It’s no surprise that the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in must-win territory once again. The surprise, if any, is that it took them this long to dabble in irrelevance.
After jumping out to another hot start, the Leafs have gradually wilted away. Once clearly in command of their own destiny, they now sit two points outside the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the Leafs are playing some of their worst hockey since Randy Carlyle took over the head coaching duties. Toronto has lost its last four games by a combined score of 21-7 – hardly the numbers of a playoff-caliber team – and all of these loses have come against teams fighting the Leafs for the final playoff spot.
Toronto should have been able to beat the New York Rangers; they should have been able to beat the New York Islanders; they should have been able to beat the Carolina Hurricanes; and they should have been able to beat the Washington Capitals.
When you cannot beat the teams that you should be able to beat, how can you possibly beat the teams that you shouldn’t be able to beat?
Every one of these teams comes with their own problems, ranging from non-existent offence to weak spots on defence and in the net – areas where the Leafs enjoyed a clear advantage earlier in the season.
However, the story should be familiar by now: Toronto’s high-octane offence disappeared, the defence collapsed and the goaltending has been left to soak up the consequences.
There’s been increasing talk in the Toronto sports media about whether Carlyle is the right coach for this team. The problem, apparently, is that he’s trying to force the team into a rough-and-tumble style of game whereas its key pieces – Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner – are better suited to a counterattack style of game.
The one player who best fits the Carlyle mold, namely David Clarkson, is arguably the worst player on the team (or the most overrated player at the very least). It may be that he has no similar players around him, but instead of changing the team to fit one (mediocre) player, why not change that one player to fit the team?
Here’s the great news: we have Clarkson for six more seasons.
Tonight, the Leafs find themselves taking on the New Jersey Devils – Clarkson’s old team – at home. This is another team that they should be able to beat.
I wouldn’t hold your breath, however. You’ll probably need it to “boo” the home squad.
Follow me on Twitter for regular posts about sports (especially the Toronto Maple Leafs), politics and other news topics: @williamefwilson