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12 very basic reasons why the Leafs not making the playoffs is disappointing—even worse than in previous years

Let me start by acknowledging something:  maybe there isn’t much of a nuance in what I am about to say, but there is for me.  The Maple Leafs didn’t miss the playoffs this season.  They did not make the playoffs—and they did it the old-fashioned way:  they earned not making it.

To say they “missed” the spring dance would imply that they gave it their all, played their best and hardest, and just came up a  bit short.  We’d be kidding ourselves if we tried to make that case.  They fell short, far short, and took major steps backwards in doing it.

This may have been—no, in fact for me it was—the most disappointing mis-step by far since the blue and white last made the playoffs back in 2004.

Back then, the Leafs were still Pat Quinn’s team.  His authority had been usurped, yes, by Richard Peddie, and through Peddie, the neophyte General  Manager, John Ferguson Jr..  But it was still the team that Quinn had built and nurtured through his tenure as General Manager and they were still pretty darn good.  That they ran into a slightly better (but very good) Flyer team in a bruising playoff series that left Philly with nothing for the next round is sometimes forgotten, but the Leafs had a solid, contending team back then.

By the next season, Ferguson (after the 2004-’05 lock-out year) had put his “stamp” on the team, and he left Quinn with a broken-down roster that predictably fell short of serious playoff contention, though they started the season (much like the Leafs this year) very well.  A loss when they gave up a big lead to the Wayne Gretzky-coached Coyotes in late December, I think it was, seemed to put the Leafs on a slide they could never rebound from until it was too late.

In subsequent years, let’s face, it, we just haven’t been very good.  Paul Maurice’s teams sort of came close, but they weren’t truly playoff caliber.  Burke arrived and burnt the roster to the ground in his first couple of years so we were prepared for some short-term pain.  But after being told by the brass and coaching staff the last two seasons that we were good enough to make the playoffs in the East, we have failed.  Last year, OK, I’ll give them a mulligan.

This season.  No, I won’t. 

I heard the words, I heard the indirect “promises”, I heard the optimism.  But in the end, this season was a failure.  An abject failure.  And if Brian Burke says anything but that—and not in the insincere way he has of “accepting” responsibility as in “I didn’t give the coach a good enough team…”—he will be providing even more fodder for those of us fans who have seen his b.s.-filled movie way too many teams before.

No, we need a tiny bit of self-reflection.  Less pomposity.  Less hubris (in fact none would be nice).  Instead, the moment will require a genuine sense that this management team has seen their mistakes and will move forward thoughtfully, not with knee-jerk, ego-driven decisions.

Why, then, was this particular season so frustrating?  The reasons are too many to list them all, but let me try a few and see if you agree, disagree, or have anything to add:

The East was so, so bad this season

I mean, parity has been creeping into the NHL (and in fact has been here for years), but this season, it was wide-open for a really average team with a mediocre roster and talent base to at least “get in”.  The Leafs have that kind of talent pool/roster.  Yet they didn’t get in.  In the end, there weren’t even really close.

The team controlled it’s own destiny.

For the first time in almost a decade they were in the driver’s seat, and couldn’t handle it.  They were well into the playoff zone early in the season, and were still there in January.  Even when the wheels started to fall off, where was the coaching to stop the slide, make adjustments, re-build the team’s confidence?  Where was the leadership in the dressing room?  Where was the GM to stop the bleeding, make a move that would tell the roster, “I have your back. We’re making the playoffs this year…”.  Burke didn’t have to sell the future to get a player or two to help the Leafs down the stretch.

Where are all those "first-round" draft picks?

Not that I believe Burke’s comment (how many times do we have to get feed this garbage?), but why aren’t people holding his hand to the fire?  If he really could have gotten four first-round draft choices for guys who weren’t good enough, collectively, to get us into the playoffs, why didn’t he do it?  Especially since his lieutenants are going around telling every media person that will listen to their “message track” recording that they will not trade youngsters for veterans?  Hell, four first-round picks?  If we really could have obtained those, why not do it?  We missed the playoffs by a mile anyway.  Just another roster miscalculation by the GM, who  is either full of crap or yet again misread the capabilities of his roster.  Take your pick.

The Ottawa Senators got in.

