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[Recap] Leafs 2 v. Kings 5: Sliding To Safety

This is a long one and works to explain why the white towel has been waved by myself and many fans which were sticking with the team to the bitter end. Click on 'Full Story' to read the rest but you'll want to clear some space on your calendar because it's a long read.

The problem with waiting for the afternoon to recap games is that real writers will eventually write what you meant to and do it much better. Glove tap to Ninja for pointing towards Eric Duhatschek who has a brilliant, long read about blowing up the Leafs and what might/should happen with Sundin.

One point which came up last night as I watched the game with some friends was how come I had finally called for the team to be blown up. The Hat touches on the events of the first season after the lockout:

That year, the trading deadline fell on Mar. 9. On March 4, they lost a 4-2 decision to the Ottawa Senators, their fifth defeat in a row. The loss capped a 20-game stretch (from Jan. 6, or Game 41 on, in which they won just four and lost 16).

That year, in games 1-40, the Leafs looked like a playoff team. They had 49 points and were on pace for another 100 point season which would have seen them solidly ensconced in a playoff spot. They were + 7 in goal differential (134-127), were +10 at even strength (79-69), had a powerplay gunning at 18.6% (good enough for 10th place over the course of the season), and had a penalty kill that was working at a 80.86% clip (good enough for 23rd overall). The PK was a bit of an Achilles heel but the team was scoring at a good enough rate to position the team for a push in the second half of the season.

Click on 'Full Story' to read the rest and comment

Then came the collapse and it was caused by the unlikeliest of sources: Bryan McCabe's groin. I mentioned the trickle down effect of the Leaf rearguard's injury during a Q&A to a Penguins game this year. In 2005-2006 McCabe hurt his groin on the Leafs' Western road trip in a 3-2 win over the Oilers in which he picked up 2 assists to get to 49 points on the year. He proceeded to miss the next 9 games during which the Leafs went 0-8-1 which quickly turned into 4-14-2 during the 20 games the killed the Leafs' season. During that stretch the Leafs' powerplay and penalty killing took a bit of a dip (17.24% and 79.67% respectively) but what really killed the Leafs was even strength play. During those 20 games the Leafs were outscored by 20 goals (28-48). By the time the Leafs lost to the senators the Leafs had only 59 points in 60 games and were on pace for an 81 point season which would have left them tied with Phoenix for 23rd in the NHL.

Here's the real what-if:

More than anything else, though, it convinced the Leafs that they were pretty good; and they couldn't live without McCabe and Tomas Kaberle and Darcy Tucker and a whole lot of other players whose values were inflated by playing in the Centre Of The Hockey Universe.

What if those players had been traded to contenders for picks and prospects? If they had continued to pick up points at the same pace for the last 22 games as they had for the previous 20 (.250) they would have finished with 11 more points for a total of 70 which would have been good enough to finish tied with the Capitals for 27th in the league. They would have had a shot at the top pick in the 2006 draft while being guaranteed a top 5 pick. The top 5 picks that year: Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel. At least the Leafs kept their first rounder and they selected Jiri Tlusty. The following year, with a slew of prospects in the lineup the Leafs might have again found themselves in the top 5 picks of the draft which included: Patrick Kane, James Van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris, Thomas Hickey, and Karl Alzner. Those names probably sound familiar. One is in the NHL, three led Canada to a gold at the WJHC this year, and the other was the Americans leading scorer in that same tournament. Instead the Leafs traded their pick to the Sharks. It was another 13th overall pick which is the highest non-playoff pick.

Which in a roundabout brings us back to last night's conversation that I had previously referenced. The conclusion was that the sum of the Leafs' is not equal to its parts. In short, that is why I am up for blowing it up. I was seduced by that late season run in 2005-2006. Rather than see the 20 game skid as the norm I figured that the team from games 1-40 and 61-82 was the true version of the team. Missing the playoffs by two points was heartbreaking but I, like many other fans thought that with a few moves and some consistency the Leafs would be back in the playoffs where anything can happen (but rarely does).

On paper the Leafs of 2006-2007 were much better than the previous years installment. Sure, I was ready to go the entire year with Aubin and Telly and see what came about but the Raycroft deal seemed ok and I was willing to give it a shot. After all, we still had Pogge left and there's no way the Leafs would do anything to harm his development. In the end, the Leafs again missed the post-season by a sickening small margin. Once more, it was easy to make excuses for the team's failure (injuries, inconsistency, Kerry Fraser) and I freely admit that I was one who fell prey to that kind of thinking. So in the summer when the Leafs signed Jason Blake (a 'young' Blake with low mileage) and traded for Bell and Toskala I thought that the Leafs had found the pieces that were needed to get a promising and hopefully healthy team back into the playoffs where they could cause some damage. Even the coach was seduced into calling it the most talented team he had ever coached. Sadly, the sum of the Maple Leafs is not equal to its parts. This year's inconsistency and terrible effort was enough to make me realize that it wasn't the mitigating factors that were killing the Leafs, it was the Leafs themselves.

The one quibble I have with Duhatschek's article is in this line referring to the trade deadline of 2006:

That decision — to do nothing — ultimately led to the mess they're in two years later.

He makes it seem (whether it's intentional or not) that doing nothing is always a bad move. In hindsight, doing nothing with contracts before the lockout would have been a great move and saved the Leafs Ed Belfour's buyout that the team is still paying off. Doing nothing after the deadline might have kept Lindros, Allison, and Khavanov away from the team and allowed the Leafs' youngsters a larger and more important share of the ice-time. Doing nothing after the 2005-2006 season would have ended the Andrew Raycroft debacle before it started and kept Tuuka Rask in the Leafs' stable. Doing nothing  after last season would have ensured that the only Bell in Toronto would be Brendan while keeping a number of draft picks in the system. Doing nothing now would be a disaster but it had its places where it could have made a huge difference.

And finally we get to last night. Andrew Raycroft got the start and the team predictably played as if the game had already been forfeited. They fell behind 4-0 in the first and were playing like they were trying to tank the season. Then Maurice made what could be his biggest mistake as the coach of the Leafs. Instead of leaving Raycroft in to take his lumps for being terrible (true story, after the fourth goal one friend turned to us and said 'you know, if the Leafs give up then the Kings could hit double digits) and he put in Toskala. Immediately, everyone in the room said that the only way things could get worse was if Toskala got injured. Not only that but now the Leafs have called up Justin Pogge and claimed Dominic Moore. Why they would throw Pogge to the wolves is beyond me when Clemmensen is available.

Anyway, the Leafs did outscore the Kings 2-1 the rest of they way and peppered LaBarbera with 50 shots but that was mostly because the Kings decided to take a million penalties and it highlights that the Leafs can't score to save their lives. So the Slide for Stamkos/Drive for Doughty has been updated and the Leafs' chances look good the rest of the way in a bad sort of way. If the Leafs continue to slide further and further out of a playoff spot then it puts more pressure on management to act and it makes any desperate push for the playoffs that less likely which, after the Perreault and Green moves, makes me breath a sigh of relief.

When does Toronto FC start playing again?