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Who’s to blame for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ terrible February?

Harrison Mooney
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It's the 26th of February. On this day a month ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were tied for 6th place in the Eastern Conference after 49 games, with 55 points. Today, the Leafs find themselves where they were on this day a year ago: in 10th place after 62 games. They have 65 points.

At a crucial time, in the hunt for a playoff spot, the Leafs have picked up 10 points over their last 13 games. They're a league-worst 2-7-1 in their last 10. Their play has been, shall we say, inelegant.

It's not hard to see what's gone wrong. Simply, the team has been unable to keep the puck out of their net. They've surrendered 4 or more goals 6 times in the month of February.

Whose fault is that? It depends on whom you ask.

After Toronto's 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, a game that saw the Leafs down by two goals only five minutes in, coach Ron Wilson made it perfectly clear that he feels his goaltenders aren't giving the team a chance to win. From James Mirtle at the Globe & Mail:

"The two goals early in the game were stoppable chances," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said to open his postgame press conference. "They got saves at one end. We didn't. And we dug a hole because of that.

"We're kind of always waiting now for something bad to happen on the goal line and we've got to find a way to get over that. Simple.

"I don't know many coaches who actually have the answer to that. You can pull the goalie [but] I thought tonight I'll call a timeout and tell everybody to relax, that we can get out of this hole."

Wilson's words here serve two purposes: the first is to chuck a bus on James Reimer (and Jonas Gustavsson), and chuck it hard. The second is to deflect blame even harder.

Are we to believe, as Wilson indicates, that there's simply no answer for goaltending this porous, that it's either on his goalies to play better or on his GM to provide him with better goalies?

I'm not so sure. I can't help but think of Dave Tippett in Phoenix, whose goaltending has improved since Ilya Bryzgalov left, or Barry Trotz in Nashville, who has seemingly never not had an All-Star goalie. Are these teams really just turning up stud trappers by the bucketload, or is their coaching complementing the guy in goal, regardless of who it is?

I think it's the latter, and the fact is that the Leafs' defence is to the Leafs' goaltending as tanktops and jorts are to an obese man: horribly unflattering. You can cover for mediocre goaltending with strong systems play, and the Leafs just don't do that.

If you take a look at the Capitals' opening goal Saturday night, which comes less than a minute in, you'll see two things: the first is some abysmal post-to-post movement from Reimer, but the second is some brutal defending. See for yourself:

My favourite part is when Alex Ovechkin brings the puck across the blue line and 4 Leafs decide to close on him at once. Seriously, what kind of coverage is this?

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What the heck

Be sure to note the moment, just after this screencap is taken, when Marcus Johansson takes the puck below the goal line and the Leafs treat that part of the ice like the locals treat the Isla de la Muerta.

Sure, Reimer might want to work on pushing off, but Johansson should never have had that much space.

It's been this way all throughout Wilson's tenure. Regardless of who Brian Burke brings in to mind the pipes, Wilson's Maple Leaf teams have only ever served to turn goalies into laughingstocks. Shouldn't he take some blame for that?

Jeff Blair, also at the Globe & Mail, sure thinks so. Here's his take on the Johansson goal, from an article subtly titled "Why the Leafs should fire Ron Wilson":

There are two areas of the game that speak directly to any coach's command of the situation: special teams and the way a team starts. This was a huge game for the Leafs and they were on the back foot for the entire first period. The Capitals caught the Leafs unprepared, quickly taking off their starting line after the opening face-off and slipping on Alexander Ovechkin's group against Tim Connolly, Matt Frattin and Matthew Lombardi. Wilson started with the defence pair of John-Micheal Liles and Cody Franson and tried to get Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson out to match up but the pair were late getting into the play. Just like that, it was 1-0 Capitals.

So Wilson blames Reimer for the opening goal, but Blair blames Wilson. Who's got it right?

Maybe neither. The fact is that, at some point, the Leafs' struggles have to fall at the feet of Brian Burke, the man who's given mediocre goalies to a coach whose system hangs goalies out to dry. Clearly, Wilson and his goalies are incompatible, and Burke is the one that arranged this marriage.

Steve Simmons at the Toronto Sun would like to point out that, if you compare Brian Burke's results to John Ferguson Jr.'s, the current Leafs GM is left wanting:

Ferguson had little vision, no real grasp of the salary cap, made poor trades, was worse in the free agent market, came off as a stumbler in public and micromanaged the franchise and still had 90- and 91-point seasons with a team he inherited from Quinn. While times change this much is true: Should the Leafs garner 91 points this season, they'll play in the post-season for the first time since 2004. It's embarrassing to link Ferguson and Burke in any real way — when you see the kind of foundation and organization the Leafs are trying to build and recall that Ferguson inherited a 100-point team — but in a results-oriented business the numbers are the numbers.

In three of his four years as GM, Ferguson had more points than Burke has had in any Leafs season yet. And that isn't something anyone wants to be linked with.

This comparison is a massive slap in the face -- Burke is a better General Manager than John Ferguson, Jr, to be certain -- but the fact that it can be made says a lot about Burke's tenure. It may be time for him to face criticism for that.

There's still time for the Leafs to turn this around: they're only three points back of the 8th place Winnipeg Jets, with two games in hand, and their loss to the Capitals leaves them only two points back of 9th. But if they can't right the ship, someone has to take the blame, even if, right now, no one is quite sure who.

Follow Harrison Mooney on Twitter at @HarrisonMooney

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