It was a very strange line from one of the stars of Canada’s Olympic team victory in Sochi, uttered at the strangest of times. Drew Doughty was being interviewed in one of the intermissions of the Leafs game in Los Angeles on March 13th. The game would end up being arguably the “biggest” Leaf victory of the season. Down 2-0, the Leafs came back to beat the Kings 3-2. A huge road victory for the Leafs and the day that all “reasonable” Leaf fans felt the Leafs were home and cooled out with regards to making the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now, was Drew Doughty being funny, or was it simply a holdover from the Canada/U.S.A. Olympic rivalry when he had said that the Kessell/Bozak/JVR line was “easy to figure out and play against”? He went on to add “they are one-dimensional and just think offence, so you can just sit back on them a bit.” Like the player himself, who has gotten better like fine wine, Doughty’s comments have proven themselves insightful with time.
The fact is that as a team the Leafs never truly bought into the concept of two-way hockey, and their game in their defensive zone was too often chaotic. Often that was because the defence had no forward positioned in the defensive zone to take a pass. The run-and-gun style that worked so well for the high-tempo first line was often being imitated by the others. When the first line experienced the same scoring drought as the other lines for the last 12 games (2-10-0), the Leafs endured the double whammy of having no offense combined with a lack of commitment on defense. The results were predictable.
When the team proves unable to stop the bleeding of a losing streak, it falls to an individual to step up and be the difference maker. That is how the Leafs won the majority of their games for the first three-quarters of the season. Either a goaltender or a member of the top line were the difference makers. Not this time. While they saw first Gustav Nyquist and then Darren Helm step up and be difference makers in their two losses to the Detroit Red Wings (actually half were Grand Rapids players, such were the Wings’ injury problems) over this recent stretch of futility, neither the big guns or lesser lights were able to step up for the Leafs.
That said, I still see many positives to build on for next season. The Kessel/Bozak/JVR line for starters, especially how Tyler Bozak emerged as a (more) true No. 1 center this season. I am willing to continue cutting Nazem Kadri some slack as we endure his growing pains. Joffrey Lupul took a step back from his "star" status from 2013, and now his history of being injury prone is playing itself out again. And I'm hoping the Leafs can work out a new deal with David Bolland which is clouded with uncertainty as to the nature of the injury from which he has not fully recovered.
I love the young defenseman in Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner. Dion Phaneuf had a miserable post-Olympic stretch but I am willing to give him a mulligan given his post-Lockout play overall, and the fact he has a new long-term contract with the Leafs kicking in next season. I remain perplexed and disappointed by his comments following the loss to Winnipeg last Saturday. To even say (even though he truly couldn't have believed it) that the Leafs had worked hard in that game but hadn't got the breaks was stunning. It indicates how low the bar has fallen for Toronto Maple Leaf fans and the organization, as well as how gaping the void in leadership has become if that abysmal effort could be deemed as "working hard" by the team captain.
The acquisition of Jonathan Bernier remains an upgrade in goal. The losing streak accelerated the returns of both Bernier and Bolland from injuries, when they both obviously weren't 100 percent—that doesn't diminish their quality when fully healthy.
Three years in a row the Leafs had a significant team collapse of one form or another. The biggest hope for the Blue-and-White faithful lies in the idea that no playoff action this year, means more time for the club to do the hard post-season work, for serious action by Dave Nonis and the front office. We can hope.