I mean goodness, the Ottawa Senators got in.  I don’t hate the Sens as much as some do. (I understand the feeling…I had it in spades for the Habs in the ‘60s and ‘70s; I just don't have the oomph I used to have, and besides, Ottawa has never beaten us when it really mattered, so what’s the point?)  Here is a team that was a mess with a capital “M”, with their hundredth new coach in the last 4 years and they make the playoffs in the lousy East before us?  C’mon.

Did you watch the Flyers and the Penguins on the weekend?

If you did, you don’t need me to tell you how far away we are from looking remotely like either of those two teams.  We are not even close.  They’ve lapped us and they are coming around the bend again.  We’re that far away.  Even if we assume all of our promising youngsters develop exactly according to their best possible scouting projections, we will not be as good as the Rangers, Bruins or Flyers in two seasons.  Full stop.  (I’m open to arguments to the contrary, but I won’t be easily won over this time…)

We burned a coaching hire out of panic

Hey, Carlyle may turn out to be the best guy available, and the right guy for this team.  But he sure isn’t the right guy for this roster right now.  I don’t buy that they haven’t had time to adjust to him.  They’ve had plenty of time.  They just couldn’t play his way—at least not consistently or effectively.  So now we have a roster that needs to be adjusted in a major way, or have to ask a coach who doesn’t like to adjust (couldn’t do it in Anaheim when things went south) to do just that with a roster he obviously doesn’t like—and doesn’t instinctively play the way he wants.

And, as some thoughtful readers have mentioned in this space, is it possible there would have been a way better fit out there this summer?  Usually, as I’ve said here before, you go from tough coach to player’s coach, not tough coach to toughest coach.

We’ve still losing--and we've become boring.

We all noticed that when things no longer mattered, when the playoffs were officially out of sight, Carlyle then said the Leafs should just enjoy themselves. So what did they do?  They went out and beat a tight Sabres team that needed the win in the worst way Saturday night.  But it was way too late to make a difference.

Yes, the team, including its few "star players", need to play a well-rounded game.  But message to Randy:  Secretariat wasn't asked to pull a plough.  he did what he did best- he ran faster than everybody else.

The Leaf management team ahs been reduced to being p.r. flakes.

As I posted here recently, hat have we heard from the “brass”, Burke’s lieutenants, for the last three or more weeks?  More empty talk about “the plan”, how good the kids will be, why next year is now the year.

Spare me.  If all you can do is show re-runs, go off the air until you have something worthwhile to say.  Even better, say nothing until you’ve fixed the problems.

Maybe I’m alone here, but wouldn’t you love it if Burke just said (next week, at the season-ending press conference):  “You know what.  Things will get better.  We really believe that.  But we agree with the fans. This hasn’t been near good enough under our watch.  We have zero excuses.  Three and a half years has been plenty of time, in a cap world, to be competitive and make the playoffs.  Other teams have done it with less money and in less time.  I’m sorry.  You won’t hear from me again until we have made things better for this organization…”.

What do you think the odds are of that happening?

It’s another spring with no honking horns and no Leaf flags on cars all over Ontario.

Forget the ‘60s and ‘70s when the Leafs made the playoffs often, and the uneven ‘80s, when the Leafs made the playoffs once in a while.  Do you remember 1993 and ’94, those wonderful playoff runs under Pat Burns?  Do you remember the Quinn era between 1999 and 2004, when every spring we won (maybe we missed one year) playoff rounds and happy fans were calling talk shows, honking horns and proudly driving around with Leaf flags on their cars?

Sure, it’s a bit much the way we Leaf people react to winning a playoff game, when other franchises actually win Cups.  But at least when you get to the playoffs you have a chance to relieve some of the excess frustration that has built up over the years?

I’m not sure we are any further ahead in our “re-build” than either Montreal or Edmonton.

I’ve posted on the Edmonton comparison before, but I think more than ever, the debate applies now.  The Leafs and Oilers were two of the worst teams in the NHL two years ago at this time, and they both still are.  The standings after a long NHL season don't lie.  But….look at Edmonton’s young talent on the forward lines.  It is stunningly good in spots.  Do we really have that kind of talent?

As for Montreal, we shouldn’t feel too smug on that front, either.  Take a good look at their roster, and then tell me we are way ahead of them.  I don’t really think so.

