Leafs’ losing skid hints at critical flaws

(Chris Young/CP)

The old TV show MASH always talked about the combat doctors on the front lines of the Korean War performing “meatball surgery” to stop their patients’ bleeding and  prepare them for more comprehensive care at a better equipped facility well behind the lines. That’s how the Leafs 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames Tuesday night felt: It stopped the bleeding from the considerable damage inflicted on the Buds by an eight-game losing streak coming when the team needed a final push for a playoff spot, but it’s not a cure by any stretch.

The freshly broken skid was the longest losing streak of any NHL team this season and the longest for the Leafs since the start of the 1985-86 season. Of course the 1985-86 team bore far different expectations. The Leafs had finished 21st—dead last—in the overall NHL standings in 1984-85 . Their one “prize” was the ability to select Wendel Clark first overall in that summer’s NHL Entry Draft. Just a few games into his NHL rookie season Clark would be a part of that team that lost eight consecutive games, along with a future Hall of Famer in Borje Salming and a three-time 50-goal scorer in Rick Vaive. It actually wasn’t a huge surprise the Leafs faltered, given where they had finished the previous season and their struggles for a number of years. As well, the vast majority of Toronto sports fans eyes were fixated on the Toronto Blue Jays who were on their way to winning their first American League Eastern Division pennant that fall.

But this is 2014, and it’s a far different scenario. This eight-game losing streak took a Toronto Maple Leaf team preparing for playoff action and dumped on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference post-season picture. And, of course, the vast majority of Toronto sports fans eyes are firmly fixed on the woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs—there’s not Blue Jays’ pennant race to cheer anyone up.

Incredibly, the Leafs’ team record for most consecutive losses remains at 10 in the 1966-67 season. Why is it incredible? Because that is also the season that the Leafs last hoisted the Stanley Cup. The high of that last Stanley Cup victory also included the reigning Leaf record for regular season futility. How is that possible?

When Damien Cox and I wrote about that team for our book on the 1967 Leafs, we learned that much of what ailed the team in that ten-game skid was actually a more accurate indicator of where the Leaf organization stood talent wise. The upset run to the Cup in 1967 actually masked many of their weaknesses. It was a team with too many older players and one that had traded away key players in their prime like Dick Duff and Bob Nevin, while another player in his prime, Carl Brewer, had simply left the team due to conflict with management. Young prospects like Gerry Cheevers, Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown had been moved in short-sighted transactions while, despite having the edge in procuring players from Ontario, they had simply “missed” on recruiting Brad Park and Bobby Orr a few years earlier.

The fact that the Stanley Cup playoffs were just two rounds in 1967 allowed the Leafs to upset both Chicago and Montreal behind  outstanding goaltending of Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower. It wasn’t the big names that made the difference in those two series, it was as much the lesser known players like Jim Pappin, Brian Conacher, Peter Stemkowski, Larry Hillman and Marcel Pronovost. Winning the Cup delayed an overdue “rebuild” for the Leaf team and they would languish for the next five years because it wasn’t addressed.

Therein lies the lesson for the 2014 Maple Leafs, the challenge for Dave Nonis and his staff this off-season. What must be addressed with this Leaf team might not have been as much on the radar two weeks ago. The third collapse in three years. Two years ago it was the “18-wheeler going off the road” as Brian Burke termed it as the Leafs went through a 2-15-0 stretch beginning in February to plummet from a sure playoff position. Last spring, it was the heartbreaking third-period collapse in game seven against Boston.

Is this recent losing streak an unfortunate “blip”, on a team and organization that is heading in the right direction? Or is it a team with more problems than the average Leaf fan realizes—problems that have been masked by excellent goaltending and one big line? When that stellar work in net wasn’t able to stem the tide over the eight-game losing streak, it became evident  something was severely lacking in the team. A lack of depth behind the Kessel line; an overall too-weak blueline. Come the off-season, Dave Nonis has to determine if the 18-wheeler is just parked on the soft shoulder or if, two years later, help is still needed to get it out of that ditch.

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