The Toronto Maple Leafs Decade Journey: 2012-2013

July 1st proved to be another busy day for Brian Burke, but with already one major addition to the core with JVR, it was a day to add to the depth of this team. Penalty killing specialist Jay McClement was signed to a two year, 3-million-dollar contract. Matt Frattin also earned himself an NHL contract with a solid season last year with 15 points in 56 games. That contract was for two years with an AAV of 875k.

Then on July 3rd, Burke made a very underrated signing as he signed minor league defenceman Michael Kostka to a 1-year, 600k contract. Kostka registered 38 points in the AHL last season and was hoping to fight for a spot as maybe Toronto’s 7th d-man in the upcoming season. Burke also signed young defensemen Korbinian Holzer to a 1 year, 575k contract.

Burke was then quiet for a little while as one of his key free agents, Nikolai Kulemin, was still an unsigned UFA. On July 20th though, the GM was able to keep Kulemin in Toronto by signing him to a two year, 5.6-million-dollar contract. Last season was a down year for Kulemin with only seven goals, as he netted 30 goals the season before that, so the Leafs were hoping for a big bounce back year.

There were some small signings the rest of the off-season for the Maple Leafs. They linked UFA depth defensemen Mark Fraser to a one-year contract worth 600k, and extended now back-up goaltender Ben Scrivens for another two seasons at an AAV 612k. Along with the entry level contracts for players such as Tyler Biggs and 5th overall pick Morgan Rielly, however the sense was that after an injury filled season last year Rielly was likely going to go back to the WHL to play another season there before starting his NHL career.

Moving into September, there were still some things to take care of, including RFA Cody Franson still without a contract. Sadly, those issues had to be put on a pause, because there were bigger issues at play.

The NHL and the NHLPA were still without a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the NHL said it would hold a lockout if one was not reached by the current CBA expiring date of September 16th. The negotiations didn’t sound promising, as September came and all reports were the two sides were still far apart on a number of issues, including revenue share being a major issue.

On September 15, 11:59pm, the NHL officially announced a lockout as no new deal was reached.

Now there really is no point in going over all the drama that unfolded with the NHL lockout, as it was a mess. The only hockey news fans got to experience for months was rumours on different elements in the CBA, rather than the usual rumours of signings and trades hockey fans were accustomed too. The only important matter to discuss for the sake of this article is that the CBA lasted over 100 days. That’s 100 days of no NHL hockey, as fans watched their favourite players sign in Europe so they could play hockey and stay in shape in case a CBA was agreed upon and the season could be saved.

The words hockey fans had been patiently waiting for happened on Jan 6, 2013, as news broke that the NHL and NHLPA had reached a tentative agreement on a new CBA. The official agreement happened six days later on January 12th, and just like that the NHL was back.

Now because of all the time lost to the lockout, this season of NHL hockey was going to look a lot different. Instead of 82 regular season games, it would be a 48-game regular season. No preseason games either, just a very short training camp (not ideal for the still very new head coach Randy Carlyle). Also, because of the season starting in mid-January, the Winter Classic game scheduled for the Maple Leafs and Red Wings looked like it was to be moved to Jan. 1 of next year (which it was).

However, in-between the time period of Jan. 6 and Jan. 12, the Toronto Maple Leafs were front and centre in the headlines. While the fans of the hockey world were gearing up for hockey to be back, the ownership group of the Toronto Maple Leafs were thinking a little differently.

Back in August, Bell and Rogers purchased a controlling share of the ownership group on the hockey team, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). The sense was as soon as they had the chance, they would start overviewing the organization from top to bottom. They discovered that near the top of the franchise they had a voice they didn’t particularly like, and on the morning of January 9, just 10 days before the NHL was set to finally get going, MLSE dropped a bombshell.

They relieved team president and GM Brian Burke of his duties and promoted assistant GM Dave Nonis to the GM position.

The news came as a shock to the hockey world, but MLSE stated this was a decision they had been pondering about for some time now. They said they wanted a different voice to direct the team, and Burke wasn’t that voice. Burke’s role was reduced to Senior Advisor, but he had to have been crushed by the news. There was no doubt he wanted a little more time to finish the job he had set out to do in Toronto.

