Toronto Maple Leafs: Who is to Blame for This Poor Start?

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The Players

Oct 8, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; A goal is disallowed after Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher (11) crashes into Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier (45) at the Air Canada Centre. Montreal defeated Toronto 4-3. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When you go through two head coaches and the firing of a General Manager there is only so much blame that can be placed on the people who assemble team. Eventually the players are going to have to take the blame for their play and not let someone else take the fall. When Ron Wilson was fired, Brian Burke said that it was a tough decision because he did not want to let the players off the hook. Imagine the message it sends to the players even though you played poorly someone else took the fall for you so you get another chance.

We saw against the Boston Bruins that this team simply would not compete at a time when they needed to come out with energy in front of their home crowd. On Saturday night the team held a closed door meeting after their loss to the Bruins this is what a couple of players had to say.

What seems to bother fans is when players say over and over again what the problem is, but the product on the ice never changes. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not playing inspiring hockey, they lack intensity and passion, but they play in the most passionate hockey city in the world. How can that be? Do not blame the fans if they refuse to cheer for a team that does not deserve it because it is not their fault that you play with no energy.

Here is probably the best example of how much effort the players play with.

There are just so many problems with this play. Jake Gardiner, one of the fastest players on the Leafs has the ability to turn the jets on and create plays with his speed and puck moving ability. When he goes into the corner he slows down and does not realize that the Bruins forward had chased him into corner (maybe he did not realize that players are supposed to hustle?).

He then shuffles the puck away allowing Gregory Campbell to take the puck behind the net, Dion Phaneuf goes after Campbell while Gardiner tries to cover Paille. Campbell passes it off to Paille then Campbell goes to the net untouched while Phaneuf and Gardiner do nothing to stop a great spin around pass by Paile to set up Campbell for a goal. I have no idea what Gardiner and Phaneuf were thinking on that play, but what we all saw were two players that looked like they gave up on the play. There is simply no excuse for that effort.

It did not get better for Gardiner in that game.

This was the icing on the cake in that game. Hamilton makes a heads up play to get the puck and blows past Jake Gardiner who makes no attempt to slow down Hamilton and it results in a goal that made Jake Gardiner look like Jeff Finger (yes I went there). The best part is that this is not the first time that Dougie Hamilton has manhandled Jake Gardiner:

People were always quick to defend Jake Gardiner when he was a healthy scratch but now he is taking a majority of the criticism (I guess people get tired of complaining about Phaneuf all the time?). It is not all Jake Gardiner’s fault, but he has been far from perfect this year after he was signed to a long term extension.

One of my favourite analysts from TSN Ray Ferraro had this to say about the Leafs effort this season during Leafs Lunch on TSN 1050.

What this team needs to realize is that it is not enough to get the puck, skate in and get a quick shot on net and that’s it. You have to battle for the puck, push players off the puck and get shots off where the goalie gives off a rebound. I see too many times where a player skates in takes a shot that the goalie easily stops and holds for a whistle. Why not hold off on a shot let your linemates set up in the zone and get a cycle going. Is this what the coach’s want or do the players want to get off the ice?

Oct 28, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mike Weber (6) defends against Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Stephane Robidas (12) during the second period at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I understand that the Leafs wanted to improve the leadership by adding veterans like David Clarkson, Stephane Robidas, and Roman Polak. However the core players have to be the one to set the example on and off the ice. If a player like Dion Phaneuf refuses to play with intensity then the younger players will likely follow his lead. The fact that the Leafs wins only come when Phil Kessel scores which shows how important Kessel is to this team. He may not be a vocal leader but the team loos for him to be the best player and if he is not on his game the rest of the team suffers which should not happen.

There was that time in the lockout shortened season where Kessel had a tough time scoring. Although he was not scoring he was doing everything he could to score and it rubbed off on the rest of the team who picked up the slack. Eventually Kessel got his scoring touch back and it was a major reason why the team made the playoffs. As a team you need your top players to go out of their way to set an example for the team all the wise the team will find it hard to be motivated.

Oct 28, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul (19) during the player introductions against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Buffalo 4-0. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Out of all the players it seems like Joffrey Lupul is the one player that can be a leader on and off the ice. He tries to get the fans into the game and he plays with intensity, some say he should be the captain and I think that if he was not always injured then you can make that argument. Honestly, Dion Phaneuf was named captain too early and from what I have heard from some people, Phaneuf is not the easiest guy to get along with. But I have to credit him for being able to play in this market, be the captain and embrace this city because other players would not be able to do this.

We can criticize the players all we want but in the end the coaching staff prepares them for the games and they try to execute the game plan. If the plan is not suitable for the group or is not good enough. People underestimate the job of the coaches and management because in the end they put the team on the ice and they make the decisions with the roster.

The players better be careful because if Carlyle is fired and nothing gets better the media will be in full attack. Look at the Washington Capitals and the number of coaches they went through. Eventually Brendan Shanahan will realize that maybe the recent collapses were not on the coach and maybe the core of the team is just not good enough and a change needs to be made.