I’m not sure we are guaranteed a playoff spot next season and even if we make it, how long would we last?

I know it takes time for a young team to mature, but I’m just not sure where the real leadership is coming from.  Most of our highly-paid “leaders” were sitting up in the press box as healthy scratches.  That reflects either lousy coaching decisions or lousy work by the GM.  I’ll let you decide.

How long do we have to have a poisonous relationship between our front office and the media?

Oh, I know the media-unfriendly Wilson is gone and Carlyle has played nicely so far in the sandbox in his early, “no expectations” days with the Toronto media.  And yes, Nonis, Poulin and Dudley all have been out there trying to generate tolerance for an even longer re-build.

But everyone knows that Burke loathes many of the local media, just as he did in Vancouver.  We’re back to the old Imlach days here.  If Burke likes a guy, and that reporter just takes his “messages” and spreads what Burke wants spread, he’ll talk.  If you don’t play by his narrow rules, well, we all know the names that media types have been called by Burke here- and dating back to his days in Vancouver.  It’s sad, it’s unnecessary and it’s bad for the image of the organization.

Yes, the media can be annoying.  I get it.  I feel it.  But by and large these people are simply trying to do their job.  A phone call to a player’s parent doesn’t make them evil.  It’s a journalist trained to do their job with diligence—even if it’s not the way some people think business should be conducted.

But it’s way more than that one ”incident”.  And it really has to stop.

I know many of you disagree, but it hurts the team and I believe it leads to even more ego-driven management decisions.   It’s simply bad public policy.

Hey, there are so many other reasons I could name for the disappointment Leaf fans feel right now, but I’d rather post this and see if you of you agree, disagree, or have some things to throw into the hopper as well.

Thanks for visiting.


  1. Excellent post.

    The biggest thing for me is how the rest of the Eastern conference is bad this year. This was the year the Leafs should have made a big step forward and they did the exact opposite. I think that is what makes this year so disapointing.

    The Carlye hire was I feel a panic move. They should have waited till this summer after the season was over to properly assess where they are and who would be the best fit. That said I do think we are going to find out if Carlyle is an elite coach or a just a good coach. The elite coaches can change thier style and do things differently. Coaching is like any other profesion, what works sometimes doesn't always and the guys who get ahead can adapt to situations and still get results. Judging by what I have seen from Carlye so far I suspect that he may be able to do just that. He was supposed to be some sort of crabby bastard but so far has handled the press with grace and charm. I have yet to see him call a player out or ridicule him in the press, a Ron Wilson special. It didn't end well in Anahiem for him but the best guys learn from failure and disapointment and evolve. Heres hoping Carlye can do just that.

    For me the rest boils down to shut up and make the team better. No more stupid time wasting fights with the media. No more straw man arguments designed to distract us from how bad your team really is. No more crowing about how good the youngsters are. It is time to put up. After 4 years someone from the farm should make a huge difference to this team. No more promises for the future I want to see tangible evidence that the Leafs are getting better.

  2. This offseason will be the most interesting yet after a season that looked so promising. No big name players, the market is weak in all our needs, and cap space is minimal with nothing really coming off the books.

    Toronto is no where near as good as NYR, Boston, Philly, or the Pens and that is just in the East.

    Our best prospects are still in their first year (Gardiner) or not able to hold down a spot (Kadri) with the rest still developing in the AHL (Holzer, Colborne etc). You look at Philly and they had Couturier 19 (straight from junior), Schenn 20 (straight from junior, 7 AHL games), Read 25 (from WCHA University league, similiar to Bozak), Rinaldo 21 (one AHL season), and Gustafsson 21 (essentially one AHL season). They could do this because they weren't expected to lead the team and had a strong supporting cast.

    Burke & Co. could learn something like this. Ashton, Kadri, Gardiner, Colborne, or whoever else has played this season and will play next season shouldn't be expected to play predominate roles if they are staying for the season. If they aren't ready, keep them in the minors.

