TORONTO – There’s an important piece of hope to be found in the wreckage of the Toronto Maple Leafs season, although it would be perfectly understandable if most fans of the team don’t want to hear it right now.
The paying customers are probably still digesting the fact that we are even in a position to have this conversation with six games still to be played in the regular season. They could barely even muster a hearty round of boos during Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, an occasion most notable for the fact that it marked the first time this team dropped eight straight games in regulation since 1985.
Once you wrap your mind around that, please read on.
Unwittingly, what the 2013-14 Leafs season became was a referendum on the way the game of hockey is now played. And when this team sat comfortably in a playoff position with 80 points through 68 games despite being on pace to allow the most shots against in the recorded history of the NHL, there was still reason for the Toronto brass to believe they had stumbled on a model that both bucked convention and could bring success.
That illusion has gone up in smoke.
The Leafs remain at 80 points after 76 games and the players all wore a distinctively vacant look while trying to explain how in the name of Harold Ballard that possibly happened. Reality had set in for even the biggest believers. Streaks come and go, but when a playoff-bound team goes on a monster losing run this late in the regular season it is a sign of some sizable cracks in the foundation.
And if you’re being paid to build a team capable of one day winning a Stanley Cup, as general manager Dave Nonis is, those cracks can’t be ignored. Not in good faith.
The most telling moment in the wake of the Detroit loss came when Jonathan Bernier – presumably the Leafs goalie of the present and future – was asked what the biggest difference in the game was and immediately responded "odd-man rushes."
Yes, the truth hurts.
Bernier is the No. 1 reason the Leafs even had a chance to earn a second straight trip to the post-season – I’ll give Phil Kessel’s phenomenal play an honourable mention here – and the goaltender has every right to be frustrated. He’s done everything he can, including returning to the lineup early after a groin strain, and rightfully feels that his teammates haven’t exactly held up their end of the bargin.
Following the game in Philadelphia on Friday night, I stopped Bernier in the hallway at Wells Fargo Center and asked him if he was growing tired of the number of high-quality scoring chances he was seeing. His answer didn’t initially resonate with me, but it has taken on greater meaning with a little more reflection.
"My job is to stop the puck and I can’t really focus on how we play in front of me," Bernier said. "I’ve just got to focus on my job. That’s what I get paid for."
The Leafs had taken a good, hard look at the Eastern Conference standings prior to Saturday’s game and rightfully concluded that it was a must-win. They even responded with one of their best opening periods of the entire season, owning the possession game against Detroit and taking a 1-0 lead to the dressing room.
Any positive momentum unraveled quickly after first Kessel, then Jake Gardiner, committed turnovers prior to a short-handed goal by Darren Helm at 3:05. The red-hot Gustav Nyquist added another 92 seconds later and Helm tipped home a third at 7:57.
The most important game of the Leafs season was lost during that five-minute span. It was both stunning and predictable at the same time.
"I haven’t got an explanation for it other than the fact that it just seemed that everything that we've been doing, or the body of work that we put in early in the game, we weren’t able to maintain it and carry it into the last half of the hockey game," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
It is going to take a little time for anyone to come up with a complete explanation for what has transpired here, but the inevitable conclusion is that significant defensive improvements have to be made. That starts with the blue-line and extends to the forwards, penalty killers and entire system the team plays.
How can it be any other way?
Even though the Leafs are still within sight of the post-season chase – they’re waving the white flag as others race by, mind you – they had surrendered 28 more goals than any other playoff-bound team after Saturday night. The St. Louis Blues, the best of the best in the NHL right now, have given up 168 while Toronto has allowed 239 (albeit with two more games played).
The difference in standard was evident during a matchup between those teams earlier this week and, while the expectations for the respective franchises are vastly different this year, it hammered home just how far Toronto still has to go.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock eloquently laid out his vision for how hockey should be played during the stop in Toronto and made it clear that he believes offence is created from a good defence. He preaches a tight-checking, puck possession style and allows the goal-scoring to evolve naturally from that.
As a result, he feels his team is best equipped to handle the inevitable ebbs and flows of offensive production.
"The minute you start talking about not scoring you’re on dangerous ground," said Hitchcock. "The ground that you’re in danger of is that you’re focused on scoring rather than winning. Because the next thing you do is you score four and let in five.
"You’re going to go through phases and stages in a season where you don’t score as much as you did before and you’re still going to have to win hockey games."
Don’t we know it here in Toronto.
While this latest collapse will instantly be added to the long volume of disappointments the franchise has endured over the 47 years since last winning a championship, the only true disappointment should come if Nonis, Carlyle and every other important member of the Leafs don’t learn from it.
There are valid questions to be answered in the weeks and months ahead about how you go about turning a high-octane rush team into one that can defend with the best of them. It won’t be easy. The Leafs have been battling deficiencies in one form or another for seven or eight years.
However, the beauty about the way this season has unfolded is that the path ahead is now painfully clear. After watching this team implode in spectacular fashion, there can be no other way.