The Toronto Maple Leafs have a storied history that goes back 100 years. As a member of the NHL’s Original Six, the Leafs won 11 Stanley Cups over three decades. After Toronto won their last Cup in 1967, they have failed to reach the Cup Final since. The Leafs advanced to the conference finals four times and lost all of them, most notably in the 1993 Campbell Conference final to the L.A. Kings. They also fell to the Vancouver Canucks in the 1994 West final, then the 1999 and 2002 East finals, losing to the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes respectively. Since the Philadelphia Flyers eliminated the Leafs from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2003 & 2004, the Leafs have endured a period of mediocrity from 2005-06 to 2015-16.
There are some reasons why the Toronto Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs 10 times since the NHL’s 2005 work stoppage. Perhaps the front office management was poor over that time, the pressure their players face in an NHL-hungry market, or their struggles to create a winning culture. With the Leafs set to begin their centennial season in October, here are the top 15 reasons why they have sucked since the ’05 lockout.
15. The Signing of Mike Komisarek
Defenseman Mike Komisarek was drafted 7th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2001. Komisarek recorded 58 points in six seasons with the Habs but walked away from Montreal to sign a five-year deal worth $22.5 million with the Maple Leafs. The former University of Michigan product could not live up to the contract he signed with Toronto. He failed to record more than ten points in a season and posted plus-minus ratings of minus-9, minus-8 and minus-13 over his first three years in Toronto.
Even though Komisarek played four regular season games for the Leafs in 2012-13, they bought out the final year of his contract during the 2013 offseason. Komisarek played 32 games in his last season with Carolina in 2013-14 and retired from the NHL after 11 seasons. Komisarek became an undergraduate student assistant for the University of Michigan Wolverines hockey team in 2015.
14. Trading Away Alex Steen to the Blues
The Maple Leafs drafted forward Alexander Steen as the 24th overall selection in 2002. The son of former Swedish NHLer Thomas Steen, he played his rookie season with Toronto in 2005-06. Steen scored 18 goals and notched 27 assists in 75 games that season, then recorded 35 points in 2006-07 and 42 points in 2007-08. On November 24, 2008, interim GM Cliff Fletcher traded Steen along with defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo to the St. Louis Blues for Lee Stempniak. It should be safe to say that the Leafs lost that trade after all these years.
Stempniak recorded 30 points twice as a Leaf but finished with a combined minus-19 rating in two seasons. Toronto traded Stempniak to the Coyotes in 2010 after two seasons. On the other side, Alex Steen went on to become a productive player with the Blues since they traded for him in 2008. Steen has recorded 355 points in eight seasons and reached the 60-point plateau twice in 2013-14 and 2014-15 with St. Louis.
13. The Tuukka Rask Deal
The Maple Leafs selected Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask 21st overall in the first round of the 2005 entry draft. But Toronto traded Rask before he could play his 1st NHL game to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft in June 2006. At the time of the trade, Toronto needed a replacement in net after goalie Ed Belfour left as a free agent. Although Raycroft won the Calder Trophy in 2004, his career quickly spiraled downward and his time in Toronto was disastrous.
Once Raycroft lost the starting job to Vesa Toskala in 2007-08, Toronto put him on waivers and bought out his contract after two seasons with the team. Tuukka Rask has been everything the Bruins wanted since they acquired him from Toronto. Rask has recorded 167 wins in his career, has a Stanley Cup ring with Boston and a Vezina Trophy to his name.
12. Players’ Off-Ice Issues
Being a professional NHL player in a Canadian hockey market is a privilege to those who’ve dreamed of playing for a Canadian team. The reality is that once they join a Canadian-based franchise, they have to deal with the pressure to perform on the ice and face the media away from it. Current and former Leafs players have dealt with media off the ice. On January 6, 2015, former Leafs forward Phil Kessel got irritated with Toronto Star reporter Dave Feschuk who suggested that Kessel was a troublesome player to coach, and thought his suggestion was an odd question to ask him after Randy Carlyle’s termination by the Leafs. Kessel felt disrespected by Feschuk after defending his question and said he was an idiot.
In March 2015, Kessel ripped the Toronto media for their “embarrassing” treatment & criticism of teammate Dion Phaneuf. Nazem Kadri has had his off-ice issues too. He served a one-game ban by the Leafs for arriving late to a team meeting.
11. Joffrey Lupul’s Recent Decline
In February 2011, the Maple Leafs traded defenseman Francois Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks for winger Joffrey Lupul, defensive prospect Jake Gardiner and a fourth-round selection in the 2013 draft. Lupul recorded 18 points in 28 games during his first season with Toronto, then scored 25 goals and 42 assists for a career-high 67 points for the Leafs in 2011-12. Lupul signed a five-year contract extension worth $26.25 million with Toronto, but his point production began to decline. Lupul recorded just 18 points in 16 games and scored three playoff goals through an injury-shortened 2012-13 season. In 2013-14, Lupul recorded 44 points in 69 games until his point totals dropped to 21 in 2014-15 and 14 during the 2015-16 campaign.
