One of the very few things Jay Feaster did correctly in his time as general manager of the Calgary Flames — and it's also the thing that ultimately cost him his job, if you can believe that — is that he started talking about “intellectual honesty.”
This after years of fielding feckless, noncompetitive teams that were plainly awful to all observers outside the organization, but which didn't matter because the team sold out every game anyway and therefore had every reason to continue to try to sell things out by marketing that they were “Going For It.” Thus keeping Jarome Iginla until the return for him was minimal. Thus signing big-money free agents. Thus finishing ninth or 10th in the West, instead of 13th or 14th so that they could begin their rebuild in earnest.
Intellectual honesty is something of which there is currently a paucity in the National Hockey League, and this is currently most true in the center of the sport's universe: Toronto.
The Maple Leafs, you see, are in a free-fall, having entered last night as losers of their last six games and seven of their last eight. Dating back to the end of February, they've won just two games out of 14 in regulation. During that time, they predictably went from “comfortably holding a playoff spot” to “sitting 10th in the East with more games played than anyone else with a credible claim to the final two wild card spots.” Which basically means that everyone in front of them will have to start punting games while they magically turn things on a dime and take about 12 points from their final eight games (to get to the likely playoff threshold of 92). Which seems unlikely.
And so with this disastrous month of March has come some rather predictable finger-pointing, both from fans and those within the organization. The brunt of it has fallen on poor James Reimer, who's been one of the best Leafs goaltenders in recent memory over the past few years (.914, very slightly above league average) and who for most of the season has been very good. But the latest stretch has been terribly unkind to him, as you might expect for a goalie who posted a .930-something save percentage in the first two months of the season. His .896 save percentage in eight games in March, has certainly cost the Leafs games.
But it's important to keep in mind here that these are games they should not, by rights, be winning anyway. This tough stretch for the Leafs would be a tough stretch for just about anyone, given how the schedule was composed: the run of futility began at San Jose, included an improbable win at Los Angeles, then cratered at Washington and Detroit. The Leafs then returned home to host Tampa and Montreal, traveled to New Jersey, and hosted the Blues, all in the span of 14 days. That's a lot of road work against a lot of teams that are far better than them.
Randy Carlyle said earlier this week that the team isn't getting the bounces it once did, and that really only makes sense, at least when your team defense is as woeful as the Leafs' is and has been. Dion Phaneuf has shouldered a lot of the blame lately too, and for good reason, because he's been notably underwhelming and he's also the team's captain. But when your No. 2 guy in terms of minutes is Cody Franson, the team was always asking for serious trouble when it comes to stopping guys from scoring on them.
That the city's turning on Reimer, who's so gone this offseason as to be comical, and Phaneuf isn't really surprising because all they see is goals going in while Jonathan Bernier was on the shelf, and D getting their doors blown off. But really, these games have been close on the scoreboard to some extent. Only the loss to San Jose was by more than two goals. So clearly something else has gone wrong here, and it should come as no surprise that this simple fact never really occurred to the people now screaming at players' wives on Twitter: This was a team that needed its goalies to stand on their heads to win, from the start of the season until now. The Leafs' long periods of losing (this current one and the one that stretched from mid-November until mid-December) were both typified by the goaltending trending downward.
Which tells you what? That Leafs fans should be thanking Reimer and Bernier for getting them this far. Without their strong performances at different points this season, they'd be a lottery team.
Some people (like Glenn Healy) have even taken to blaming Phil Kessel for things having gone sideways of late, though only in individual games and not as a whole, and really if your beef goes to one of the best forwards in the league for not playing enough defense on a team that plays no defense, then you need to consult with a brain specialist at your earliest convenience.
It's only been more recently that people as a whole — you know, outside of the alleged nerds who looked at the stats in February of last season and said, “This is all smoke and mirrors and this team is awful” — have started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Randy Carlyle is managing this team like someone who doesn't understand hockey in 2014.
The reasons are simple: They're almost certainly going to allow more shots than any other team in the decades since the NHL started tracking team numbers both for and against. Beyond that, and in fact along the same lines, he dresses players who don't have any business being in the league every single night because he wants to make this team “hard to play against” and is in reality creating the opposite effect. He blames everyone but himself for his problems. All that kind of stuff. He's really not a very good coach.
But much of the local media, predictably, has his back. This despite the fact that he's clearly lying to everyone about everything all the time, including his own players. It was reported yesterday that in a period in which the Leafs were outshot 21-5 by St. Louis, the team listed scoring chances at only 5-3 in favor of the Blues. Which tells you either the team is just making stuff up to motivate an overmatched roster, or has no idea how to track scoring chances in real life. A reasonable guess is that the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Part of the reason they have his back, by the way, is that GM Dave Nonis has successfully constructed a team that is and always was going to be the opposite of a winner. Damien Cox recently wondered aloud whether the departures of Leo Komarov, Clarke MacArthur, and Ben Scrivens (and so weirdly, not Mikhail Grabovski) saw the team lose the knowledge of how to win big games. “Those players weren't stars,” he wrote, “but was there a chemistry about the Leafs last season that allowed them to overachieve in a way this year's group hasn't.”
Well, first of all, if you think this Leafs team hasn't overachieved you might also want to consider checking in with that brain specialist. But that “chemistry” that seems to have evaporated for the Leafs? It's called “talent.” MacArthur and Komarov were allowed to walk in free agency for nothing, Grabovski actually cost the team money to be rid of him, and Scrivens (a backup goaltender, by the way) at least fetched Jonathan Bernier, who's the only reason this team didn't drown in a river of Carlyle's “shots don't matter” B.S. in December. It is, however, not clear that Scrivens is any worse or better than Bernier in the long run.
But yeah, about those three skaters the Leafs let walk this summer: By whom were they replaced? Grabovski's role was more or less gifted to David Clarkson, who has as many goals this season as Brian McGrattan and may well end up being the worst free-agent signing of all time when the dust finally settles. MacArthur walking allowed them to get Dave Bolland, who's fine but has been hurt all year, and still serves as a downgrade overall. Komarov has been replaced by Mason Raymond, picked up off the scrap heap, and a pretty solid contributor this season.
So really, two moves that were washes and two that were definitive downgrades, and no one outside the quote-unquote basement bloggers is saying, “Hey maybe can the general manager too.” Because if you're convinced the Leafs were a reasonable playoff team last year (and you shouldn't be), and clearly he did all in his power to bring in guys who are part unmitigated disaster and part lateral movement, then he took away the pieces that made Toronto a playoff team and replaced them with pieces that made them worse. Fireable offense. Or at least it should be.
So it really does all circle back to intellectual honesty. If this team's fans, coaches, and executives, and media observers were being honest with themselves, they would rightly see everything that's gone wrong — in the last two weeks, and Game 7 last year, and the middle part of this season — as being symptomatic of much larger issues with team construction and coaching, rather than a pitfall into which they have inadvertently stepped at exactly the wrong time. Even Bob McKenzie, perhaps the most reasonable observer of the game there is, is now excusing away not only Toronto's struggles, but the rest of the Canadian teams', as being the result of too much pressure.
One player recently ripped into his team for the way it's been playing lately, saying they simply haven't done enough to win recent games.
That would be Rob Scuderi of the Pittsburgh Penguins, bemoaning that his team has lost five of its last seven. This despite the team sitting second in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the entire league with 97 points. That's how you know when teams actually expect themselves to win, rather than hoping they do and looking around for excuses why they didn't. There's an accountability in Pittsburgh (which by the way shouldn't strike one as being a particularly potent Cup contender) that doesn't exist in Toronto. It's because they're not lying to themselves. And it's really that simple.