The Previous season on July 1st, the circus of the NHL was focused on free agent superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, but the Maple Leafs stayed out of the chase. This year though, the prize free agent was centre Brad Richards and the Leafs certainly wanted him. He was the first line centre the Leafs have been longing for since the departure of Mats Sundin. That’s not a slight on Tyler Bozak, the sense in Toronto was just that if Brad Richards were to be recruited it might be one of the final missing pieces to the puzzle.
They made a strong push, and on July 1st as players like Tim Brent and Jean-Sebastien Giguere departed for new teams, Burke was pursuing Richards as he met with the player in his agent’s office right down the street in Mississauga, Ontario. On July 2nd though, it was announced that Richards had officially agreed to terms with the Rangers on a nine year, 60-million-dollar contract.
It turned out however, the Maple Leafs had a backup plan. Just hours after Richards signed in the Big Apple, the Leafs signed centre Tim Connolly to a two year, 9.5-million-dollar contract. Connolly was coming off a season where he registered 42 points in 68 games, however the season before that he had 65 points, 48 of them being assists. His playmaking ability looked like it could be a valuable asset playing in-between Lupul and Kessel.
The very next day Burke struck a trade with the Predators, yet another team facing a bit of a cap crunch. The Leafs sent defensemen Brett Lebda, who only scored 4 points in 41 games for them last season, and prospect Robert Slaney to the Predators. In return the Leafs got veteran Matthew Lombardi and young defenceman Cody Franson.
Lombardi was a speedy depth player who was once a 20-goal scorer with the Calgary Flames in 06-07, but the main piece of the return was Cody Franson. Franson was a 23-year-old blueliner who already had 14 goals and 36 assists in the NHL. It was a great sweetener for the Maple Leafs taking the 3.5-million-dollar cap hit of Lombardi for another two seasons.
Burke wasn’t done being active, as in the next couple days he signed both MacArthur and Bozak to contract extensions. MacArthur’s was a two year, 6.5-million-dollar deal, while Bozak’s was two years at 3-million-dollars. Along with those acquisitions there were depth player signings such as Ryan Hamilton, Matt Lashoff, Mike Zigomanis, Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb to name a few.
With the additions of Connolly, Lombardi and Franson, this team was starting to look like the team that would be ready to start opening night. There was still one missing piece to the puzzle, and that was the fact defensemen Luke Schenn still needed a contract.
Luke Schenn was an RFA coming off his entry level deal and was struggling to find an extension with Burke and the Leafs. He was absolutely a solid NHL talent, but it was tough to say if he was developing at the rate most Leafs fans were hoping for. However, on the eve of NHL training camp, a deal was struck as Schenn signed a five year, 15-million-dollar extension with the Maple Leafs. It gave the Leafs five more years at a very reasonable cap hit, while also giving Schenn more time to reach his full potential to hopefully cash in big when it was time to re-sign again.
After that was all settled with, training camp and pre-season ran its course as excitement was high in Leafs nation. This team was starting to fill in a lot of the holes they have had in recent years. Just before the start of the season, Burke made one last final roster move to add depth to the centre position. The Leafs sent a 4th round pick to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Dave Steckel. Steckel was a face-off specialist, having won 62.3% of his face-offs the previous year, which was the best in the NHL.
With all that finalized, it was time to start the season off on Oct.6 against the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs were missing some key players to injury, as Connolly, MacArthur and Kadri were all hurt and couldn’t play in the game. But feeding off the energy in the building, the Maple Leafs kick-started their season with a 2-0 victory over their Atlantic Division rivals.
A lot went right for a variety of players facing some questions coming into this season. Lombardi, who seemed like a bit of a throw-in via the deal with Nashville, showed his speed can still be effective in the NHL. More importantly though, goaltender James Reimer put up a shutout in his first opening night as a starter in the NHL, as the breakout sensation of last year was trying to prove he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder.