Lupul has never played more than 69 games in six seasons played with the Leafs and this past season he was out for most of the year due to sports hernia surgery.
10. The David Clarkson Signing
In July 2013, David Clarkson signed a seven-year, $36.75 million free-agent deal with Toronto after playing seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils. Clarkson scored 30 goals in 2011-12 and helped them reach the Cup Final later that season. Clarkson’s stint with the Maple Leafs got off to a bad start. In Toronto’s 2013 preseason matchup vs. Buffalo, Clarkson received a game misconduct penalty for leaving his team’s bench to participate in a fight involving his teammate Phil Kessel and the Sabres’ John Scott. The game misconduct resulted in an automatic 10-game regular season suspension for Clarkson.
Following his lengthy ban, Clarkson struggled to produce offensively with the Leafs, recording 11 points through 60 games in 2013-14 and scored 15 points in 58 games the next season. In February 2015, the Leafs traded Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for injured forward Nathan Horton. The swap helped Toronto remove Clarkson’s $5.25 million cap hit from his multi-year contract.
9. The Dion Phaneuf Trade
On January 31, 2010, Toronto GM Brian Burke made a trade with the Calgary Flames. The Leafs sent forwards Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers and defenseman Ian White to Calgary for blueliner Dion Phaneuf, forward Frederik Sjostrom and a prospect. Phaneuf previously played 378 games in five seasons with Calgary before the trade to Toronto. In June 2010, the Leafs announced Phaneuf would become the 18th captain of the franchise. Although Phaneuf recorded 30 points in 2010-11 and 44 points along with an All-Star game appearance in 2011-12, he finished as a minus player in his first two seasons as Leafs captain.
Phaneuf led Toronto to the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, scoring one goal and two assists in the seven-game series with Boston. The Leafs re-signed Phaneuf to a seven-year, $49 million deal the following season but scored a career-worst three goals in 2014-15. Toronto ended the Dion Phaneuf era by trading him to the Ottawa Senators in a nine-player deal this past February.
8. Signing Ron Wilson to an Extension
In June 2008, the Leafs hired head coach Ron Wilson after the San Jose Sharks recently cut ties with him after their run in the 2008 playoffs. Although Wilson failed to lead Toronto into the playoffs in his first three seasons as head coach, general manager Brian Burke signed Wilson to a contract extension in December 2011 after the Leafs sat in sixth place with a record of 18-13-4 in the Eastern Conference. The extension seemed to have backfired on Burke, as the Leafs went into a tailspin on February 7th. Toronto posted a record of 1-9-1 at that time which put them five points out of the East’s final playoff spot. With 18 games left in the Leafs’ 2011-12 season, Burke made the decision to fire Ron Wilson and promptly hired coach Randy Carlyle, his former bench boss in Anaheim. Wilson left Toronto with a record of 130-135-45 through four seasons.
7. Acquiring David Booth in 2014
David Booth began his NHL career as a forward with the Florida Panthers in 2006-07. Booth spent six seasons in Florida, scoring a career-high 31 goals in 2008-09. Although Booth signed a six-year extension with the Panthers after a 30-goal season, they traded him to the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. Booth notched 52 points in three seasons with the Canucks but missed 78 games due to various lower-body injuries. The Canucks bought out Booth’s contract in June 2014. But one month later, the Maple Leafs signed the ex-Canuck and Panther to a one-year deal worth $1.1 million. However, it appeared that the Booth signing wasn’t entirely worth it for the Leafs.
Booth recorded 13 points with a minus-8 rating in 59 games with Toronto. Booth did not return to the Leafs the following season and signed with Admiral Vladivostok of the KHL.
6. Their Goalie Carousel
The Leafs have tried to land a #1 goaltender since starting goalie Ed Belfour walked away from the club 10 years ago. In the decade since, Toronto had traded for netminders Andrew Raycroft in ’06, Vesa Toskala in ’07, Jonathan Bernier three years ago and Frederik Andersen. Raycroft did not last long in Toronto as Toskala established himself with a record of 62-54-20 over three seasons in blue & white. But Leafs fans will remember Toskala for allowing a weird goal on a bouncing puck against the NY Islanders in 2008. The L.A. Kings traded Jonathan Bernier to the Leafs in 2013. Bernier amassed a record of 26-19-7 in 2013-14 but struggled in 2014-15 with 21 wins and 28 regulation losses and won 12 times in 2015-16.
