Thursday, May 8, 2014

Is this the worst it's ever been? Part four

Randy Carlyle attempts to remember
what a smile feels like

Almost six years ago, the Maple Leafs were in a bad place. They'd missed the playoffs for a team record three straight years. The Muskoka Five situation had just unfolded. They'd fired John Ferguson Jr., but failed in their efforts to lure Brian Burke out of Anaheim. And fans were starting to wonder: Is this the worst it's ever been?

So I decided to find out. In what would go on to become one of the most popular set of posts from this blog's first year, I went back to 1983 and reviewed a quarter century of Maple Leafs misery, assigning a "How bad was it?" score to each season.

The conclusion: Yes, it really was the worst that it had ever been. With a final score of 95/100, the just-completed 2007-08 season took the crown as the worst in recent Leafs history.

But that was a long time ago. In the years since, I've often heard from fans wanting to know when I'd update the series with entries from the Burke/Nonis era. I always figured I'd know when the time was right. Today, with news of Randy Carlyle's contract extension, I think that time has arrived.

And so, six seasons later, it's time for the sequel. Welcome to part four, as we try to answer the question: Is this the worst it's ever been?


The good: The Leafs fail to hire a GM during the summer like they said they would, and head into the season with Cliff Fletcher still in charge. But it turns out to be all part of a master plan, as Brian Burke mysteriously becomes available a month into the season and is hired after all. He gives an entertaining press conference that introduces the word "truculence" to the sports world, and eventually has his own guys in place, like Ron Wilson and Dave Nonis. He also outbids Ottawa for college free agent Tyler Bozak, who projects as a possible third-liner someday.

The bad: Before Burke arrives, Fletcher makes a series of odd moves, like trading up to draft Luke Schenn, signing Jeff Finger and trading away Alex Steen. He also fails to get anything for Mats Sundin's negotiating rights, and gives the Habs a second round pick for some punk kid named Mikhail Grabovski.

The team struggles through another non-playoff year, finishing last in the Northeast while leading the NHL in goals allowed. Jason Blake is the team's leading scorer. The goaltending, led by Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph, is terrible. Burke should probably get to work on fixing that.

Sundin eventually signs with the Canucks, then comes back to Toronto and beats the Leafs with a shootout-winning goal. It's pretty much the highlight of the season.

How bad was it? 75/100. The team is terrible, but at least Burke seems to have a plan. For the first time in years, there's a palpable feeling of hope.


The good: The Leafs draft Nazem Kadri, leading to one of the great draft floor moments of all time. In September, Burke trades three draft picks to the Bruins for Phil Kessel. Despite missing the first month, Kessel scores 30 goals andeveryone agrees that the deal will be a good one for the Leafs as long as the draft pick doesn't end up being unexpectedly high, like tenth.

Later in the season, Burke acquired Dion Phaneuf in exchange for a handful of spare parts, and also manages to somehow offload both Toskala and Jason Blake's contract.

The bad: Burke signs a ton of free agents, pretty much all of whom are expensive busts. The team loses its first eight games and is basically eliminated from the playoffs by Halloween. Toskala and rookie Jonas Gustavsson provide the team with almost historically bad goaltending, and as the season wears on, it becomes apparent that the Leafs could finish dead last and hand the Bruins the #1 overall pick. They avoid that, narrowly, but finish 29th instead.

How bad was it? 90/100. Just an awful year. Among the many, many awful elements of this season was the nagging feeling that Burke wasn't as smart as we'd all hoped he was, and the next few years was just going to be more of the same. But the Phaneuf trade inspired just enough confidence to keep this year out of "worst ever" contention.


The good: The offseason is mostly quiet, although the Leafs do add Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur, the latter on a discount deal. Phaneuf is named captain, and immediately starts futzing with the volume on the dressing room stereo. Avoiding a repeat of the previous season's disastrous start, the Leafs win their first four games.

Kessel scores 30 again, and the MacArthur/Grabovski/Nikolai Kulemin line is excellent. An unheralded rookie goalie named James Reimer appears and wins the starting job, giving the team decent goaltending for the first time in years. Grateful fans swear they'll never turn on him after one cold streak. Late in the season, Burke makes a pair of great trades, getting Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner from the Ducks and sending Kaberle to the Bruins for Joe Colborne and a first round pick.

