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Who is to blame for the Maple Leafs' disastrous collapse?

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

As the Maple Leafs falter, how much blame should Dave Nonis get? (USATSI)
As the Maple Leafs falter, how much blame should Dave Nonis get? (USATSI)

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Whenever there has been a disaster of the man-made variety, they are often followed by an investigation. It is important to find why something happened, and perhaps just as important, who is actually at fault.

As the Toronto Maple Leafs fumble away playoff contention with a March collapse that may go down as one of the most dramatic in NHL history, there's going to be an investigation. There should be at least. How did this happen? Who is to blame?

Having lost their last eight games, all in regulation, the Maple Leafs have gone from a nearly 90 percent chance of making the playoffs to 4.6 percent. That's just in two weeks' time. When you look at the graph SportsClubStats.com has to visualize what that looks like, it's exactly like dropping off a cliff.

Even if Toronto wins all six of its remaining games, there's only a 77 percent chance they get into the postseason according to Sports Club Stats. The Maple Leafs' last push for the playoffs begins tonight against Calgary.

James Mirtle, who wrote a scathing column in the Globe & Mail earlier this week, offered even starker numbers on the Maple Leafs' demise:

Since a luck-driven 10-4 start to the season, the Leafs have actually been the sixth-worst team in the NHL, posting a better record than only Buffalo, Florida, Edmonton, the Islanders and Calgary.

In that span, they have won just 18 of 62 games in regulation or overtime – essentially once every 3.5 games – fewer than all but the Sabres and Panthers.

That's sobering. The problems are not new, but even the most skeptical of Leafs observers probably didn't think it would all come crashing down at once like it has. Perhaps this is just the way it had to be. Maybe that's the only way the organization will know it has a lot of problems and not just a bad two weeks in March.

Now it's been no secret that the Maple Leafs had been pretty lucky for much of the season. Getting routinely out-shot is not a recipe for a playoff contender. Toronto has yielded an average of 36 shots on goal per game, which is worst in the league. The club has put up 28 shots per game, which is 25th in the NHL. Good goaltending from Jonathan Bernier and, for a time, James Reimer kept them afloat.

That, and despite everything blowing up around them, Toronto's first line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel are each putting up career years.

The Leafs' most recent downturn coincided with an injury to Bernier, which pushed Reimer, one of the better backups in the league, into action and he struggled mightily. He could be made a scape goat, but it's entirely unfair to Reimer as the issues have been running deep all year.

When the investigators come to view the charred husk of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they're going to likely see issues in how the organization handled its offseason.

Hindsight is 20/20, but there weren't many out there that believed the moves general manager Dave Nonis made last summer made the team a whole lot better.

Signing David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract is the most notable blunder and it's a big one. When a team overpays for a free agent because the market forces them to, it does two things. First and foremost it creates unreachable expectations and secondly, it takes away money from areas where it could be better spent.

Clarkson has seen his usage drop precipitously throughout the year and his 10 points in 54 games with a $5.25 million cap hit looks ugly. This collapse isn't on Clarkson, though. He didn't offer himself that contract.

Head coach Randy Carlyle has shouldered the brunt of the blame of late and it's not hard to see why. The coach always gets the worst of it when a team is losing in such catastrophic fashion. The scorn is deserved as whatever Carlyle is doing or trying to do is not working. That can be because the players aren't listening or because he just doesn't know how to stop the bleeding.

When things are going this bad, the coach is an easy scapegoat as well, but there's so much more to it. It's probably fair to say Carlyle might be compounding the issue with some of his decisions and player usage, however.

There's no magic solution at this point. It's probably too late anyway.

However, as the numbers do the Maple Leafs no favors going back essentially to the first part of the season, the way this team was constructed seems to be the most incriminating evidence.

This was sold as a team to be optimistic about after taking the Boston Bruins to seven games last year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and starting the season 10-4. What's strange is, this team, at least it seems now, is worse than the one from last season.

Buying out Mikhail Grabovski, who had a resurgent year with the Washington Capitals, and letting Clarke MacArthur walk, because they didn't fit within Carlyle's system has proven to be a poor decision. Both players got better away from Toronto and you can view that any way you want, but they were replaced with lesser players. It didn't help that both have had good seasons and the Maple Leafs' replacements didn't.

This faulty construction job falls squarely on the shoulders of Nonis. This was always going to be a team on the brink because of the fact that certain players were acquired for roles they were ill-equipped.

As good as Bozak has been this year, it's hard to see him as a No. 1 center when compared against the rest of the league. Dave Bolland was brought in to be a defensive stalwart on the third line, but his defensive skills have faded in recent years and an early-season injury never really allowed Bolland the opportunity to play that role. Clarkson was paid top-six money to play a diminished third-line and sometimes fourth-line role. The defense was essentially untouched and by the time Nonis made a move, it was to merely place a band-aid in the form of trading for Tim Gleason over a blue line that wasn't defending well at all and still isn't.

The one thing that all of the good teams have done is identify their core guys, the players to build around. Those are the guys you pay the big money to and then fill out the roster as reasonably as you can with good, but affordable players.

The Maple Leafs' core is rather incomplete at this point. Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Phaneuf and Bernier would appear to be the start of one, but the money being paid to Joffrey Lupul, Clarkson, Bozak and Gleason would suggest they're part of it, too. Then on potential and early performances, Morgan Rielly would be a big part of that core, too, and he's still on his entry-level deal.

The future of the core should also include Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, but those are two players that are continually brought up in trade rumors because they don't fit here or there.

A team without a true core seems like a team without an identity and worse, a team without a plan.

Additionally, beyond Rielly, the Leafs don't have any elite young players coming up through the pipeline at this point. That's not entirely on Nonis, though he was around for those drafts, too, but lacking top-end prospects forces the Leafs to go big in free agency and overspend.

As much as Carlyle is to blame for the way this team is played, it's the construction that was faulty. The collapse was coming, but it never seemed like the Leafs management believed it. Every radio interview or quote in the media seemed more defensive than anything else in terms of how the Maple Leafs were doing. That's the scary part.

There are a lot of folks in that organization that have been in the game a long, long time. This recent collapse has to be a wake-up call.

Now the question is, how do they fix it? And should they let the architects of this disaster be the ones to make it right?

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