    I like Carlyle but his coaching doesn't suit a young team. the 06/07 Ducks had 8 players over 30, 11 players 27-29, 4 between 24-26, and 5 under 23 that played for the team. It had veteran experience leading the young a la the current Bruins, Rangers, and Flyers. He may have been the best choice, from a coaching stand point, and I have no doubt he was at the time. But an assistant (Scott Gordon) could have continued the season and a guy like Eakins, who knows how to coach youth, could have run the team if Gordon did a poor job.

    I expect somewhat of an overhaul to get rid of players like Armstrong, Lombardi, and Connolly to bring in players that would better suit Carlyle.
    Sorry Leafs fans but I feel Komisarek is a Carlyle kind of guy so I think he may stay, against our wishes.

    In an ideal situation Bozk will be 3rd centre with two-way players(Moen, Pahlsson, or Gaustad) or players breaking into the roster (only Frattin or Kadri truly ready). Brown-Steckal-Crabb would be a 4th liners with Rosehill an extra.

  3. Well said, Willbur. Time for management to "just do it".

    As for Carlyle, I'm with you. He should make a difference. We'll start finding out next fall.

  4. Spot on as usual Michael!

    I feel that many of Burke's moves are ego driven, undertaken to make a headline making big splash. I think what bothers me most is that he seems to acquire players (admittedly some very good ones) without a plan. Plug them in and hope they work out.

    I guess this is the heart of my problem with Burke. Many of his moves seem to be of the knee-jerk variety. The Versteeg mess is a good example as is the acquisitions of Komisarek and Armstrong and their cap-eating over inflated salaries. I was particularly upset when he traded Aulie and then brought up Ashton who has contributed nothing to the Leafs and should be developing with the Marlies.

    The final straw for me was the hiring of Carlyle to a three year contract, a coach whose system is far removed from the personnel currently on the Leaf's roster. This seems to mean we are destined to another roster overhaul. There just doesn't seem to be any concrete plan in effect.

    As a long time Leaf fan I am very discouraged with the team's direction and I lay the blame on mis-management. I completely agree with you in calling management to account, They owe it to us to be honest and tell us exactly what the hell they are doing.

  5. Thanks for that, Skill2Envy.

    It's good, as you did, to look back at what Anaheim had when they were successful, to provide some context in terms of just how different a roster the Leafs have now than what Carlyle was working with back then.

    As Willbur said, I;m hopeful Carlyle can/will prove he is the type of coach who can adjust, but you make a good point about our roster. If what you write holds true, it will still be a very similar group to the one that struggled in the second half of this season, with only relatively minor pieces added to the puzzle.

    Good post.

  6. We're on the same page Pete Cam. Yes, a plan can be "adjusted", but we had built a team based on speed and quick puck movement, and now we are a patient, don't make mistakes kind of team. That's not just an "adjustment", that is a radical change. And we're pretty deep into a re-build for that type of change.

    The year-end press conference, I'm guessing, will be what it always is. More bluster. I'd be shocked (but pleased) if we saw something that was genuine...

    Good stuff Pete Cam. Thanks for dropping by.

  7. Here's a perfect example of what we are talking about. The Sun had a pretty good article on the Leafs farm system today. They point out that typically the Leafs prospects are rated in the middle of the pack. The only one of the young guys drafted in the first round that is in the yop 5 scoring on the Marlies is Kadri. The top players on the Marlies are all veterans, such as Hamilton and Zigomanis.

    The telling thing about this article is the Dave Nonis quote where he says "the magazines are all undervaluing the Leaf farm system". Really so all the experts rate you the same and somehow they are all wrong. Your managment team is smarter than everyone else and knows better. Seriuosly, shut the hell up about how good your future is and start showing us some results.

    After all the talk about how the Marlies are going on a long playoff run and how managment is pumping the Marlies, could you imagine the fallout if they go out in the first round? Yikes, Leaf nation will really come apart then.