The bad: The Leafs watch the Bruins use their draft pick to take Tyler Seguin. They also give a lot of money to Colby Armstrong, and any money at all to Brett Lebda.

Despite the early win streak, the team still isn't very good, finishing with 85 points and missing the playoffs yet again. That gives the Bruins another top ten pick, and ensures that nobody will ever shut up about the Kessel deal ever.

How bad was it? 65/100. It certainly wasn't a good year, but the Leafs are finally starting to look like Burke's team. Reimer, MacArthur, Grabovski, Colborne, Gardiner… you can build around that, right?


The good: The highlight of the offseason is Burke somehow turning Lebda into a useful player in Cody Franson. Kessel scores another 30, Lupul is a point-a-game player, Grabovksi has another solid year, and Bozak is looking pretty good for a depth guy.

The Leafs start hot again, going 7-2-1. Things are going so well by December that Ron Wilson gets a contract extension for Christmas. By February 6, they're sitting at 28-19-6 and are a lock for the playoffs. The "good" section ends right about here.

The bad: The 18-wheeler goes off the cliff, as the Leafs go 1-9-1 in their next 11. Wilson is fired, and replaced by Randy Carlyle because hey, when you have a historic late-season collapse the head coach obviously has to go.

The Leafs finish with just 80 points, missing the playoffs for the seventh year in a row. Tim Connolly is yet another free agent bust, and the Leafs use their top pick on Tyler Biggs. Reimer has a so-so sophomore season after suffering a head injury suffered in October. Maybe his helmet was too hot.

Fans throw waffles. Don't ask.

How bad was it? 85/100. Leaf fans could really use a break from this team.


The good: Leaf fans get a break from this team, and also the rest of the league, thanks to a lockout that postpones the start of the season until January. In a surprising move, Burke is fired once the lockout ends, which is a controversial move but at least sends the message that the front office will be held accountable for failure (except for the other three dozen guys in the front office, including new GM Dave Nonis, who all keep their jobs).

Before he's fired, Burke manages to fleece the Flyers into a Schenn-for-James van Riemsdyk deal, and the Leafs draft a real live prospect in Morgan Rielly. Once the season starts, Kessel's great yet again, Kadri has a breakthrough year, and Reimer stands on his head again. The team gets outshot every night, but manages to ride the percentages to a winning record and, for the first time in almost a decade, an honest-to-god playoff spot.

They take the favored Bruins all the way to a game seven, then stun the Boston crowd by jumping out to a 4-1 lead with just 12 minutes left.

The bad: Screw you.

How bad was it? 70/100. I know, I know. Everyone remembers the game seven collapse, and rightly so. But this season had its share of positives. The Leafs are back, baby!


The good: Do we have to?

OK, fine, here goes: The Leafs acquire Jonathan Bernier in a deal that not everyone likes, but works out great. Kessel has yet another big year that includes a long extension; van Riemsdyk scores 30; and Bozak has a career year. Uh, what else… Rielly has a decent rookie year, and Mason Raymond is pretty good, I guess. Oh, and Dave Bolland plays well for a few games, which somehow turns out to be crucially important.

And despite once again being a terrible possession team that threatens the modern record for shots allowed, the Leafs are somehow still solidly in a playoff spot at the Olympic break.

The bad: Let's do this chronologically: the Leafs use a compliance buyout on Grabovski, paying him $14M to go away even though he's their best two-way center, and they let MacArthur walk as a free agent. That gives them a ton of cap space, which they use to resign Bozak and to give David Clarkson the league's worst contract. When people point out that giving seven years to a guy like Clarkson seems insane, Nonis says he doesn't care because he's only worried about year one. New MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke shows up and immediately embarrasses himself by announcing that he's planning a parade route. He also gives Nonis an extension even though he doesn't need one.

Bolland gets hurt after a month, which becomes the organization's go-to excuse for the rest of the season. Clarkson is awful. It becomes increasingly apparent that Carlyle has no idea how to fix the team's defensive problems. The team's luck runs out at the end of the season and they suddenly can't buy a win. Carlyle points the finger at Reimer, and some Leaf fans actually go along with. The whole organization starts incessantly spouting meaningless buzzwords like "compete level" and "identity".

