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What went wrong for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

The Toronto Maple Leafs went from third place to out of the playoffs in less than a month. How in the world does something like that happen?

SB Nation 2014 NHL Playoff Bracket

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Nobody does collapses like the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On March 13, after their 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings to complete a successful west coast road trip that saw them collect four of a possible six points, the Maple Leafs had the third best record in the Eastern Conference and had a seven-point cushion when it came to a playoff spot.

It was all downhill from there. It was at that point that the Maple Leafs started what would turn out to be a season-crushing eight-game losing streak that would lead to one of the most unbelievable late-season collapses the NHL has seen in quite some time with losses in 14 of their past 20 games. It all ended on Tuesday with a rather lifeless 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that officially knocked them out of playoff contention.

So where did it all go wrong for the Maple Leafs?

Well, let's start with where it didn't go wrong.

It wasn't because the Maple Leafs lost Dave Bolland.


Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY

His absence, as well as status as an unrestricted free agent after the season and what the Maple Leafs might have to do to keep him, has been a huge point of emphasis during the second half of the season. But teams like Detroit and Pittsburgh lost players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen for extended periods of time, and Tampa Bay lost Steven Stamkos(!) for most of the season, and those teams still put together playoff seasons. It's hard to seriously believe that Bolland, at his best a solid third-line center, not being in the lineup was the final devastating blow for the Maple Leafs.

It also wasn't because of goaltending, whether it be Jonathan Bernier's injury or the way James Reimer played while filling in for him.

At times under former coach Ron Wilson the Maple Leafs had solid all-around hockey teams that would be completely sabotaged by some of the worst goaltending in the league. These Leafs are the bizarro Ron Wilson Leafs, getting outplayed on most nights and getting propped up by goaltending. Last year was Reimer and Ben Scrivens. This year it was Reimer and Bernier.

The Maple Leafs allowed the fifth most goals in the NHL this season despite getting a goaltending performance that was at worst league average and at best near the top of the league.

It's here that we start to get into the real problems with the Maple Leafs -- they just gave up too many damn shots because the puck was never on their sticks. There is perhaps no better way to point out the Maple Leafs' defensive woes than these two facts.

  1. The Maple Leafs, Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild and Washington Capitals all currently have .914 save percentages for the season. Here are the number of goals each one of those teams gave up with the exact same goaltending performance: Toronto (247), Washington (227), Anaheim (196), Pittsburgh (190), Minnesota (189). How does that happen?
  2. Because the Maple Leafs have not only given up more shots than any team in the NHL this season by a significant margin, they are on their way to having one of the worst seasons in league history when it comes to allowing shots. With still two games remaining in the regular season, the Leafs at their current pace should give up around 2,909 shots on goal this season. Since the league started tracking shots on goal numbers that would be the sixth-worst season in league history. Three of the teams that gave up more played 84-game seasons (the 1993-94 Sharks, Kings and Blues). The other two were the 1995-96 Sabres and the 2001-02 Thrashers (who won just 19 games). That is the company the 2013-14 Maple Leafs kept when it came to preventing shots. Three teams that played in an 84-game season and one of the worst teams in NHL history.

And this is the biggest reason the Maple Leafs' season collapsed on itself, and it's the perfect combination of a flawed roster and a flawed coaching strategy.

The chart below looks at Toronto's cumulative FenClose (percentage of unblocked shot attempts the Maple Leafs attempted with the score "close") and it's not hard to find the trend. Or when it started.


See that little break in the line, just before it falls off the cliff? That is March 3, 2012, the date when the Maple Leafs fired Wilson and hired Carlyle. The drop in possession was drastic and immediate, making it almost impossible to argue that it wasn't a coaching strategy. At times the Leafs tried to pass it off as some sort of a shot quality argument, pointing out that they are willing to give up shots from the outside in an effort to keep away from the middle of the ice. And you see that on the ice at times as their forwards collapse down on the net and they attempt to fill the space between the dots.

But the numbers don't lie.

Shots still get through at an historic rate, and even with the goalies stopping more of them than the average goalie in the NHL would, a lot of them end up in the back of the net. That is because the more shots you allow the other team to take, the more likely it is something bad is going to happen for your team. More shots against means more chances for rebounds, or deflections, or bounces, or somebody getting in the way and screening the goalie, or the goalie simply getting beat.

Remember what Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter said earlier this season about defense and the way the game is played these days. It's about having the puck, and nobody had it less this season in meaningful situations than the Maple Leafs.

But it's not just about the coaching strategies. The front office isn't without blame, and if you really want to point out when the collapse started you have to go all the way back to the offseason. What was already a poor possession team couldn't wait to jettison two of its best possession players over the offseason by not seriously attempting to re-sign Clarke MacArthur and buying out the remaining years of Mikhail Grabovski's.

In their place came Bolland and David Clarkson on a seven-year, $36 million free agent contract.

MacArthur and Grabovski, playing for other teams, combined to score 36 goals and record 53 assists in 130 games with strong possession numbers.

Bolland and Clarkson combined for 13 goals and 10 assists in 79 games, while Bolland was crushed in the possession game and Clarkson not only failed to do anything to justify his contract, he also missed time for two different suspensions, including the first 10 games of the season.

All of this played a role in a collapse that will be talked about in the same breathe as their Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in last year's playoffs.


Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis/Photo: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

But for as bad as it was, and for as avoidable as some of it may have been, there are still some things to build on if they're not being asked to collapse around their net and watch as opposing teams cycle the puck and fire shot after shot at their goalies.

Toronto still has Phil Kessel, one of the league's elite goal-scorers that is still in the prime of his career and signed long-term. If he isn't already, James van Riemsdyk is well on his way to becoming a star in the league. Nazem Kadri was hurt a little by a drop in shooting percentages but was still a 20-goal, 50-point player at the age of 23. For as bad as the defense was this season there are still some players (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner) that could be useful in the right system.

It's not hopeless. They just need to enter the 21st century when it comes to the way the game is played.