  8. Well said Michael. The two points that struck me the most were your comments on the weakness of the East and the comparison to the Flyers Penguins on Sunday. As I watched that game, I had the same thoughts as you did. We aren't even close to them!
    The only point which I don't fully understand is how the relationship with the media affects the team's performance. I know you are close to this issue and are aware of the interactions between the media and management but as a fan I haven't really cared. Perhaps I should care and I would be interested in hearing more about this issue from you in a future post if that is possible without causing you any other problems.
    I've been thinking about the issues discussed in recent days on VLM and particularly the mistakes Burke has made. He has made a number of good moves as pointed out in this forum but obviously this has not led to success yet.
    Im my opinion he has made 3 fundamental mistakes. First, I think he has tried to do the right thing by building a strong defence corps but Komisarek did not pan out and I agree that Phaneuf has been asked to do too much. Your reference to Secretariat was a good one and applies in this case too. Good idea but poor execution.
    Second, he said he would never again be caught short in goal but by not acquiring a reliable veteran goaltender, he failed on that point too.
    Finally, the Kessell acquisition is a good example of acquiring an elite goal scorer but not having the team to support him. He needed to get a strong team in place first that could play both offence and defence and then add a "Kessell" to score goals and put them over the top to make them a Cup contender. Great player but not what we needed at the time, I'm afraid.
    Maybe that can be fixed this summer but I won't hold my breath.

  9. Couldn't agree more, Willbur. The crew of the Titanic is running around telling everyone things are looking good ahead...not to worry.

  10. Thank you Ed, very well stated.

    I will try to explain in more depth, in a future post, why I believe (on different levels) the relationship between a coach or GM and local media does matter, and can impact the direction of the franchise. (I'm not suggesting it necessarily always leads to a direct impact in terms of the on-ice product, but I believe it sometimes can. Plus, as I said in today's post, it's simply bad public policy...)

    Your points on team construction are all right on. Thanks Ed.

  11. Wow.I was reading through your post and found myself reaching for the Prozac about half way through.
    All excellent points and painfully true.
    As to the relationship between the front office and the media, it was fascinating to watch Burke lose it again this morning as he condemned anyone that had the audacity to question the value of Francois Allaire. Personally, I found it refreshing the other night to watch a Leaf goalie remain standing while a puck was shot in his direction.

  12. Thanks cbh747. (I smiled at your reference to a Leaf goalie "standing"...)

    Burke can "defend" Allaire all he wants and claim those of us who wonder don't know what we're talking about.

    As Leaf management used to say- this is a results-oriented business.

    Burke's results are awful so far.

    Allaire's results are even worse so far.

    The only saving grace is in the phrase "so far"...

  13. Spot-on post, Michael. I'll try to sneak this comment at work while I advance apologies as I know it'll be messy and lack coherence!

    Tie Domi recently said it best when he called out the apathy in the current crop. Similar to your point about flags and horns, Domi also said something along the lines about how much that meant to the players--how much the city (and beyond) support made them push themselves. They (current players) have no idea what it means to have the city go into a frenzy when the buds make it to the dance. These are basically Domi's words paraphrased. And it's all true, and sad it's missing. So it's partly the players as well. They don't know how badly we WANT them to succeed.

    But clearly it's management, too. On the point of Burke/Carlyle/Nonis/Allaire: the successful Quinn teams and Fletcher teams were built innovatively (through drafts and blockbuster trades). Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Fletcher, Quinn, (even JFJ), bringing in cronies from past experiences. All we get are former Ducks whose best-before date is rapidly approaching and whose act is tiring. Yes, Burke had success with some of these folks before, but that doesn't mean it'll work here. The hockey world is brimming with management/coaching talent that hasn't been in Vancouver or Anaheim--go scout it and hire it!

    Clearly we're nowhere near the calibre of the top guns, no by a country mile. I'm with you--no Mully next year!


  14. Both Quinn and Fletcher have been criticized for some of their moves as GM, and no GM has a perfect track record, of course.

    But while Quinn was criticized for trading away "kids", as I've posted here previously, when you actually look at the draft picks or "prospects" he traded, who are the high-end players who would have been great Leafs? I can't think of any.

    On the other hand, he acquired McCabe for an aging veteran, and unlike Phaneuf who came here with much fanfare, we expected nothing from McCabe. For all his imperfections, he became an end-of-season NHL All-Star under Quinn. Not bad.

    And Quinn's scouts (without the benefit of picking in the top 15, ever, I don't think) drafted Colaiacovo, Steen, Stajan, Ian White, etc. who have been traded by later administrations and have had productive (Stajan had his best years in Toronto) NHL careers.

    So again, while each no doubt made moves they'd like to have back, we weren't subject to the constant chest-thumping we get with this bunch.