The Leafs go 2-12-0 the close out the schedule and miss the playoffs yet again

Leweike vows that there will be culture change and hires Brendan Shanahan to make it happen. Instead, all the key decision-makers keep their jobs, and Carlyle actually gets an extension. The team is capped out, the prospect cupboard is mostly bare, and almost the entire core is locked into long-term contracts. They're screwed.

How bad was it? 93/100. What the hell have I done with the last six years of my life?

And so there you have it. It's bad. It's really bad. But no, it's not the worst it's ever been. The flaming wreckage of the JFJ/Muskoka Five era still holds the crown, although just barely. The current Maple Leafs: they really can't win anything.

(But, uh, check back after the $30 million Dave Bolland extension.)


  1. Excellent, exactly what I'd been hoping for. Except I was wrong and this isn't the worst it's been.

    Really puts that '07-'08 debacle into perspective.

  2. Fletcher hired Wilson, not Burke

  3. More lockouts? I dunno... It wasn't even close to as bad as the JFJ era or 29th with Kessel... You haven't cooled off yet... If an assistant is hired that could be a future head, or one right now in a NASCAR market, maybe that's the plan. Ride Carlyle until the assistant and the team is ready. They're still so young...

    1. Just for the record, they're really not so young, even though MLSE would love you to think they are. When you look at typical aging curves, everyone on this team other than Rielly/Gardiner and maybe Kadri is already in their peak years, or beyond them.

      They have a low average age because nobody on the roster is old than 32, but the core of this team isn't especially young. It's not going to improve on its own with experience. And there's no top prospects coming through the system. They are what they are.

  4. I like that we kept Carlyle.

    I remember Pat Quinn's last days here. People said he was too laid back. Country club atmosphere. But here comes Paul Maurice! He's going to whip them into shape! Uptempo practices blah blah blah.

    But people got tired of him. But here comes Ron Wilson! He's going to get rid of blue and white disease! Everybody's going to be in tip-top physical shape blah blah blah.

    We know how that ended. But wait! Here comes Randy Carlyle! Hard nosed coach who demands defensive accountability!

    Now people are tired of him and want a new coach to cheerlead for. The names change but the results stay the same.

    We went through the same thing with goalies. Raycroft is the man. No wait Toskala is the answer. Forget about him we've got Gigeure now. Okay he sucks but Reimer's going to save us. Nope actually Bernier is the guy. Same thing. The names change but results stay the same.

    I like Randy Carlyle. There's no question he can win a Cup. He's done it. He's proved it. It's our players who haven't proved it.

    The problem with this team is not the personnel. It IS a culture problem. Right now they expect to lose. But this is a problem that can only be fixed from within. Maybe the old Leafs would have fired Carlyle. Maybe they would have kept the merry-go-round going and brought in our fifth coach since 2006. Maybe they would keep bringing in new faces hoping that somehow this time things are going to be different.

    I like how Shanahan and Nonis realize the problems this team has need to be solved from within. There is no hero coming in to save this team.

    1. This is the smartest point anybody made. it is the culture and i wholeheartedly believe that.

      Start shortening contracts and dangle the carrot in front of their faces

    2. You forgot about Pogge. No need to keep Rask, Pogge is the goalie of the future!

  5. Seeing that you updated this series brought joy to my heart on a sad, sad day.

  6. Thanks for writing this. It made me feel both cathartic and depressed to go through and read the whole series, which makes no sense. But neither does being a fan of this team.

  7. Leaf Army, you are ridiculous. This team bled shots all year, at a HISTORICALLY BAD RATE. Not the Oilers, not the Sabres, who are much, much worse teams. Not the old Thrashers teams that were just awful. THIS team. He won a cup, in 2006, on the backs of a top 3 defence of Pronger, Neidermeyer and Beauchemin and with an in-his-prime Giguere in net. THEY won a cup. Carlyle did not. You can look at the data, and as soon as he left Anaheim and came to Toronto, the Ducks got better and the Leafs got worse. Before the collapse, people couldn't shut up about the "character" on the team. Suddenly they lose, and the character was never there? Say that out loud to someone and see if it makes sense. Go see if any business that has to, you know, actually make money, uses the same kind of decision model as the Leafs. Carlyle is a bad coach who seems to think being outshot really, really badly is a good tactic. Coaches rarely matter much, in truth, all the data supports it. It's the worst and very best that make a difference. Guess which one Carlyle is. Actually don't, you would get it wrong.

