The Toronto Maple Leafs are a mess of late. As much as the Leafs have become a mess, it seems like this was always destined to happen. Whether you ascribe to the advanced analytics or something as simple as the oft-predictable "regressing to the mean" it always seemed likely that Toronto would suffer the fate it has come to know in the past few months of the season.
After a dismal performance in a 6-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, the Leafs have followed a three-game, hope-building winning streak, which concluded with the shootout win at the Winter Classic, with a crushing three-game skid in which Toronto has allowed 18 goals while scoring only five. Toronto is now fifth in the Atlantic Division and sitting outside of a playoff spot.
It's not like the gentlemen in blue and white were dealing with world beaters in this most recent rough patch. Those three losses have come against the New York Rangers, Islanders and now the Canes, all teams that are struggling in a bad Eastern Conference.
But it's far worse than the recent three-game losing streak. As James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail noted in a scathing column, Thursday night was the Leafs' 22nd game without a regulation win in their past 24 outings. That's dreadful.
The latest Leafs skid is hardly a blip on the radar, rather it's part of a growing tailspin that seems to be getting harder to pull out of.
Toronto looked listless Thursday, falling behind 3-1 in in the first period and only managing six shots in the second, barely feigning a comeback attempt.
"We stood around for most of the game tonight," exasperated head coach Randy Carlyle said to reporters, referring to his players, after the 6-1 defeat. "We're not engaged in the hockey game."
Part of that is probably on the players and another part of the blame goes to the coaches. Either way, not being engaged in a hockey game and getting so thoroughly beaten is just another step toward the black hole of a lost season that started with so much promise.
Now it's always tough to know what the right response from a management perspective would be, but the question becomes, has management or the coaching staff even shown an ability to make this team better?
The Leafs' woes are exacerbated by the fact that so many of the moves GM Dave Nonis has made since taking the reins from Brian Burke exactly one year ago are somewhat blowing up in the Leafs' collective face right now, even small moves.
It might just be an unfortunate coincidence that Clarke MacArthur, who Toronto let walk in free agency, has become one of the best value buys among last season's UFAs with the Ottawa Senators. Or that Mikhail Grabovski, who was bought out in the offseason, has already nearly doubled his point total from last season in seven fewer games with the Washington Capitals. Both players slammed Carlyle's coaching on their way out the door and at this point are proving with their play they may have been onto something.
Meanwhile, Nonis' big free-agent signing, David Clarkson has just eight points in 36 games and has missed time thanks to costly suspensions.
Heck, even Thursday night, John-Michael Liles, who the Maple Leafs informed was traded while he was on the ice for warmups at the Winter Classic, scored one of the six goals for the Hurricanes. That's just twisting the knife at this point.
Not everything Nonis did has collapsed on top of itself. Offseason acquisition Jonathan Bernier has been strong in net. Tyler Bozak, who was extended by the Leafs in the offseason, has shown improvement when he has been healthy enough to play. The cheap buy of Mason Raymond has also worked out incredibly well. Even so, it seems as though this team is running in quicksand and is about to stop kicking and just let itself be consumed.
With as many poor decisions as Nonis has made early in his tenure, the team is seemingly built to play a style that Carlyle has sold as winning hockey.
As Mirtle notes in his piece linked above, it seems as though the strategies of this staff and administration to build a roster around grit as opposed to skill is starting to backfire in a bad way. Worst of all, it was predictably going to be bad.
That's why Carlyle's seat as head coach seems to be getting hotter, or at least that it should be. With each loss, it seems as though the wear and tear is taking a visible toll on the coach, who oftentimes seems bewildered as opposed to combative.
The touchstone moment of this most recent three-game skid came when Carlyle decided to sit Jake Gardiner in lieu of the returning Carl Gunnarsson while leaving Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger, who have struggled in all facets of the game, in the lineup. For a team that has struggled to score of late, sitting a young puck-moving defenseman doesn't seem like the best option, though a coach has to make those decisions game-by-game.
The Maple Leafs want toughness and grit in the lineup to be tough to play against, but they're not tough to play against. Toronto is yielding a league-worst 36.4 shots per game. The goalies were saving their bacon at an alarming level early in the season when the Leafs were riding high and are still playing well, but numbers are regressing as always seemed likely.
The toughness in the lineup is moot if you can't successfully keep opposing offenses at bay. Then the Leafs compound that with an average of 27.2 shots per game for themselves. Only the Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils are worse in that department.
Carlyle did win the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, so he has the pedigree of a successful head coach, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that whatever he is doing is not working. The Leafs have the talent at the top to be better, but they're just not very tough to play against at this point.
The lack of depth on defense and an inability to put enough shots on net doesn't seem like it's going to be able to fix itself.
Incredible performances by Bernier and James Reimer are being squandered by a painful inability to score goals and an inability to keep their goaltenders from being overworked on a nightly basis.
There's trouble in Toronto and there's more than enough blame to go around, but what can the Leafs do at this point? The lack of flexibility with the salary cap is certainly a hindrance, but the pieces of value they have to trade would seem to be too important to the future to let them walk this season.
Plus, the Maple Leafs aren't out of this year's playoff race thanks to what was an incredibly hot and maybe extremely lucky start to the season. They probably still believe, and maybe because of their record should believe, they have a chance this season.
The Maple Leafs don't necessarily have to hit the panic button, but a change of course or in overall philosophy seems appropriate. What they're doing isn't working and it never seemed like it was going to.
The outlook for this team for the rest of the season isn't good, but it doesn't get better when one looks toward the future. That should be a real concern.
The Maple Leafs definitely have the pieces to build around, that much is clear. What isn't clear is if the organization has a plan to build not just a a winning team, but a consistent winner. If this year's team was the blueprint, it's time to go back to the drawing board.