Burke’s time as Maple Leafs GM ended with a record of 128-135-42. He was unable to get into the playoffs with this team.

The big rumour surrounding the decision was that Burke wasn’t willing to pull the trigger on a trade to possibly land Vancouver starting goaltender Roberto Luongo. Nonis was the man who brought Loungo to Vancouver while he was the GM of the Canucks, so maybe he would have a different approach to a trade like that moving forward.

So, with less than 10 days to go until puck drop on a new season, the Maple Leafs now had a new man in charge with Dave Nonis. Meanwhile, with only a short training camp Carlyle only had a very limited time to try to get his roster in order.

Now, Nonis didn’t take too long to start making some minor roster moves to his team. Cody Franson still needed a contract, and him and Nonis were able to work out a 1 year, 1.2-million-dollar contract. Nonis also traded away Matthew Lombardi to the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for a 4th round draft pick.

As training camp moved on, one thing started to become clear to head coach Randy Carlyle, he wasn’t a big fan of Tim Connolly. The centre still had one year left at a cap hit of 4.5 million but his sometimes unwillingness to play a solid defensive game wasn’t something Carlyle was pleased with. On January 17th, the Maple Leafs placed Connolly on waivers, which he cleared. He was then assigned to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL where he would play out the final year of his contract.

Finally, January 19 came, the day hockey fans had to wait longer than usual for opening night in the NHL. The Leafs were starting the new season on the road in Montreal on Hockey Night in Canada. Some of the new players in the lineup included JVR, Jay McClement, Leo Komarov and Michael Kostka (who impressed the coaching staff and made the opening night roster).

The Maple Leafs got off to a strong start in that game as Nazem Kadri, one of the Leafs players really trying to prove himself as a dominant NHL forward this season, got the first goal of the game on the powerplay about five minutes into the first period. Tyler Bozak added another goal on the powerplay in the second period to make it 2-0. Ben Scrivens who made the start in this game did allow one goal in the third period to Brian Gionta, again via powerplay, but that was all the Habs would get in this game as the Maple Leafs won 2-1 to open up the new season.

The very next day, Nonis decided to lock up one of his core offensive pieces, as he signed Joffery Lupul to a 5 year, 26.25-million-dollar contract extension. Lupul had been an extremely strong fit in Toronto’s top six since he was acquired and now, he was set to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for a long time.

The Leafs then hosted their home opener on the 21st but were on the other side of a 2-1 game, losing this one to the Buffalo Sabres

In the next game, which was against the Penguins, Joffery Lupul took a slapshot from captain Dion Phaneuf right off the arm and left the game. Lupul ended up breaking his arm and was set to miss around six weeks of action, so the Maple Leafs recalled Matt Frattin from the AHL.

With only a 48-game regular season, teams could not afford a disastrous start as there wouldn’t be much time to catch back up. The Maple Leafs had a slightly above average first month of only seven games, going 4-3. On the last day of the month, the Maple Leafs claimed forward Frazer McLaren off of waivers from the San Jose Sharks. McLaren was one of the toughest players in the NHL and at 6’4, 225lbs, was one of the best fighters in the league. Him, alongside Colton Orr on the Maple Leafs 4th line, gave the Leafs one of the toughest duo’s in the entire NHL.

February turned out to be a very solid month for the Maple Leafs going 9-6-0. That brought their overall record to 13-9-0. That record had the Maple Leafs sitting in 4th in the Atlantic division, yet in a solid playoff spot.

The Maple Leafs had put themselves in a decent spot to have a shot at the postseason, just like they had the previous season, and we all remember how that ended up. The Maple Leafs were playing well and had to do everything they could to avoid another late season collapse.

In early March, the Leafs traded away Mike Brown to the Oilers for a conditional 4th round draft pick. They extended Holzer to a 2-year, 1.575-million-dollar contract as well and inked former draft pick Josh Leivo to an entry level contract.

March was going to be huge month for the Maple Leafs. The second last month was going to be a chance for this team to either strengthen their position in the standings heading into the final month of play, or they would start to slide down the standing, leading to a very stressful month of May.