Opening night was also the beginning of NHL career’s for Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner. Frattin was looking like a speedy option in the bottom nine up front, but a lot of eyes were on Jake Gardiner coming into the season. Gardiner, who came to Toronto alongside Joffrey Lupul back in February, really impressed during the pre-season. He was a smooth skating defenceman with a big offensive upside and earned himself a spot in the opening night roster.
Throughout the course of October, injured players such as MacArthur and Connolly got back into the lineup. In that month, the Leafs played a total of 11 games and went 7-3-1, an impressive record without question. Phil Kessel was off to an incredible start as he was amongst the league leaders in goals and was awarded the first star of the month for his efforts. The Maple Leafs looked to be feeling confident about themselves, which was exactly what Burke and Ron Wilson wanted to see.
However, Reimer sustained an injury against the Montreal Canadiens and before you knew it, Jonas Gustasvsson was thrown into the starting role. Having never been a full-time starter in the NHL, Gustavsson performed just fine in the month of November. Because of the injury to Reimer, young goaltender Ben Scrivens was also given a chance to get into some games, as when Gustavsson seemed to go down with a minor injury on November 3rd, Scrivens got his first shot in the NHL. Scrivens got the win in that game, and Gustavsson’s injury wasn’t serious enough to keep him out of action for very long.
November started off with a wake-up game for the Maple Leafs, as on November 5th, the Bruins stomped all over the Maple Leafs in a 7-0 win. The game didn’t end up being too much a set-back, as the Leafs still went on to have a very successful month in November, going 7-6-1. The crazy thing about that record was that they were dominant on the road, going 6-2, while at the ACC were only 1-4-1.
On November 27, with only one game left in the month, the Maple Leafs had a record of 14-8-2. They were first in the Atlantic Division and second in the entire Eastern Conference, trailing only the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Maple Leafs lost to the Bruins 6-3 on the final day of November which gave the Bruins the first spot in the Atlantic, but the Maple Leafs still had lots to be proud about. They were looking very much like a team destined for the playoffs. However, December proved to be a challenge for the team, as they started to show signs of slowing down as the month moved along. They only managed 11 points in the month of December, unlike the 15 they achieved in both October and November. Now 11 points is nothing to be terribly upset about, in fact the Maple Leafs were still in very decent shape.
They had fallen out of a playoff picture but were still right there in the hunt. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal after where they were positioned at the end of November, but this wasn’t a team that was supposed to walk over the East and be comfortably in a playoff spot all season. This was a team that was supposed to be fighting for a spot all season long and hopefully grab one of them as the season winded down. And they ended 2011 right there, in the hunt.
The majority of the Leafs games in January of 2012 were at home, and they took advantage of it. They won their first 4 games of the new year, and after a 4-3 overtime victory against the Islanders on January 24, the Maple Leafs were tied with three other teams for 6th in the Eastern Conference.
The very next day, Burke signed defensemen John-Michael Liles to a 4 year, 15-million-dollar contract extension. The puck moving defensemen had impressed with the Maple Leafs and they saw him as part of their long-term plan. Then just a few days later Joffrey Lupul was named an assistant captain to the all-start team captained by Zdeno Chara, which was a huge accomplishment for a player having a fantastic year after going through so many tough injuries in recent memory.
Things were looking bright in Toronto, and Burke’s vision of this team seemed to be unfolding well. After a week off, the Maple Leafs defeated the Penguins on January 31 and again the next day on the 1st of February. Then two more convincing wins against Ottawa and Edmonton brought the Maple Leafs record on the season to 28-19-6. That was 62 points in 53 games. The Leafs had sole possession of 6th in the Eastern conference, and Leafs nation was feeling better about this team than they had in a very long time.
Not to mention rumours were swirling around the NHL community that the league was about to announce that the Maple Leafs would be facing off against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 NHL winter classic at Michigan Stadium. The announcement was made official just a few days later on February 9th. As the Maple Leafs defeated the Edmonton Oilers 6-2 on February 6th, everything was just great in Leafs nation.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, it wasn’t.
The next game was against the Winnipeg Jets, which also happened to be Toronto’s first visit to Winnipeg since the first instalment of the team was in the NHL decades ago. Even the start of the game wasn’t bad, as the Leafs got the game’s first goal when Phil Kessel snapped home his 30th of the season. However, the Jets battled back and came out with a 2-1 victory and ended the Leafs six game winning streak.