Toronto traded Bernier to the Anaheim Ducks for Frederik Andersen. Toronto also signed undrafted netminders Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens in 2009 and 2010, but they did not last long in Toronto. We’ll have to see if Andersen is the Leafs’ goalie of the future.
5. The Phil Kessel Trade in 2009
On September 18, 2009, the Boston Bruins traded Phil Kessel to Toronto for the 1st and 2nd round selections in the 2010 draft and a 1st round draft choice in 2011. The Bruins used their 2010 first and second round picks from Toronto to select Tyler Seguin and Jared Knight, then picked Dougie Hamilton in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. Boston drafted Kessel as the fifth overall selection in 2006 and played three seasons there. Leafs GM Brian Burke promptly signed Kessel to a five-year, $27 million contract.
Although Kessel hit the 30-goal mark on four occasions with the Leafs, his team missed the playoffs in five of his six seasons except in 2012-13. Kessel scored four goals and two assists in the seven-game series vs. Boston three years ago, but he reached a career-low rating of minus-34 throughout Toronto’s 2014-15 season. The Leafs traded Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins in July 2015 and helped them to a Stanley Cup championship last season.
4. Bad Management of Prospects in Their System
The Leafs have drafted the likes of Nikolay Kulemin, James Reimer, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and Auston Matthews over the past eleven seasons. However, the team selected some promising prospects in previous drafts that either struggled to crack Toronto’s starting lineup regularly or have not played at least one NHL game. For example, the Leafs picked Kenny Ryan, Jesse Blacker, Eric Knodel, Jamie Devane and Jerry D’Amigo behind Nazem Kadri in the later rounds of the 2009 draft. But Ryan and Knodel dressed for zero NHL games, while Blacker and Devane played three games combined and D’Amigo has one goal and two assists in his NHL career.
But there’s one draft bust that might stand out to Leafs fans, and it is Tyler Biggs. Toronto selected Biggs 22nd overall in 2011, but never recalled him from the minors and hasn’t played an NHL game. In 2015, they included Biggs in a trade that sent him, defenseman Tim Erixon and Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh.
3. The Firing of Randy Carlyle in 2015
Randy Carlyle became the head coach for the Anaheim Ducks for six seasons. He led the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup championship in 2007, until Anaheim GM Bob Murray fired him in December 2011. Leafs GM Brian Burke decided to reunite with Carlyle by hiring him as head coach in March 2012 as they led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup just five years before their Leafs reunion. Two days after Toronto hired Carlyle, he led them to a win against the Montreal Canadiens in his coaching debut. Despite the coaching change, Toronto failed to make the playoffs in 2011-12.
The following year, Carlyle led Toronto to a brief playoff appearance, then missed a great opportunity for consecutive playoff appearances in the 2013-14 season. In May 2014, the Leafs granted Carlyle a two-year extension. Even though Toronto began the 2014-15 season with a record of 18-9-3, the team relieved Carlyle of his duties in January 2015 after they has won just three of their previous 10 games.
This lack of coaching stability has undoubtedly hurt the Leafs.
2. The Game 7 Collapse to Boston
The Maple Leafs clinched a playoff spot in the East after a 48-game season in 2013, and would face the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Leafs overcame a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 against Boston on the road. Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski scored against Toronto goalie James Reimer to give Boston a 1-0 lead. Toronto defenseman Cody Franson scored two goals that made the score 2-1 until they scored two third-period goals from Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri that increased Toronto’s lead to 4-1.
But Boston responded with three goals from Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron in the last 10 minutes of the third to force overtime. Toronto forward Mikhail Grabovski failed to clear a loose puck that led to a turnover by Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner to Bergeron who scored in OT to eliminate Toronto in seven.
The Leafs have not made a playoff appearance since that bitter loss to the Bruins. This whole loss was the Leafs in a nutshell, as the franchise has simply not developed a winning culture. This game was evidence of that, as when faced with the chance to accomplish something amazing, they crumbled under pressure.
1. Lack of Patience In Rebuilding
There are many factors to Toronto’s all too familiar fate of missing the playoffs after a grinding regular season. Whether the Leafs just fall short of yearly expectations, or they’re unable to build a playoff calibre team, their recent period of futility has prolonged a 49-year Stanley Cup drought for the once-proud franchise. Since the 2005-06 season, the Leafs have finished in 3rd place or lower in the Northeast and Atlantic Divisions in eleven seasons, but they made the playoffs once in 2013.
The drawback to the Leafs missing the playoffs is that their ownership group would not generate revenue from playoff games through ticket sales, team merchandise or TV ratings. Leafs management was never patient with the team. Instead of initiating a rebuild years ago, they seemed to do whatever was necessary to try to squeak into the postseason.
Toronto has since learned and the way they’ve run their team in the past two seasons has shown they understand a proper rebuild will take time.
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