Incredibly, the Maple Leafs played well in the month on March, going 7-3-4 while dominating with a record of 6-1-2 on home ice. Only minor roster moves happened in March, with the team trading away Steckel to the Ducks for prospect Ryan Lasch and a 7th round draft pick, as well as signing goaltending prospect Garret Sparks to an entry level deal.

On April 1st the last month of the regular season began, and because of the odd way the schedule was made because of the lockout, it was a full month of hockey instead of a week or two like it normally is. As of the morning of April 1st, the Leafs were tied with the Senators for the 4th best record in the Eastern conference. The excitement level in Toronto could not be contained anymore. The fans were aware of the late season collapse of this team last season, but with only 12 games to go in the regular season, the playoffs seemed all too realistic.

James Reimer was having a breakout year as Toronto’s starting goaltender. Nazem Kadri was also having a solid year and was finally starting to look like a solid NHL player. Lupul was now back from his injury and playing very well and JVR was really starting to fit in on this team. The Maple Leafs were trying to stay calm, but it wasn’t really working, as they could smell playoffs.

The trade deadline was late this year, once again thanks to the lockout, and was held on April 3rd. The Maple Leafs, looking to add some depth to their roster, acquired defensemen Ryan O’Byrne from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a 4th round draft pick. O’Byrne was a decent stay at home defensemen that could be a serviceable 6th defensemen if someone were to go down with an injury.

In the Maple Leafs first eight games of the month, they went 4-3-1. Not an incredible record, but the reality was it was good enough, as that was setting them up nicely for extending their season.

On April 20th, the Leafs headed to the nation’s capital to play the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, so that meant Hockey Night in Canada. Because of some other results around the league, a win in this game would officially book Toronto’s ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The game was physical and remained tied well into the 2nd period, and then the Maple Leafs started to take over.

With only a couple minutes left in the third period the Leafs were up 3-1. Lupul was able to steal the puck off a misplay by a Senator’s defenceman and get on a breakaway, which he scored on to make it 4-1 Maple Leafs.

The team knew it, the fans knew it, and all that was left was to count down the seconds.

The Video above is the highlights from that game, but what you should really do is to 5:30 into the video.

“They can print the tickets at home. The playoffs are coming up Toronto”.

Those magical words by Bob Cole were words Leafs Nation has been dreaming about for years. No one cared it was a shortened season, they were headed to the playoffs and the entire city was buzzing with excitement.

The Leafs only won one of their last three game after the victory to Ottawa, but it didn’t really matter. The team was preparing for whoever they were going to have to play in the playoffs, which they actually had to wait a while to find out. Once the season ended the matchups for each playoff series were finalized. The Leafs finished 5th in the Eastern Conference, meaning they were going to have the play the 4th place team, which happened to be the Boston Bruins.

This series had all the major storylines you could ask for. Two original six teams squaring off in what was sure to a very physical matchup. The Bruins played a more physical, dump and chase game throughout their entire lineup, while the Maple tended to try to beat you with more skill and speed. But make no mistake, with heavyweights like Orr and McLaren on Toronto, they would definitely be able to go toe-to-toe with them in terms of physicality.

There was also the storyline of Phil Kessel versus Tyler Seguin. Seguin being the player that the Bruins selected with the draft pick they had gotten from Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, these two would always be connected to one another.

The Bruins had the playoff experience that the Maple Leafs couldn’t match. The last time the Bruins missed the playoffs was in 2007 so their roster had a really good idea of what playoff hockey is. Many on the Maple Leafs have never seen playoff hockey before, maybe none more important than goaltender James Reimer.

The Bruins only finished 5 points ahead of the Maple Leafs in the standings during the season but were the favourites in this series. The Leafs remained confident though, stating they were ready to go out and prove everyone wrong in this series. They also received some encouraging news before game one as Tyler Bozak, who missed the final two games of the regular season due to injury was set to return to the lineup. With all the talking out the way, the series was set to open up in Boston on May 1st, and to say Leafs nation was excited would be a vast understatement.

Game 1.