The next game the Leafs lost 4-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers. A disappointing loss, but again just a one goal game. There likely wasn’t too much reason to overthink back-to-back one goal losses.
Yet two days later the Leafs got slapped with a 5-0 loss by their rival Montreal Canadiens, on hockey night in Canada nonetheless. Three days later came a 5-1 loss to the Calgary Flames.
Something was wrong, and panic mode hit Toronto like an 18-wheeler straight to the face (we will get to that joke later). It was as if everyone on the team had just all of a sudden gone ice cold. It was a problem the team looked to fix quickly, as in a tight Eastern Conference a bad run this time of year could be a tough blow on the season as a whole.
Long story short the Maple Leafs couldn’t figure out the problem. They managed to beat the Oilers in overtime in their next game, but then came right back with a poor performance in a 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Then in the next game against the Devils on the 21st, they were at least able to bring the game to overtime and get a point out of it, but it wasn’t a win. Next came a loss to the Sharks, then a 4-2 loss to the Capitals the 25th.
The Maple Leafs had now gone 9 games with only one win. The playoff spot that looked so possible was fading away, as they now sat in 10th spot in the Eastern Conference. The trade deadline was also just two days away on the 27th, and rumours were swirling around this team due to the lack of success in the last month.
But Burke did nothing major at the deadline. No big-time player brought in to help fix this struggling team. Instead he made one trade, a 1-for-1 swap with the Lightning involving two promising players who primarily played in the AHL. Burke traded away defensemen Keith Aulie for forward prospect Carter Ashton. Ashton was a young forward with some skill and grit to his game, and the Leafs felt that with their deep group of defensemen they could afford to give up a player like Aulie.
So, no new players on the NHL roster after the deadline. Burke was trusting the team that had such a good first half of the season to turn the ship around quickly and go on a run to get back into the playoffs. Maybe with all the trade rumours gone the players could relax and get back to just playing hockey, and that would fix the problem. Their next game was the very next night in Toronto against the Southwest Division leading Florida Panthers.
Now in this journey through the last decade of the Toronto Maple Leafs there will be games that just have a bigger significance than most. Special games that have extra meaning in the journey, and this might be the first big one we have seen yet.
February 28th, 2012. The Maple Leafs, with only one win in their last nine games were looking to turn the page. Management was frustrated, the players were frustrated, and the fans were frustrated. There was still time left in the season, and the Leafs were by no means completely out of the race. They had to turn it around though, starting tonight against the Panthers.
Well, this game couldn’t have started worse for the Maple Leafs. Off the opening face-off the puck went back to Jake Gardiner and he passed it over to his defence partner Luke Schenn. Schenn went to make an outlet pass to one of the forwards, but completely missed the puck. A Panthers player picked up the misplayed puck and passed it to Marcel Goc who fired the puck off the post and in the net.
Just 13 seconds into the game and the Maple Leafs were already losing. Some fans weren’t even in their seats yet. Just a little bit over two minutes later the Panthers scored again to make it 2-0. The Leafs were down by two goals within the first three minutes of the hockey game.
Now the Maple Leafs didn’t end up getting crushed by a ridiculous score of 7-0 or anything like that, as the game only ended 5-3 for the Panthers. But that wasn’t even half of the story, and the score was just a side note. The bigger story was something that the team didn’t even do, it was the fans.
Now this was a fan base that was flat out pissed. The progress that was shown in the first half of the season had disappeared, as the terrible month of February had put the team’s chances of reaching the playoffs in a horrible spot. There were many factors at blame, it wasn’t one or two people who just went ice cold, it was the entire organization not performing well enough. But the fans needed someone to blame, someone to vent their frustration out on. So, in the third period, the fans at the ACC decided who to blame that day, and they made it known with a chant heard not only at the game, but even through fans televisions and radios. It was a simple chant, clear as day, and directed at one individual.
