Leafs Triumverate Dissolved — Finally

The Maple Leafs are pretty much the same and will stay that way until the failed nucleus (of Randy Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel) is addressed. — BERGER BYTES, July 10, 2014.

TORONTO (Feb. 10, 2016) — And here we are… 19 months later. Same website; different name.

Mission accomplished by the Toronto Maple Leafs. At last.

Some years from now, hockey people will look back in wonderment over the contracts of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf here in the Big Smoke: How such arithmetic could be offered to players of meager accomplishment in the first place but, more–so, how the Leafs were able to unload them in the salary cap universe. If the Pittsburgh Penguins or Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup with Kessel or Phaneuf, the multi–player trades of the past seven–plus months will be considered a wash. Otherwise, they’ll appear on the back of Brendan Shanahan’s tomb–stone under a heading “He accomplished the near–impossible.”

Fifteen combined years of term. $113 million dollars in aggregate salary. Onerous cap–hits per season of $8 million (for Kessel) and $7 million (for Phaneuf). The team that signed them perched, today, a razor’s edge from the National Hockey League basement. Asset–management quickly morphing into financial folly.

16-PHANEUFOTTAWAedited-XDION’S NEW DUDS IN THE NATION’S CAPITAL.

It began with the collapse of February 2012 — a 1–9–1 free–fall that quickly destroyed a club competing not only for the playoffs, but for home–ice advantage in the opening round. Ron Wilson took the bullet after a 5–4 loss at Chicago on Feb. 29 and was replaced as coach by another ex–Leafs defenseman, Randy Carlyle.

Then came the sadly–Eureka moment for an entire generation of hockey fans in Toronto — the third–period melt–down in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup tournament, May 13, 2013. A 4–1 stranglehold on the Boston Bruins at TD Garden coughed up, resulting in a 5–4 overtime defeat and first–round elimination.

The final straw for yours truly was the late–season collapse of March/April 2014. Twelve regulation–time losses in 14 games to end the schedule. After a near–historic run for the franchise (15–4–3) between Jan. 12 and Mar. 13. Again, the Leafs plummeted from solid playoff footing. A dreadful piece of judgement by Carlyle — allowing Jonathan Bernier to tend goal at Los Angeles against his former team with an existing groin injury — removed the scathing–hot goalie for six games. It, alone, should have cost the coach his job.

Abject inability to perform in the clutch was a hallmark of the Leafs with Kessel, Phaneuf and Carlyle. Incredibly, and even with a new hockey president (Shanahan), this triumvirate returned for the start of the 2014–15 schedule. As if ordained by a higher force, all previous collapses became a footnote when the Maple Leafs — after an inexplicable 10–1–1 romp through November and December — crumbled spectacularly. A 2–7–0 slide from Dec. 18 to Jan. 6 removed Part 1 of the failed nucleus. Carlyle was fired and replaced as interim coach by assistant Peter Horachek. The most shameful Toronto outfit in the post–Harold Ballard era greeted its new man behind the bench with a 1–11–1 mark, continuing the death–spiral.

Finally; mercifully, the Leafs had seen enough.

The arrival of Mike Babcock as coach last May 21 was accompanied by a clause — perhaps not written into his eight–year, $50–million contract, but surely agreed upon with Shanahan. Under no circumstance would Babcock step behind the Toronto bench with No. 81 still wearing blue and white. Otherwise, a homicide threatened. On July 1, Shanahan worked with interim-general manager Kyle Dubas and shipped Kessel to Pittsburgh. Coming back from the Penguins were the proverbial “five guys named Moe” and one legitimate prospect — Finnish forward Kasperi Kapanen. Part 2 of the failed Toronto nucleus was gone.

16-kess-2MIKE BABCOCK WANTED NO PART OF PHIL KESSEL, NOW WEARING BLACK AND GOLD IN PITTSBURGH.

Part 3 survived seven further months of anticipated “pain.”