The Maple Leafs came out firing, and their early aggressiveness earned them a powerplay just over a minute into the game. On the powerplay the Leafs took advantage of a point shot towards the net and as it led to a scramble in front where JVR was able to tap home the loose puck. That goal gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the series.

Then the Bruins started to wake up. Wade Redden tied the game up 1-1 with a slapshot and then in the final minute of play JVR rings a shot off the crossbar, only to have the Bruins come back and score to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.

The Bruins would add two more in the 2nd period to take a 4-1 lead and it looked like the Leafs didn’t have an answer to their defensive play. They had some chances but weren’t able to get another goal as Boston took game 1 by a score of 4-1.

Game 2.

The last thing Boston wanted to do was to let Toronto win one of the first two games to steal home ice advantage away. The Maple Leafs, wanting to do just that, made a couple small moves to their lineup. In came Jake Gardiner, Ryan O’Byrne, Ryan Hamilton and Matt Frattin to try to give the team a bit of a new look.

The first period was evenly matched with neither team getting on the scoreboard. In the 2nd it was Boston who was able to strike first with Nathan Horton capitalizing on a rebound. Then all of a sudden, Joffery Lupul seemed to take over. He scored the games next two goals and finished the game with eight shots in total.

Phil Kessel finally found the back on the net on a breakaway less than a minute into the third to give the Maple Leafs a two-goal lead, but the Bruins answered right back with a goal in the middle of the 3rd period to make it a 3-2 game. It seemed as if the Leafs were hanging on for dear life after that, until Grabovski and JVR teamed up for a nice passing play which resulted in JVR scoring a beautiful goal while falling over to give the Leafs a 4-2 lead with just over three minutes to go in the game. The Leafs would hold onto that lead, and head back to Toronto with home ice advantage and the series tied up a 1.

Game 3.

The building was loud in Toronto for the team’s first playoff game in a very long time. Boston was able to silence that crowd though as by the mid-way point of the 2nd period the Bruins had a 2-0 lead.

That was until young defensemen Jake Gardiner was able to beat Tuukka Rask with a wrist shot to remind Leafs nation what is was like to score a home playoff goal. However, less than 1 minute later the Bruins struck back to make it 3-1, and the crowd was once again silent. The Maple Leafs fought back hard, but Boston took this game 5-2 and took a 2-1 series lead.

Game 4.

The Maple came out fast, and within 3 minutes into the game Lupul gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead off a nice pass from Phil Kessel. Then with 1:28 left to go in the first period a point shot from Cody Franson found its way through everything and past Rask for a 2-0 Toronto lead.

Only 32 seconds into the 2nd period the Bruins were able to cut the lead in half. Boston then scored two goals to take the lead, but before the 2nd periods ends Clarke MacArthur ties it up for the Maple Leafs and the game heads into the 3rd all even.

Midway through the 3rd period a slapshot from Bruins forward Milan Lucic hit Mark Fraser straight in the head and he had to leave the game and that would be the end of his series with a fractured skull.

Neither team scored in the third period, which meant for the first time in this series the game was heading to overtime. In overtime the Leafs had some amazing chances, but Rask stood tall. Then on one play captain Dion Phaneuf made a risky pinch that lead to a two-on-one for the Bruins in which David Krejci was able to beat Reimer for a win and a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Game 5.

The Maple Leafs were in pure survival mode. The first period went scoreless, and the first goal of the game was actually a shorthanded breakaway in the 2nd by Tyler Bozak and it gave the Leafs the all-important first goal of the game.

Early into the 3rd period, MaCarthur extended the Leafs lead to 2-0. Bruins captain Zdene Chara did get one back for Boston, but Reimer was excellent late and held on and the Maple Leafs push this series to a sixth game with a 2-1 victory at TD Garden.

Game 6.

This is the definition of playoff hockey. Tough, tight-checking hockey that results in a close, low scoring game. The first two period were action packed, but not a single goal was scored. Early in the third period however, a wrist shot by Nazem Kadri hit off Dion Phaneuf (who was crashing the front of the net) and found its way past Rask to give the Maple Leafs the lead.

