Think 2015 will be the year the Leafs win it all? Think again. In fact, if history repeats itself, it will be yet another April lacing up the cleats and hitting the links. Of course, you're probably thinking, "Well, that was insightful, Steve... Don't the Leafs always miss the playoffs?" Of course, it doesn't take a genius to figure that out; you just have to refer to NHL.com or the SIHR website and the statistics are all there. Glancing at the Leafs' output the past decade, however, it makes one wonder if there are supernatural forces at work. Some sort of curse perhaps...
Indeed, it is not the end result, but rather the course of events in Leafs Nation that is rather distressing. Since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, each Leaf season has followed one of two patterns: 1) Toronto starts the season strong and fades badly down the stretch, or 2) Toronto starts the season sluggish and makes a desperate last-ditch attempt to qualify for the playoffs. Despite the different paths to the finish line, the end result is always the same: failure. Don't believe me? Let's take a gander at every Leafs season since the lockout.
In the first year after the lockout, Pat Quinn's Leafs gave every indication it was going to be an exciting season as they roared out to a 24-15-3 record. Mats Sundin was having another stellar season, and Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle looked like the second coming of Ian Turnbull and Borje Salming. Then it all fell apart. From January 10 to March 4, Toronto went 3-13-2, which included both eight and five-game winless streaks. The Leafs then went on a desperate 14-5-3 run to save their season, but it was too little, too late as the team missed the dance by two points. As the years went on, the mid-season swoons would only become more catastrophic.
Paul Maurice took over the coaching reigns from Quinn in 2006, but his tenure started off sluggish as the Leafs coasted to a 17-17-6 mark the first 40 games of the schedule before going gangbusters in the second half (23-14-5). End result? Missed the playoffs by one point.
In 2007-08, the Leafs stumbled out of the gate with a terrible 16-21-8 mark. While that would have been good enough to challenge for a playoff spot in the old 21-team NHL when almost everyone played meaningful hockey in April, this edition of the Leafs would have no such luck. Despite a 20-10-2 record between January 15 and March 22, the Leafs still missed the cut by 11 points.
By 2008-09, Paul Maurice had been replaced by Ron Wilson, but the Leafs' pattern of starting slow and finishing strong held true. The Leafs again struggled in the first two-thirds of the season, compiling a record of 17-23-8, before waking up with a slightly better 17-12-5 mark from January 29 to April 11. This time the Leafs missed the playoffs by 12 points. The following year, it seemed as though the Leafs' skates were encased in cement as they stumbled to a 3-11-6 start. By late January, the Leafs stood at 19-32-12, and were almost assured of missing the playoffs a fifth straight year, but they closed out the year 11-6-2, missing the playoffs by 14 points. In 2010-11, Ron Wilson's boys got off to an unimpressive 19-25-5 start, but when all hope seemed lost they racked up a 18-9-6 record to finish the season. Same result though: no playoffs, this time 8 points out.
By 2011-12, the Ron Wilson-Brian Burke regime was teetering on the edge of collapse. Both coach and general manager seemed assured of keeping their jobs, however, when the Leafs stormed out to a 9-3-1 start. The good times kept on coming too. On February 6, Leafs fans could not have felt more confident their team's long playoff drought was going to end. The Leafs – sitting at 28-19-6 after 53 games – had just beaten the woeful Edmonton Oilers 6-3 in Toronto, and James Reimer had shutout both Pittsburgh and Ottawa the two previous games. In fact, thanks to Reimer and partner Jonas Gustavsson, the Leafs had picked up four shutouts in their last eleven games, putting to rest, for a time, the talk of Toronto's porous defense. Then the Leafs flew into Winnipeg and lost 2-1 on February 7. No big deal; it had been three games in four nights for the Leafs, so they were probably a little tired. Then it was off to Philly two days later where the Leafs fell 4-3. Again, no big deal, but when the struggling Montreal Canadiens came to Toronto on February 11 and shut out the Leafs 5-0, alarm bells were sounded, and they continued to ring loudly for the next month. In what could best be described as a bloody catastrophe, the Leafs went into a 7-18-4 tailspin and missed the playoffs by 12 points, despite having sat nine games over .500 in early February. The incredible collapse would cost both Wilson and Burke their jobs.
In 2012-13, the latest NHL lockout drastically reduced the schedule, and wouldn't ya know, the Randy Carlyle-led Leafs looked pretty good for 48 regular-season games and another six playoff games. Then it happened. Every Leaf fan knows what it is: game seven, TD Garden, Boston, Mass. With less than 11 minutes remaining in the game, the Leafs had an insurmountable 4-1 lead, but the Bruins' Nathan Horton scored at 9:18 to make it 4-2. Then, with just 1:22 left, the Bruins wiped out the two-goal deficit on goals by Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron to take the game to overtime where Bergeron earned the admiration of Leaf-haters everywhere by scoring the winner at 6:05. It is interesting to note that game seven was the Leafs' 55th game that season, right around the point the Leafs usually collapse after a solid start.
Undaunted, the Leafs licked their wounds and burst out of the gate winning ten of their first 14 games to start the 2013-14 season. There was a bad mid-season swoon that seemed to indicate the Leafs would follow the usual script once again, but no, this time they rebounded nicely. In fact, after 68 games (36-24-8 record) it was just a question of who they would be facing in the first round. Of course, the inevitable collapse just got underway a little later than usual, game #69 to be exact, a 4-2 loss to Washington, followed by seven more regulation losses, two wins in a row, and then four straight losses to cap the season. Looking back, it is mind-boggling how a team twelve games over .500 in March could still miss the playoffs by nine points!
One could point to the Leafs' porous defense the past decade as the main reason for their late-season collapses. After all, playoff contenders tend to tighten up on the back end in the second half of the schedule, and teams that get away with letting their goaltenders stop 35 or 40 shots a night in the first half are dead in the water come March. The Leafs regularly rank near the top (or is that bottom?) of the league in shots against. From 2005-06 to 2013-14, the Leafs' defense has ranked 21st, 25th, 27th, 30th, 29th, 25th, 29th, 18th, and 26th. The only year the Leafs didn't finish in the bottom ten was the one year they made the playoffs. The Leafs' 24th-place ranking 34 games into the 2014-15 season does not bode well for hockey in Toronto come May. Offense sure isn't the Leafs' problem. During the same period, the Leafs' offense has ranked 11th, 6th, 12th, 10th, 26th, 23rd, 10th, 6th, and 13th. This season, they are again near the top of the NHL in offense.
While a shoddy defense would be the rational explanation for the Leafs' inability to qualify for the playoffs, a more whimsical explanation could be some sort of curse that has haunted the franchise the last ten years. The Montreal Forum had helpful ghosts that surely had some small role in helping the Canadiens win all those Stanley Cups. The mind-boggling collapses that befall the Leafs' each and every season suggest the Air Canada Centre is perhaps haunted by its own, albeit evil poltergeist – perhaps the spirit of Harold Ballard sporting the paper bag Roger Neilson once refused to wear – unwilling to release the Leafs from their curse. Since I started writing this short article, the Leafs have lost three in a row, and concerns have been raised about yet another collapse. If you happen to visit the ACC anytime this season, and you notice a portly old gent floating around with a bag on his head, inform him his ghost costume needs some work, and that he should give the Leafs and their fans a break just this once.