Miserable Maple Leafs season ends with regret

The Toronto Maple Leafs' season came to an end in the shootout on Saturday, unable to solve Carey Price while also unable to stop the Montreal Canadiens.

TORONTO — They are going to regret this.

Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and right on down the list.

There was absolutely no reason for this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs to be so bad. Nine wins in their last 42 games. Just 68 points in the standings, the lowest total since 1996-97.

While it may end up being a blessing in disguise for the organization — we’ll see how the lottery balls fall next Saturday — there is no similar reprieve for the men responsible for this disastrous campaign.

Careers are short in pro sports. The opportunities are limited. And each of those core players may just have played his final game for the Maple Leafs.

“That crossed my mind,” Phaneuf said after Saturday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Montreal. “It started to sink in when I was on the way to the rink and more and more before the game.”

One thing almost every former player will tell you is that a hockey career comes with contrition. Once retirement arrives, there are always situations or seasons they wish they could have back.

Times when the effort or attitude wasn’t there. Days they didn’t do everything necessary to be at their best.

Consider the eventual legacy of the 2014-15 Maple Leafs: This team was still in a wild-card playoff position when Peter Horachek replaced Randy Carlyle in early January and president Brendan Shanahan challenged the players to show who they really are.

All Horachek essentially asked was that they shelve their doomed run-and-gun style for a more defensively responsible system. It fell on deaf ears.

“Individuals resist change,” said Horachek. “That’s the best way I guess I can say that. People don’t want to change; they want to keep it in the comfort levels where they are.”

Early in the season, a group of Maple Leaf newcomers met for dinner to discuss how to alter the culture here. Stephane Robidas, Daniel Winnik, Roman Polak, Richard Panik and Jonathan Bernier were among those at the table trying to figure out how to get this leopard to change its spots.

By the time Carlyle was fired, at least one member of that group was airing his frustration about their inability to do so. On Jan. 7, Polak told me the team continued to have defensive struggles “because it’s hard work.”

“It’s always tough to do something you know you don’t like to do,” he said. “I think we have lots of guys that just want to play offence.”

Because of that inability to change, change will find them.

We don’t yet know who will execute this summer’s roster teardown — Damien Cox reports that the future of GM Dave Nonis will be decided on Monday — but we can safely guarantee it is coming.

“It’s evident that there’s lots of change that has to happen,” said Horachek. “It has to be a different direction. We have to change our mental approach to how we play.”

All of which brings us back to the men that have worn the team’s sweater, and done so for the last couple seasons. The guys who were part of Ron Wilson’s 18-wheeler off a cliff and the Meltdown in Beantown and last year’s collapse and this year’s debacle.

They are the ones who will be reflecting back on a career one day and wishing they could do things a little differently in 2014-15.

How can you explain Kessel scoring just seven goals in the second half of the season? Or Lupul getting just one after Dec. 29?

The highest-paid players on the Leafs this season had each called Air Canada Centre home long enough to become difference-makers in that dressing room. But still the team fell to pieces. Only 11 guys who dressed in a 4-3 loss to Montreal in the season-opener also played in the season-ending 4-3 loss to the Habs.

That’s only just the start.

“There has to be a better-conditioned (group), a better attitude, a new approach to how we want to do things,” said Horachek. “Whatever the group is, this has to change. You have to have a respect Toronto deserves. …

“If we continued right where we were in November we might not make the playoffs, we might be fighting for the playoffs. And if you’re in that situation, and we’re fighting for the playoffs or we make the playoffs, we weren’t going to win. Is that what we want? Do we want to be competitive or do we want to build something to win a Stanley Cup?”

Shanahan isn’t here for short-term fixes. This is going to be a big project.

Reality had already started to hit home for the players as this season came to a merciful end on Saturday night and they started looking ahead to an uncertain future.

“You could feel it before the game,” said Bernier. “I think guys were kind of upset and nervous at the same time to play. That’s the last time we’re going to play as a group — this group.”

“There’s a lot of different emotions,” said Phaneuf.

Regret will inevitably be one of them, if it isn’t already.

These men could have done more. And the job will be someone else’s soon.

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