The ACC was buzzing. People started to really think that a game 7 in TD Garden was a possibility. Then when Phil Kessel found a rebound at the mid-way part of the 3rd and buried it, the ACC exploded. Down 3-1 in the series to being up 2-0 in game 6 as they tried to force a game 7.

Reimer did everything he could as the Bruins poured it on, and with only 24 seconds left in the game Lucic was able to tuck one behind Reimer to ruin the shutout. However, it was too little too late, as a gusty blocked shot by Kulemin sealed the deal for the best words in sports to become reality.

Game 7.

We will start things off at the end of the 2nd period. The Maple Leafs and Bruins were in the middle of a hard-fought game in which the Leafs were winning 2-1 thanks to two goals by Cody Franson. Who knows what was said to the Leafs in the 2nd intermission, but they sure came out firing on all cylinders.

Phil Kessel scored his 4th of the series less than three minutes into the third, and that really silenced the Bruins faithful. Then just a couple minutes later, Kadri picked up a rebound off a Phil Kessel wrist shot and buried it to give the Maple Leafs a 4-1 lead. You likely could hear a pin-drop in TD Garden it was so quiet.

Leafs nation on the other hand was not so quiet, as they had every reason to believe this team had just upset the big, bad Bruins in 7 games. A three-goal lead seemed like a sure thing, and fans were checking the scores of the Rangers-Capitals series to see that it would likely be New York who the Maple Leafs were moving on play.

However, the Bruins didn’t give up. With just over 10 minutes to go the Bruins were able to get one back to make it a 4-2 game with still half a period to go. The collapse didn’t really start there though, as the Leafs were able to shut the door for almost another eight minutes, until with less than two to go, Lucic put one past Reimer to make it 4-3.

It was time to start worrying, as the Bruins were all over the Maple Leafs. With the net empty, the Bruins threw everything at the Leafs net, until a point shot from Patrice Bergeron found its way through numerous bodies and past Reimer, and just like that the 4-1 comfortable lead had vanished.

If the story of this game was in the 3rd, the conclusion had to come in overtime. The Leafs actually had a couple nice chances in overtime but just couldn’t find a way to get it past Rask. Someone who did find a way to put the puck in the net happened to be the same person who tied the game late in the 3rd. It was a weird scramble in front of the net, but Bergeron found the loose puck and Reimer had no chance to save it.

From being down 4-1 in the third, the Bruins had come all the way back to tie the game and win it in overtime. It was already being labelled one of the biggest collapses in NHL history.

The defeat was a crushing blow to a fanbase who had waited what seemed like forever for a taste of the playoffs. They were the underdogs going into the series, so it was no massive surprise in the that the Bruins were the team moving on, it was just the fact of how it happened. The Maple Leafs and their fans would have been thrilled to know before the series started that they would even push the series to seven games, as that could have been a victory in itself. It honestly still was, fighting back down 3-1 in the series is no small victory.

It would have been easier for Leafs nation to have gone into TD Garden for game seven and get blown away 5-0 in that game. In that case the team with more playoff experience simply taught them a lesson about playoff hockey, and the Leafs would have been ready to move on and prepare for next season. However, when your team is winning 4-1 in the third period, it’s understandable to realize why the fan base thought they had it. All the Maple Leafs fans out there watching the game were ready to face-off against the Rangers in the next round, and the celebration started too early.

It wasn’t until the Bruins lost in the finals to the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks that Maple Leafs fans really started to look forward to the off-season instead of simply cheering for whoever played against the Bruins the rest of the playoffs. The only thing the Leafs really did during the playoffs roster wise was extend enforcer Colton Orr to a two year, 1.85-million-dollar contract.

There was a lot of things to look back on this season and smile about. Nazem Kadri had finally broken out with 44 points in 48 games this season and was only about to turn 23, so there was still a lot of room to go. JVR fit in nicely to the team’s top six forward group and looked to be the big power forward this team had longed for over many seasons.

Cody Franson put up 29 points in 45 games and had become a regular of the defensive group and a great offensive defenceman. Phaneuf, regardless of some of his defensive struggles, put up 9 goals in 48 games, which would put him on pace for in-between 15-20 in a full season.

