had a dismal .894 save percentage. The only reason why he amassed that many wins, is because he played in all but ten games that season. The acquisition of Andrew Raycroft effectively sunk the team's playoff hopes. On the bright side, Mats Sundin had yet another great year. Bryan McCabe put up over 50 points, and the younger players developed even more (Mainly just Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood). Ian White managed to play in 76 games, which led to the team giving him more responsibility in the coming year.
I spent a lot of time in this article talking about the 05-06 season, and there's a good reason for that. That year was a fresh start for a lot of teams in the league. Toronto should have been no different. Instead, the Maple Leafs' management team continued with the philosophy they used before 2005. One year of stumbling would be acceptable, if they didn't repeat the same mistakes the following season. But the Leafs managed to do that. Swapping out the often injured Eric Lindros for the often injured Mike Peca wouldn't change anything. Also, replacing the now-bad Ed Belfour with a younger bad goalie wouldn't either. The first two seasons after the lockout would have been a prime opportunity to jettison the rapidly aging roster. Instead of rebuilding the team, bringing in young, cheap, cost-controlled assets to play along side Alex Steen, Matt Stajan, Ian White, Tomas Kaberle, Nik Antropov, Alex Ponikarovsky and Tukka Rask, the team scrambled and picked up older, overpaid players in a misguided attempt to make the playoffs. The asset management was awful. Another horrifying trend started around this time, that has stuck around this team to this day. Toronto has failed in making every effort to create a sustainable contender, instead they hope and pray that other teams lose more than them. Instead of relying on their own success, the Leafs simply hope for the best. Relying on other teams to fail is a surefire way of establishing your own failure. That started in 2005-2006.
Part two will deal with the 07-08, 08-09 and 09-10 seasons. For now, I just wanted to establish the start of the continued trend of the Toronto Maple Leafs' failure to change the very outdated culture and mindset.