In short, the Leafs' on-ice play at the team level was a continuation of the shortened 12-13 season. The team struggled from poor possession numbers, benefited from strong goaltending and shooting percentages, and fell short of the playoffs when the percentages didn't ride out through March. The Leafs spent just 16 of their 82 games (19.5%) getting more shot attempts than the opponent at even strength with the score close - and four of those were against the Sabres.
There was room for individual player criticism, too. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson struggled through the year; individual performances, deployment, systems, and individual injuries contributed to varying degrees throughout the year. Reimer had a down-year, regardless of whether or not it's driven by variance. Tim Gleason looks startlingly like Mike Komisarek.
Despite all this, the year wasn't all doom and gloom - so many individual performances this year were stellar. The electrifying Phil Kessel placed seventh in the scoring race by points and fifth by goals. Jake Gardiner led all Leafs in ice-time and Corsi Rel%, coming off a year where injuries and healthy scratches had him playing just 12 games in the regular season. Bernier placed 12th in overall SVP among goalies with at least 20 GP. At age 19, Morgan Rielly tied for third in PPG among rookie defensemen with at least 20 games played (7th among rookie D-man seasons in the past three years), and it's easy to get excited about his play. Even Kadri, who stopped grabbing headlines because his on-ice shooting percentage came back down to earth, posted a more-than-respectable 52 point-pace playing second line minutes.
But it was near impossible to dwell on individual successes if you paid even an ounce of attention to this team's off-ice commentary.
It's hard to cheer for a bad team, but it's even harder to cheer for a dumb team. From July 2013 through today, the Leafs front office worked hard to put themselves in the latter camp. The "We Weren't Outpossessed" interview, the buyouts, the retention of Carlyle, the 15-game difference between giving up a second or third round pick, the early-season assurances, the mid-season gloating, and the late season excuses - oh, the excuses! Read all of them, because at some point a member of the Leafs organization tried to pitch these as a reason the Leafs struggled:
- The lack of a third line center
- The lack of a third line center who Carlyle plays as a first line center
- The self-inflicted automatic suspension to a third line winger
- The Olympic break
- The compressed schedule
- The goaltending wasn't perfect
- The lack of an identity
- "Loss of mojo"
- The Winter Classic
- The Hockey Gods Hate the Leafs
And make no mistake: not a single one of those are answers. They're excuses. If you want actual answers, you need to look somewhere other than the current staff; Carlyle was "mystified" that you could have high goals against while still having high save percentage, and at least one executive is sure that high shots against aren't indicative of possession problems, but are simply a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Since we're on the topic of hot air, how about that culture change? Dreger swore there would be accountability, and Poulin pretended there were swords to fall on, but as of right now, the only repercussions for the third straight Leafs season to include a crushing disappointment? Leiweke hired a president of hockey operations, which he claims Nonis knew would happen and agreed to. I'm not sure you can take that last bit at face value, but even Carlyle, who should have been fired a year ago and could be improved upon by almost any NHL-caliber coach, hasn't been held accountable.
It's so much fun to watch Bernier make highlight-reel saves, to see Gardiner glide through the neutral zone like it's butter, and to cheer as Phil Kessel streaks down the wing and scores a goal, seemingly at-will. It's a lot less fun to cheer for an organization that seems content to ask bad questions and accept bad answers. But in a paragraph, that's how I'd describe the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.
Here's hoping Tim Leiweke is serious about holding people accountable. Here's hoping that Brendan Shanahan (or his GM hire) doesn't consider it a point of pride to deny himself useful information. Here's hoping for the best out of every member of the 2014-2015 Toronto Maple Leafs. Go Leafs go.