  8. Seriously? A post about the leafs?

  9. Leaf Army, you had some interesting comments, but I really disagree. Sure Carlyle has won a Cup, but the sentence needs to be fixed to read as follows: "There's no question he can win a Cup, assuming he has Hall of Famers Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, and Teemu Selanne." Ok, there's no hero coming to fix the Leafs, but I have to think that a coach who doesn't demand his wingers play so low that you get an accordion effect that constantly keeps the Leafs hemmed in the D-zone would be fairly easy to come by.

    I also don't see the argument for accountability, which would presumably be necessary for the culture change you are talking about. The team's core roster is really pretty much set. Nor is there another team in the league that wants the players with the problem contracts. They can't be demoted to the AHL, so where is the accountability coming from short of beatings? Anyway, I assume the CBA doesn't allow those anymore.

  10. I am so, so, sorry for all of you. For the Hawks, it took a (semi-) competent GM, the owner dying and being booed lustily at his own memorial service, and those successive great draft picks.

    For the Leafs, I feel like we need a Viking funeral for everybody associated with the team management, while they're still alive. . . .

  11. Bettman is secretly pulling the strings on this to boost potential support for a second Toronto team, right?

  12. Short answer, no, it's not the worse it's ever been. Our best player is no longer a 35 year old Tomas Kaberle, and Justin Pogge isn't a guy we are banking on. This team can also be taken apart at whim. The only guy that cannot be moved is Clarkson. Dion might be a hard sell, but it's doable. Should this team decide to rebuild, it can do so, and it's important players are going to maintain their value for several years.

  13. Some of these comments read like the people have just arrived on Earth from some planet that received no news about the Leafs. It would be adorable if it wasn't so fucking frustrating to see this kind of idiocy as the prevailing wisdom among Leafs fans.

    1. "Some of these comments read like the people have just arrived on Earth from some planet that received no news about the Leafs."

      Wait, there is such a place? Screw Mars One, I want a one-way trip to there.

    2. May I ask why that frustrates you? I'm not trying to be adversarial, but sports teams win or lose based on the strength of their players and management. This year my Leafs had neither, and their playoff miss reflects that. That's only fair to the 16 teams that were demonstrably better than they were this season. I'm frustrated too, but that frustration is directed at the players and management. I don't see what the collective intelligence of a team's fans has to do with their success, other than the limited effects of boycotting their products or writing polite letters to management.

    3. RE: Anonymous right above me:

      When you have players who collectively as a team shot at 9.7% on the season (good for 6th in the league), scored a total of 222 goals (good for 14th in the league), and boasted a team save% of .915 (good for 9th in the league) you expect a higher finish than 23rd (or 8th last) in on the season. It's almost as if the players actually did really well while dragging around the anvil known as "Carlyle".

  14. It's funny, I was just going back through the archives and reading Parts 1-3 yesterday. I figured Part 4 would never happen and lo and behold...

    Some of the media talking heads seem to be speculating that Carlyle is being held onto as a stopgap until a better coach hits the market, at which point they'll dump him. Interesting idea, though I'm not sure it passes muster.

    1. In what reality does a two-year contract extension imply "stopgap"? Whatever those talking heads are inhaling, I want some.

    2. Well, the fact that all of the assistant coaches got the axe could certainly be taken as a "shot across the bow"...

  15. Teams win cups, not players or coaches.

  16. Oh, damn. This reminds me of when your blog was good. Before you sold out, that is.

    1. Yeah, DGB! How dare you actually make money off your talents! I demand you refund every penny we paid you for doing this!

  17. It's not a culture problem, it's a name problem. An anagram of 'Toronto Maple Leafs' is "Plan for team to lose".

  18. Very clever. And an anagram of 'Detroit Red Wings' is 'T.O. did regret wins'. Best I could do.