If Leafs Fully Crash, Look Out!

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 29) – In memory of Richard M. Nixon, let me begin today by making myself “perfectly clear” – your Toronto Maple Leafs are still very much in the Stanley Cup playoff race.

I know it doesn’t feel that way. It hasn’t for the past couple of weeks. As of this writing, however, the scramble for two wild card entries in the Eastern Conference is nothing more than a turtle derby. Detroit, Columbus and Toronto have combined to lose their past ten games – Leafs leading the pack with seven straight clunkers. Washington, at 5-3-2 in its past ten, is the champion among the four teams in an 80-point holding pattern. (UPDATE: Washington lost, 4-2, at home to Boston this afternoon. And so the “turtle” pattern continues). Red Wings and Blue Jackets each have two games in hand on the Maple Leafs; the Capitals one, which complicates the math and the playoff possibility in this town. But, those extra games have to be won and prosperity, right now, is a foreign concept among the Eastern wild card contenders.

Do any of the aforementioned really want to move on?

For the moment, let’s stay with the percentages – as difficult as they are to swallow around here. Almost incredibly, the Maple Leafs need a point tonight against Detroit to equal the team-record 0-7-1 start in 2009-10, which destroyed playoff chances with a full 74 games remaining. Back on Oct. 23, I wrote in this corner that LEAFS WILL AVOID KILLER STREAK (blog here: 1a6zihq). It recounted the two and three-week nosedives that invariably kept Leafs from the Stanley Cup tournament for seven years after the 2004-05 owners’ lockout. Given the upgrade in goal with Jonathan Bernier and what I felt would be immeasurable confidence and maturity gained from last season’s playoff struggle with Boston, the Leafs would not go into the dumper for any length of time.

Clearly; perhaps unavoidably, I was wrong.

DION PHANEUF AND THE LEAFS LOST THEIR SEVENTH CONSECUTIVE GAME FRIDAY NIGHT: 4-2 TO THE FLYERS AT PHILADELPHIA. LEN REDKOLES GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Still working a bit in the Leafs’ favor, though, is quite the opposite – a gargantuan hot streak (11-2-1) that I felt had rescued their season prior to the Winter Olympics. Just imagine where the club would be today without hoarding 23 of 28 points between Jan. 12 and Feb. 8. Occasionally, such a month-long string of results will offset a protracted slump… and, for the Leafs, it still may. If it doesn’t, however, look out!

There’s a not-so-new Sheriff in town by the name of Tim Leiweke – hired away from the Los Angeles Kings; Lakers and Staples Center last Apr. 13. By all appearances, he isn’t a patient man. Nor does he have a singular tie to the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment past. If the Leafs fully crash and burn, the hockey club may not be recognizable next season. In my view, general manager David Nonis and his chief lieutenants (Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle) will remain in place. But, Randy Carlyle could lose his job and Nonis will be bluntly encouraged (if not ordered) to “renovate” the club’s nucleus. That will undoubtedly necessitate trading one of Dion Phaneuf or Phil Kessel – neither of whom were granted full no-movement privileges in their new contracts. If 100 Maple Leaf fans were polled today, 101 of them would opt for Phaneuf’s departure. And, that’s the route Nonis would likely follow.

Those, however, that pillory the Leafs GM for locking up Phaneuf are off base. First, the Toronto captain isn’t nearly the “pylon” he’s depicted to be, though his inadequate performance in recent games has clearly personified the Maple Leafs death-spiral. Extending Kessel and Phaneuf at the NHL’s “going rate” was simply asset management by Nonis – heightened by maintaining the option to trade either player. How, one might ask, could Nonis possibly deal Phaneuf’s jumbo contract? For the very reason he locked up the defenseman in the first place: As many as a half-dozen NHL rivals would have thrown the same money and term at Phaneuf in unrestricted free agency this summer.

Kessel, despite his very good numbers, shouldn’t get off scotfree either. Under no circumstance should this Maple Leaf team be shattered by a scoring drought; not with such upper-end personnel as Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak (a front-liner this season), Nazem Kadri and a strong offensive surge from the blue-line. Yet, the Leafs have been limited to three or fewer goals in all of their past ten games. That simply won’t cut it and it reflects poorly on Kessel, who is being paid to lead the club when it matters most.

As such, the Carlyle-Phaneuf-Kessel triumvirate will be no more if Leafs miss the playoffs… and even, perhaps, if the club is fortunate enough to sneak in. I can’t imagine Leiweke being sold, for a moment, on any long-term advantage of the aforementioned trio. With virtually half the current roster up for contractual renewal this summer, Nonis – on a shortened leash – will have an opportunity to re-make the club. Though his free agency acquisition of David Clarkson appears disastrous, I might caution Leaf fans to give the veteran forward another season before consigning him to the scrap-heap. There was no indication prior to this year that Clarkson would be so blatantly ineffectual. Same applies to Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown – who raised the Stanley Cup less than two years ago and is having a dreadful season with 14 goals and 26 points. Occasionally, such misfortune is unavoidable. 

Both players deserve a chance for redemption.

Even though I will go to my eventual death-bed insisting the turning point in this Maple Leaf season was Carlyle’s poor judgment in allowing Bernier to play injured at Los Angeles – and the resultant dearth of team-wide confidence – there is no excuse for the club to have coughed up a nine-point playoff cushion in the span of 2½ weeks. If it ultimately crashes and burns, heads will roll. You can be sure of that.

TORONTO NEWSPAPERS SHINE

Kudos to the Star and Sun for likely repealing every gut-instinct and highlighting – in today’s editions – the Toronto Raptors’ playoff clincher ahead of the Maple Leafs loss at Philadelphia. Though Leafs are far-more an institution around here, the Raptors deserve top billing. Here are the front pages – and front Sports pages – of the papers today:

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