From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle
There is an eerie symmetry to the Toronto Maple Leafs drop-offs experienced last season and again this year.
They have come at roughly the same time. And they have been almost as severe.
From early January to mid-February in 2015, the free-falling Leafs recorded just two wins in 19 games (2-15-2) to drop into the NHL’s basement. By June, they were picking fourth overall, high enough to draft London Knights star Mitch Marner.
This year, after a 7-2 implosion in Chicago on Monday night, the Leafs are 4-11-2 in their past 17 games, and fading fast. If the draft lottery were held today, they would have the best chance of picking first overall (20 per cent) for the first time since taking Wendel Clark in the top spot in 1985.
The biggest difference between this year and last is that an incredible run of injuries have played a starring role. Between trading captain Dion Phaneuf away to Ottawa last week and the loss of up to eight players at a time to injuries, the Leafs have had a skeletal roster of late.
In Monday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Roman Polak had the most minutes among defencemen (24). Colin Greening, recently acquired from the Senators, had the most minutes among forwards (17), despite the fact he has spent most of the year in the American Hockey League with Binghamton.
That arrangement didn’t work out so well against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
“We weren’t in the game basically from the start,” coach Mike Babcock lamented, before later adding: “They were just better than us. Period.”
That could be the postgame tale for a while. The Maple Leafs are about to face a run of good teams, with games against the New York Rangers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and first-place Washington Capitals in the next two weeks. There is also the trade deadline looming on Feb. 29, when even more talent will be traded away.
So yes, things can get worse.
This isn’t new. Other teams have pulled their rosters apart midway through the year en route to a good draft pick. Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney admitted in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt the other day that he did as much last season, explaining that “if we were going to be bad, my attitude was, let’s be real bad.”
He then called Connor McDavid, the eventual No. 1 pick, “a pretty big prize for being really bad.”
What’s made the Leafs’ situation unique is the organization has steadfastly refused to recall its best players from the minors. The Marlies are currently the top team in the AHL, with only nine regulation losses in 51 games, and young players such as William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Rinat Valiev, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Stuart Percy are better than some of those playing for the Leafs.
Brendan Leipsic showed as much on Saturday against Vancouver, when he was granted his first NHL game and promptly scored his first NHL goal (the winner, no less).
He hardly looked out of place. But he was promptly demoted before their next game.
That’s because Leafs management sees little point in sacrificing development in order to prop up a makeshift NHL roster that was never going to contend this year. Most of the recalls all season have been older non-prospects – Rich Clune, Mark Arcobello and Byron Froese – to the detriment of the NHL roster, and the benefit of Toronto’s lottery chances.
Is that tanking? In the strictest sense of the word, sure. But the Leafs were also only five points out of a playoff spot on Jan. 6 after 38 games, and before all the injuries. They’re still on pace for 73 points, five better than a year ago.
If that’s tanking, it’s Tanking Lite compared with what teams such as the Buffalo Sabres and Coyotes pulled off last season in failed attempts to get McDavid.
In fact, 73 points would be the best finish ever for a last-place NHL team. So if that was Leafs management’s sole intention with the season, they went about it in a curious way.
The way that their year has gone is, in many ways, the best possible outcome. There have been obvious improvements thanks to Babcock. The work ethic is there. And the Marlies have played like world-beaters.
Finishing 30th, thanks to injuries, trades and an insistence on protecting the kids, won’t be a black eye for anyone.
But it does leave the Leafs with their biggest hurdle still to come: beating the Edmonton Oilers in the draft lottery.
Good luck with that.