Babcock had reportedly asked Ken Holland to acquire Phaneuf for the Detroit Red Wings at the trade deadline last season. God knows what the Leafs requested in return but it was far–too much. As such, Phaneuf careened precariously through the current schedule with a club that had no chance of venturing beyond the nether regions of the NHL. Four years of a $7 million cap hit remained on the defenseman’s docket after this season. The prospect, therefore, of completely excising the failed nucleus appeared dim. Then came a Leafs trip to Ottawa last weekend and a gathering of veteran GM’s. Lou Lamoriello and Bryan Murray worked out a complicated array of salary dumps that resulted in Phaneuf becoming a Senator.

With that, a six–and–a–half–year chapter of hockey hell ended here in Toronto. It began Sep. 18, 2009 when Brian Burke traded a pair of first–round draft choices to Boston for Kessel (one of them infamously becoming prolific scorer Tyler Seguin); continued Jan. 31, 2010 when Burke cleaned house and acquired Phaneuf in a multi–player deal with Calgary, and ended yesterday on the 16th anniversary of Pat Quinn trading for the popular Darcy Tucker (Feb. 9, 2000 from Tampa Bay for future TSN star Mike Johnson).

Only now, can the Maple Leafs truly begin to move forward with the “Shanaplan.”

Phaneuf is the third Leafs captain to be traded in my lifetime.

When I came around, 57 years ago last week, George Armstrong wore the ‘C’ — as he would throughout the 1960’s Stanley Cup dynasty. Armstrong retired three times, only to make it official after the 1970–71 season. Cliff Fletcher traded Wendel Clark to the Quebec Nordiques (for Mats Sundin) at the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford. Fletcher then dealt Doug Gilmour to the New Jersey Devils in March 1997.

16-army-2edited-XLEGENDARY LEAFS CAPTAIN GEORGE ARMSTRONG CRADLES THE 1967 STANLEY CUP.

A management source in the NHL warned me for a blog here on Monday (http://bit.ly/1Q4hEt5) that Lou Lamoriello was discussing “bigger names” heading toward the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Perhaps he knew of the Toronto–Ottawa talks; perhaps not. Bottom line is, Phaneuf was traded to the Senators. That same fellow implied that Lou is intent on further divesting the club of its core components by Leap Year Day.

Which should inspire us to keep a close watch on James Reimer and Tyler Bozak, in particular.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

4 comments on “Leafs Triumverate Dissolved — Finally

  1. I live in Atlantic Canada but have always been a Leafs fan since I started watching hockey in 1968…have never watched the leafs win a Stanley Cup that wasn’t on video tape. I have seen players come and go, and hope and promise with it. It is sometimes a challenge to watch most games as they are Blacked out in my region for the Leafs, even though I subscribe to all the sports channels that play them, except center ice.

    Having said that, I am not disappointed that Dion Phaneuf is finally gone. To me he always lacked the basic fundamentals that are required to be a defenceman in PeeWee let alone the NHL.
    Cons
    He lacks skating skills and will lose an edge if required to change direction too fast. He has no speed to return to his zone when caught out of position. He, in all the years as a Leaf has never dropped to block a shot or lay prone in an attempt to take away a pass. He constantly looks like he is out of position and has no idea where or what his role is on the ice. He allows offensive players to get between himself and his goalie(s),instead of letting his goalie(s) have room to work by boxing them out. He does not read the puck well, he advances to where the puck is currently in its travel, when racing an opponent into his own zone…only to find it and the opponent already on the way to the net with him lumbering behind to catch up; he would play better if he realized his own limitations of being slow, and went to a position between where the puck is currently and his own net, thus adding his body in front of the offensive player instead of behind.
    Pros
    He has a somewhat hard shot.
    Now has Erik Karlsson to mentor him to play better.

  2. Only the media referred to the Leaf problems being the nucleus. The truth was that management never added to the nucleus with key additions like a first line center (Gilmour, Sundin) or a top notch goaltender (Joseph, Belfour). Had the Leafs let Phaneuf go to free agency he would have easily got the same money from another NHL team so he was not over paid. Bad drafting and failure to add to what was the start of a nucleus was the real issue.

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