All head coach Ron Wilson could do was stand there and pretend to not hear it, but there was no avoiding it. It’s completely unfair to say the collapse was all Wilson’s fault, but he was an easy target to attack. The players heard it, Ron Wilson heard it, and GM Brian Burke heard it.
The Maple Leafs played in Chicago the next day and lost that one 5-4. That put the Leafs 11th in the Eastern conference and falling further and further away from a playoff spot with each loss.
Two days later, on Friday March 2nd, one day before a home game against the Montreal Canadiens, Burke did exactly what the fans chanted for him to do. He fired his head coach and long-time friend Ron Wilson.
Brian Burke decided that the replacement for Ron Wilson would be Randy Carlyle. Carlyle was the former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Burke was very familiar with him because of it.
When asked about the firing at a press conference, Burke made note of the chants made on the Tuesday night game saying “After the last home game it was clear to me that it would be a cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another game at the Air Canada Centre”.
However, that wasn’t the quote that made headlines. The one that did was what Burke said after he was asked if he had ever seen a team just collapse like the Leafs had in the last month. What he said was on the cover of just about every sports media outlet in the GTA.
“I’ve never had a team fall off a cliff like this before in my life. I’ve had dips, I’ve had slumps, I’ve had rough patches, but this is an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff. I’ve never seen it before in my life, I don’t know what happened”.
“An 18-wheeler going right off a cliff”. Print it, that’s the headline, and it would be a famous saying for years to come.
In bringing in Carlyle, the Maple Leafs remained adamant that they still believed they could fight back to get into the playoffs. In fact, in Carlyle’s first game behind the bench the very next night, they pulled out a 3-1 victory against the Canadiens. However, the coaching change wasn’t enough to fix the Maple Leafs. After their victory against the Canadiens in Carlyle’s first game, the Leafs went on to lose the next five, only picking up one-point in those five games via a 1-0 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
At the beginning of the five-game losing streak though, the Maple Leafs did make one significant roster move. They signed centre Mikhail Grabovski to a 5-year, 27.5-million-dollar extension. The centre from Belarus was having another very solid year and the team saw him as a solid 2nd line centre moving forward.
Carter Ashton, who the Maple Leafs got in the trade with the lightning for Aulie at the deadline also got to see some playing time in the NHL. However, in 15 games with the NHL team the forward was unable to record even a single point, so it wasn’t a great start to his NHL career confidence wise.
Long story short, Carlyle wasn’t able to come in and fix the sinking ship that was the Maple Leafs season. In the last 18 games of the regular season in which Carlyle was the head coach for, the team went 6-9-3. It simply wasn’t enough to get them back into the playoffs after the hole they created for themselves in February. The Leafs finished with 80 points, good enough for 13th in the Eastern Conference. Only the Islanders (79 points) and the Canadiens (78 points) had a worse record than them in the conference.
In terms of player performances, Kessel (82 points) and Lupul (67 points) both had very strong seasons, with Bozak, Grabovski and MacArthur not far behind in points. Young defensemen Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson both impressed with strong seasons and looked to become mainstays on the Leafs defence group moving forward.
So that was the positive stand outs, but there were also a lot of disappointing seasons on this team. The big free agent signing this year, Tim Connolly, had an inconsistent season and often looked uninvolved in games, only recording 36 points in 70 played. He just wasn’t the perfect fit on the first line between Kessel and Lupul that Burke was hoping for.
Luke Schenn did not seem to be progressing at the rate the team was hoping for, as he had a rough season and was one of the players that struggled the most during the team’s late season collapse. Both Mike Komisarek and Colby Armstrong struggled in big ways this season and seemed to have fallen out of favour in Toronto. Young players such as Ashton didn’t impress much with a late season stint with the team, while Joe Colborne was starting to look closer to being NHL ready with 5 points in 10 games in the NHL this season.
Then there was the goaltending situation. Jonas Gustavsson started the most amount of games this season with 36 (but appeared in 42 games in total) and posted a disappointing .902 save percentage. James Reimer started 34 games (low because of injury trouble) but only had a save percentage of .900, which had Leafs nation worried about the goaltender being a one-hit-wonder from the previous season.