    To your point about Burke bringing in his old Vancouver/Anaheim people. We all understand that GM's like to surround themselves with people they can trust and are comfortable with. And Burke has also reached out to Poulin and Dudley and Loiselle. So we should acknowledge that.

    For me, I could just do with far less attitude and way more delivery on words and expectations.

    Good stuff, as always, Caedmon. Thanks.

  15. I've been thinking a lot about why this year seems so much more disappointing than the previous ones. And I've come to the conclusion that it's because we, the fans, have been betrayed.
    There's a certain trust that is implicit between a team's management and its fans. We give the team our loyalty and our support. We expect an honest effort and a commitment to success in return. (And this goes extra for those who shell out thousands of dollars a year to attend games).
    At some point this year, it all went sour. Very sour. We believed management when they said we had the prospects - even if many of us couldn't quite see it that way. We reveled in the - admittedly mediocre - success of the team through the first half, even though many of us could see we didn't have what it takes to win the battles when the going would be tougher. But gradually, we realized that there was no plan that was working. There was no meritocracy. There was no leadership. All the pronouncements, the bluster, the promises - all puffery, pro tem PR.
    The refusal to "blow up" a team that was going straight into the dumper, to at least get some blue chip prospects for the overpaid underachievers who were floating around the rink on game days, was the last straw. And the realization that next year will probably be another year of inconsistency, of mediocrity instead of meritocracy, is a killer. More re-tooling, rebuilding, and refusing to make the hard decisions. Ugh.
    Name me one true leader in the Leafs organization, one player, coach or executive who has inspired the others to play beyond themselves, and I'll treat you to a game next year.
    We're in a terrible mess, and watching our race horses get trained for some plough-pulling will likely be excruciating - already is, as a matter of fact. Barring major changes to our team, I'd say we're at least three years away from seriously contending.
    I know that, in the words of The Who, I won't get fooled again by the Leafs. There's been a psychic break with this long time fan that will take some big time repairing.

  16. For those who may be dropping by for the first time, that's a post from a loyal, long-time Leaf fan and a very thoughtful hockey observer. (And including a quote from The Who, which always adds a little something extra!)

    You've painted the picture very well, Gerund O'. I don't need to add a thing- except to say, I won't be fooled again, either.


  17. Here are some quicks thoughts to my day:

    - Why is Colborne projected to play the 2nd line tonight when Connolly should have that spot?

    - We all know about the Kessel trade, what happens when he becomes a UFA and IF we still don't have that centre for him, IF Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since acquiring him and IF he decides "I'm not staying". How do you feel now? (I'd want Seguin, Hamilton and Knight picks back even more)

    - James Mirtle's 'Leafs Beat' from The Globe and Mail had a good comparison on Top 10 goal scorers over the last 3 years, Kessel ranked #9. Based on GP/G his best comparable on the list was Kovalchuk @ $6.666M/year...just to give some insight into what Kessel could command to resign. Don't be surprised to see him get between Marleau/Iginla money @ $7M and Stamkos/Gaborik @ $7.5M as a UFA.
    The April 1st article

    - Holding out hope for Grigorenko, Galchenyuk, Murray, Dumba, Trouba, or Forsberg. I certainly won't be disappointed with the Top 10 this year but those would be my first 6 choices. (Yakupov is going 1st/2nd).

    - Crazy idea but we know our blueline is over saturated. EDM wants defensemen and it is possibly the trade a Yakupov pick to select a defenseman. Would anyone consider the Yakupov pick and Omark for Toronto's say 5th-7th plus Franson? It has been rumoured EDM is giving up on Omark anyways and it just adds some more value coming to Toronto.

  18. Omark's an interesting case, Skill2Envy. I thought he was one of those guys loaded with skill and potential, but yes, he does seem out of favour out west.

    I don't know if either club would consider what you have put out there. So hard to say. I tend to think the Leafs want to take advantage of having a high pick...Edmonton, though, does need defensemen very badly. Whether Franson would be good enough defensively to make a difference for them I'm not sure.

    I can't answer the Colborne question...but I'm sure you weren't looking for an answer!

    As far as Kessel's value as a UFA...the way the market keeps going, it will be a lot of money. We all know elite goal scorers are hard to find.

    Thanks Skill2Envy....