Mirtle: Maple Leafs in midst of another disastrous collapse

The Globe and Mail

Carolina Hurricanes defensemen Brett Bellemore checks Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul during the 2nd period at PNC Arena.

(James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports)

If it wasn’t before now, it’s clear the Toronto Maple Leafs have a problem behind the bench.

And while it took Jake Gardiner being a healthy scratch for no particular reason on Thursday night, these are issues that have been there resting below the surface for a while.

The Leafs lost in horrific fashion for the third consecutive game to a team behind them in the standings on Thursday, dropping a 6-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes that was another gong show from the opening faceoff.

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This was the Leafs 22nd game without a regulation win in their last 24 outings, and it pushed them out of a playoff spot – and all the way to 10th in the conference – for the first time this season.

Yes, winning a pile of shootouts has allowed them to paper over their record in that span but seemingly the only ones fooled have been a few of the players, who are only now starting to grasp the desperation of their situation.

This is a bad hockey team playing very bad hockey right now, a group being made worse by some of the bizarre decisions made by head coach Randy Carlyle night after night.

Smaller, offence-first defencemen like Gardiner and John-Michael Liles have been benched in favour of underperforming big men like Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger, despite the fact the blueline’s play with the puck has been a huge contributor to their possession woes.

Enforcers are dressed every night, but their line almost never sees the ice, with Colton Orr’s 33 seconds of ice time in Thursday’s first period evidence of a trend that only puts more pressure on the other units.

And useful player after useful player has been ostracized, pushed out or limited under Carlyle’s watch, with former Leafs like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur speaking publicly against the coach’s methods and current players like Gardiner and Nazem Kadri now being spun through the trade rumour mill due to their incompatibility with the system.

(Grabovski and MacArthur, by the way, are having terrific seasons elsewhere, with the first on pace for more than 60 points and the second on course for a career high 28 goals.)

A few developments in the last week alone speak to the issue.

Last week during the Winter Classic, Liles was traded to the Hurricanes after spending months in Carlyle’s doghouse, and he returned the favour by scoring Carolina’s fourth goal and playing 18 minutes in the win over his former team on Thursday.

This week, the Leafs demoted skilled 22-year-old centre Peter Holland because the coach couldn’t find a hole for him in a lineup that sorely needs his offence.

Then, Gardiner was sat out against Carolina so that stay-at-homers Fraser and newcomer Tim Gleason – the return in the Liles deal – could both get into the lineup.

The common denominator behind every move – both in the off-season (i.e. signing David Clarkson to a cap-killing deal) and now during the year – has been skill out and brawn in, and the results have been predictable.

Toronto was outshot 2-to-1 for the better part of Thursday’s game by a Carolina team that has itself been outshot overall this season, a regular occurrence for the Leafs given they allow a league-high 36 shots a night.

There were giveaways aplenty, brutal positioning on many of the ‘Canes goals, and the Leafs laboured to exit their zone and enter the offensive one with control of the puck.

They looked, in other words, almost as if they were entirely bereft of skill, a group of Jay McClements, Clarksons and Frasers – which they may well turn into should the tearing down of the roster continue as it has.

“For whatever reason, nobody seems to have answer to it right now, we’re doing things standing still,” Carlyle told reporters in a familiar refrain after the game. “We’re watching teams skate.”

Leafs general manager Dave Nonis has to this point backed Carlyle, both explicitly in the press by saying the coach is safe and implicitly in almost every roster move made since he took over. Privately, however, he has to at least be questioning if he has the right man as coach, especially given how deep this team’s problems are rooted.

Forget the analytics – which Nonis and the rest of the management team abhor – that so accurately forecasted their demise; the Leafs have been outscored 102-69 since the start of November and are failing on almost every basic level possible.

They can’t score. They can’t defend. They can’t make simple plays with the puck, and they suddenly look very much like the disjointed bunch that they were under former coach Ron Wilson by the end.

Their record these last 31 games, in fact, is worse.

If Nonis – who “celebrated” the one-year anniversary of his promotion to GM attending this punch to the gut in Raleigh – can’t see that his coach has played a role in that demise, it’s a bigger problem than simply an inability to turn around this season.

After all, giving up on young players like Gardiner and Kadri for their failures under this coaching staff could cripple the organization for a lot longer than the next 37 games.

Their development into something more is one of the few hopes the Leafs have that the future will be brighter, and it’s being stifled under this coaching staff.

Of all the many, many problems the Leafs have right now, that just might be the biggest.

Which is saying something.

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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