Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Maple Leafs can't let toxic environment dictate process

About three years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Ron Wilson after what was coined by former general manager Brian Burke as "An 18-wheeler going right off a cliff"; in the midst of that madness, I wrote this piece -- which is still the most viewed column in Feels Like '93's history -- and considered it the lowest point in my time following the hockey club. 

A year later, in a campaign where Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman replaced Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel as the hot button topics for the first half of the season, Toronto found a new way to break hearts with one of the most historic losses in modern professional sports. A new low. Let us never bring that up again. 

For the 2013-14 season, analytics became a sort of mainstream talking point, and the Leafs were the guinea pig that everyone watched sprint through the maze. The team outscored their problems and heavily relied on the near-elite goaltending of their off-season acquisition, Jonathan Bernier. Despite bottom-of-the-barrel underlying numbers that screamed unsustainable, they kept winning. 

Then, starting with a Sunday afternoon loss to the Washington Capitals, it all came crashing down. Eight straight regulation losses to close out March, followed by two lackluster wins, then capping off the season with four more checks in the L column to complete a late-season collapse that only the 1987 Blue Jays could fathom. 

Three straight years of futility marked by inept coaching, poor decision-making on management, and a lack of performance by a lineup that's been miscast since its formation.

And now, two weeks after the team fired Randy Carlyle, the Maple Leafs are in as toxic an environment as ever. Losing five straight, 13 of their last 16, and a big-whopping two goals in their last five, this fall from grace is as bad as any of the ones mentioned above. The last three seasons were defined with hope being crushed by the harsh reality of mediocrity; but this year? 

"This isn't painful. It's empty. Dead." -Tony Soprano

I've been talking and writing and tweeting about the Maple Leafs for years, but never before have I seen the conversation turn this sour. It's reached a point where negativity follows the storied franchise every chance it gets. Last night's loss to Carolina saw three jerseys thrown onto the ice, and boos rained upon the blue and white like they just watched A Star is Burns.

Think about the past few weeks: A completely overblown back-and-forth between the team's best player and a beat reporter, a wave of trade speculation that seems to change every day, fans and media demanding for a full-scale rebuild (ask MacT and the Oilers how that's going) and the gradual realization that this team is closer to Connor McDavid than hockey in May. 

Am I overreacting? Perhaps. Once Peter Horachek took over, the team started tightening up on D and lowered their chances against by a wide margin. For the first time in who-knows-how-long, Toronto was closer to 50% possession then they ever were with Carlyle. Hell, look at this tweet from @draglikepull this morning...
In case you don't know, PDO is the sum of a player's on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage (via WAR On Ice), and is a wonderful indicator of a team's luck and sustainability. If you're PDO is over 1000, then you're getting good bounces and are likely to regress. Under 1000 means you're not putting the puck in the net and/or your goalie is struggling, but should improve in due time. 

My favourite line from that @draglikepull tweet is "I know that's boring, but it's true". Data explaining why a team is struggling isn't interesting. Logical statistical analysis doesn't get clicks. But playing up a team's flaws and isolating the top players in newspaper features creates the narrative that a lack of leadership and not listening to your coach is why you're losing. Carlyle mostly got a pass from reporters and columnists, quietly walking into the sunset and letting the newspapers rip the "core" of this team to shreds (i.e. Kessel's uncoachable, Phaneuf's not a leader, etc.).

It's not like Kessel has more goals than anyone in the league not named Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Corey Perry over the past seven years, or that his centre's since arriving in Toronto have been John Mitchell and Tyler Bozak; it's not like Phaneuf thrived in Calgary with weaker competition and more efficient ice-time (second pairing + power play time); never mind the fact that every team Carlyle coached, their possession numbers and winning percentage dropped lower and lower.

After this upcoming matchup vs Ottawa on Wednesday, the Leafs will have a week off for the All-Star break, then 34 games remaining on the season. They fired Carlyle because they wanted to see how this current crop of men would play with a different voice in the room. Seven games in, it's impossible to know what they are.

Leafs brass needs to evaluate their roster before making any major devisions
(Bernard Weil/Toronto Star)

Fans may not want to hear it, but management needs to stay the course and remain patient. It seems toxic -- and maybe it is -- but the rest of the 2014-15 season has to be spent evaluating what's what and who's who. Brendan Shanahan and company aren't stupid, and know how bad it is for everyone in Leafs Nation right now.

But they're trying, Ringo. They're trying real hard to be the shepherd.

Hunter Crowther has covered hockey for several different websites and currently studies journalism in college. You can follow him on twitter @HunterCrowther or email him at hunter.crow@hotmail.com

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