Well, now that people are talking playoffs, I will be reviewing the seasons of teams as they're either eliminated from the playoffs or eliminated from playoff contention before the end of the season. Obviously, the last team reviewed will be the one that wins the Cup.
Now the third team to be eliminated from playoff contention: The Toronto Maple Leafs.
Season expectations: The team was expected to be challenged because this was the first full season under the command of GM Brian Burke. There were rumors abound saying that there were going to be trades (most of them involving Tomas Kaberle). There was inconsistency with the scoring forwards, the defense was raw, and the goaltending hinged between injury and inexperience. Frankly, only a Toronto-obsessed optimist would have picked these guys to go into the playoffs.
My prediction: I figured they were going to be fourth in the division and tenth in the conference. In retrospect, I think I thought too highly of them.
The truth: They're the first team from the Eastern Conference to be eliminated from playoff contention. To be fair, if the Eastern Conference were better as a whole, these guys would have been eliminated a long time ago.
What went wrong?: You mean besides Jeff Finger being signed to a contract with a $3.5M annual cap hit for the next two seasons?
Simply stated, Murphy's Law. Should I elaborate? How about this: Everything that could have gone down during a rebuild year did, but that doesn't mean all's wrong, either.
Injuries were a significant issue for the team this season. Mikhail Grabovski missed 25 games with a broken wrist and you know he had to have played hurt through part of that. There wasn't much to work with in terms of Toronto scoring so it hurt when he was gone. Mike Komisarek scored a great deal in the off-season but ended up being hurt for most of the season, which is unfortunate because he hits everything that moves. Vesa Toskala's injuries (okay, and inconsistent play... we'll get to that later) made him expendable to the Anaheim Ducks for J.S. Giguere. Oh, and remember Mike Van Ryn? Yeah, he didn't play the entire season and would have given the blueline some points they lost when Pavel Kubina went to the Atlanta Thrashers.
However, the guys in the locker room knew it was a rebuild year and when that happens, it's difficult as hell to win. Vesa Toskala wasn't the goaltender the Leafs expected him to be and as a result, Jonas Gustavsson was thrust into battle perhaps a few times to often (though in retrospect, this should only help him become a better goaltender for next season.) Yet Alexei Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman performed admirably for the team, and those guys were traded to prepare for Toronto's future (okay, Hagman was moved to get Dion Phaneuf and that's ultimately good for the team... we'll get to that later.) And even if you were the new guy, it doesn't mean that you were going to be excellent during the season; with Phaneuf and Giguere having solid yet unspectacular half-seasons in a new sweater. In the end, until there's a season where e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e in the locker room can have beers together for 82 games or damn close to it, it's hard to get the right chemistry among players.
The oddest part is that this team is run and coached by the two men who brought a Silver Medal to the U.S.A. for the 2010 Olympics when many figured it would belong to either Sweden or Russia. You see what Lee Stempniak is doing for the Phoenix Coyotes now that he's out of Toronto and you're just like "The... hell?!" You see the infamous bag skate that took place and the subsequent losing streak that took place and think "Dude... What?" But yeah, these guys went to the Olympics and did well in an effort to show Toronto fans... patience.
So what's next?: The future and the truth is that isn't not too shabby.
If the team can properly fortify this current group during the off-season, then the team will have a legitimate blend of youth and experience to restore them back to respectability. Up front, the team will have to re-sign Nikolai Kulemin, who's having a breakout season, but with a core of Kessel, Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, and Luca Caputi, the team has a solid group of young and talented scoring forwards. The bottom-six sas John Mitchell, Fredrik Sjostrom and Colton Orr for next season and are good guys to have committed to those roles. I think Rickard Wallin, Wayne Primeau, and Christian Hanson should be re-signed and they can round it out accordingly with either a good signing or a prospect.
The defense and goaltending on this team is what looks the most promising. The team still has Phaneuf, Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Francois Beauchemin, and Carl Gunnarsson on their blue line for next season. Though it may seem redundant with Komisarek's presence, I'd like to see Garnet Exelby agree to less money to remain a Maple Leaf. The team could go with Finger as the seventh d-man, but I have a strong feeling his contract will be "banished" to either Europe or the American Hockey League (trust me, the Maple Leafs can afford it.) The goaltending is all set, and once goaltending coach Francois Allaire has his hands on Giguere for an entire season season, then not only will Giguere better rhythm but Gustavsson will have the mentor he needs to take the next step forward in his development.
I figure these guys will improve sooner than later and a really great off-season will have the Leafs back to the playoffs faster than most people figure. For now though, the guys on the ice need to prepare for next season while the guys behind the bench and in the office figure out the best plans and tools for the next season.