Besides some minor tweaks made in the season, this team that finally made the playoffs was built of players that Brian Burke had brought in, so Dave Nonis had yet to really put his stamp on this team. However, about a week before the NHL draft was set to take place, Nonis made a splash with a trade with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Leafs traded away backup goaltender Ben Scrivens, depth forward Matt Frattin and a 2nd round pick to the Kings in return for goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Bernier was one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL but was stuck behind one of the best goaltenders in the league, Jonathan Quick.

In only 14 games during the lockout shortened season, Bernier posted a 1.87 GAA and a .922 save percentage. He was set to become a restricted free agent this summer, but the Maple Leafs were sure they would be able to work out a deal. At only 24 years of age, Bernier was thought of to have the potential to become an elite goaltender in the NHL, and Toronto seemed excited at that prospect.

However, this deal came with its fair share of criticism. I think almost everyone agreed that the Leafs got better from this trade, and now have a young goaltender ready to become one of the league’s best. Yet some people thought they already had one, as James Reimer had just enjoyed his breakout season which featured a .924 save percentage during the regular season, and almost and identical .923 in the seven playoff games against Boston.

Nonis was trying to make it clear that this trade was not a slight on Reimer at all, stating that Reimer’s starting job wouldn’t just be handed to Bernier. One did have to wonder though, why a GM would go out and get one of the best young backups in the league (who was tired of being a backup to Quick) to not have him be your team’s starter and see what he’s got. Either way, it looked as if the Leafs would enter next season with two very promising young goaltenders doing a 1A, 1B rotation until one of them wins the job outright.

The following week was the NHL draft, and the Maple Leafs were going to be drafting 21st overall. With that pick the Leafs selected centre Frederik Gauthier from Rimouski of the QMJHL. Gauthier was a big strong centre who was great at face-offs and can play a physical style of hockey. His skating absolutely needed some work, but if all were to go perfectly, he would look great in a future 3rd line centre position on the Maple Leafs.

The rest of the Maple Leafs picks went as followed:

82: Carter Verhaeghe
142: Fabrice Herzog
172: Antoine Bibeau
202: Andreas Johnsson

The Maple Leafs ended up trading away their second-round pick in this draft, along with a 4th this year and next year, to the Blackhawks in exchange for centre Dave Bolland. Bolland, who was about to enter the final year of his contract, put up 14 points in 35 games last season.

None more important though than the cup winning goal in the third period of game six against the Bruins.

If you don’t remember the goal, fast forward to the 2:00 minute mark of this video.

Now after the draft, usually all that is left is the preparation for free agency, but this year was different. Due to some salary cap conditions in the new CBA, each team was allowed two buyouts that don’t count against the team’s cap hit moving forward, like how normal buyouts work. This presented an opportunity for Nonis to terminate the contract of not one, but two players he either didn’t want any more or just simply wanted his cap space for other uses.

Nonis decided to use both of them. First, Nonis decided to buyout the last year of Mike Komisarek’s contract. Komisarek never found his game here in Toronto, and quickly fell out of favor with Randy Carlyle as he only dressed in four games all year with the Leafs and even spent some time with the Marlies.

The Second one was a bit more surprising as Nonis bought out the remaining four years of Grabovski’s contract. Only having completed the first of a five-year contract, Grabovski had a down year with only 16 points in all 48 games with the Leafs. With Kadri taking a big step forward, Bolland and McClement in the 3rd and 4th line centre roles, and Nonis being very open about wanting to bring back pending UFA Tyler Bozak, there didn’t seem to be room for Grabovski anymore.

With the buyout’s of Komisarek and Grabovski completed and some valuable cap space open up, Nonis was setting himself up for a very busy off-season. The Leafs had some big pending UFA’s to deal with like Tyler Bozak and Clarke MaCarthur. Even more with the pending RFA’s including Nazem Kadri, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson and newly acquired goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Not to mention the fact that this was now a playoff team that wanted to continue adding to the roster, so the free agent market had to be considered as well. The Maple Leafs had a lot of cap space and could get very creative with what they could do with it. It was about to be Nonis’s first off-season as the Maple Leafs GM, and everyone was excited to see how he would try to improve this team.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s