So, it was back to the table for GM Brian Burke and the rest of his management team. The season was in every regard a failure, and changes had to be made. They had a new coach who Burke really believed in, but they just couldn’t come back with the exact same roster.
Burke took his time after the season ended to really look over his team. He was quiet while the NHL playoffs were on and was preparing his team for any situation that would come at them during the off-season. He did make one important signing that sort of went under-the-radar, as he signed Leo Komarov to a 1-year, $850,000 entry level deal. The 25-year-old forward was a former 6th round pick back in 2006 and management thought he was now ready to make the jump over to the NHL from the KHL, where he recorded 24 points in 46 games the previous season for Dynamo Moskva.
The Maple Leafs owned the 5th overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft, so this was going to be a big pick for the franchise. They then had the 35th pick, and then not another one until round 5, so there was a lot of pressure to strike gold on those first two picks.
The draft was on July 22nd and was hosted by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The first 3 picks in the draft took off Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray and Alex Galchenyuk from the board. The Islanders had the 4th overall pick and called the Maple Leafs at the start of the draft asking them to make them an offer if they wanted to move up one spot to number four.
The Maple Leafs, not knowing who the Islanders were going to take at number four, decided it wasn’t worth it to offer up a pick in the later rounds with the 5th overall selection to move up just one spot. The Leafs gambled that the Islanders weren’t going to take they player they wanted, and the gamble paid off.
The Islanders took defensemen Giffin Reinhart with the 4th overall pick, leaving the player the Leafs wanted available for them at #5. With that selection, the Maple Leafs took offensive defensemen Morgan Rielly. Rielly had an injury during his draft year and only played 18 games for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL last season but had 18 points in those games. The Leafs felt they had enough reason to believe he could be a future star on their blueline, and even said he was the number one ranked player on their draft rankings list, so high praise for the young defender was not hard to come by.
The rest of the Maple Leafs picks went as followed:
35: Matt Finn
126: Dominic Toninato
156: Connor Brown
157: Ryan Rupert
209: Victor Loov
Now all those picks except for Rielly happened on the 2nd day on the NHL draft, but Burke also dipped his toe into the trade waters with two trades on that day.
The first one wasn’t a massive deal, but it did send pending UFA goaltender Jonas Gustavsson to the Winnipeg Jets in return for a conditional 7th round pick in 2013. The Jets wanted the ability to speak with Gustavsson before the free agent period officially opened and now, they had gotten the chance to do so, as it looked like the Leafs were comfortable going into next season with a goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens.
As for the other trade, well this one was much more significant. After just four years with the team, the Maple Leafs decided to part ways with defensemen Luke Schenn. Schenn was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers and was now going to have the chance to play alongside his brother Brayden. In return though, the Maple Leafs got power forward James Van Reimsdyk, or JVR as he was often called and will be referred to as such in this series.
JVR was exactly the type of player Burke wanted to add to this team. A big, strong skating winger that could play in the top 6 and provide offence. He had a rough go last season dealing with injury troubles, but was a former 2nd overall pick who already had a 21-goal season under his belt. He was also just about to start his new contract which was for 6 more seasons at an AAV of just 4.25 million per season. If JVR could continue to develop the way the Maple Leafs believed he would, it was a contract that had the potential to be an absolute steal.
In the days between the draft and NHL free agency on July 1st, teams had the ability to buyout the remainder of a player’s contract, at a price of a cap hit penalty. On June 30th, one day before the NHL free agency period opened, Burke decided to buyout one of his recent free agent signing. Colby Armstrong, about to enter the third and final year of his contract he signed back in 2010, was bought out of the remainder of his deal and became a UFA. He never found a fit in Toronto and wasn’t able to provide the offensive along with the physicality like he did when he was with the Thrashers.
The pieces were now in place for Leafs GM Brian Burke to turn his attention towards the NHL free agent period. However, the NHL owners and the NHLPA had another big issue they had to deal with themselves, but we will get to that later.