Domino of Crippling Proportions

Top 5 Events that Destroyed the Present Day Maple Leafs: Part1

You are going to hate me and hate life a little more after reading this.  Sorry. The 2015 Maple Leafs. How did we get here? How did it get this bad?  And for that matter, how has a team that spent the early part of the 2000’s racking up more playoff appearances than all but a handful of teams end up the joke of the cap era?  Bad UFA signings have been a hallmark of the Leafs since 2005, and although they create a lot noise and distraction, usually in the end they only amount to money and a roster space wasted for a few years.  You can blame coaching hirings and firings (everything is Carlyle’s fault! Everything!!!), but the mistakes that have resulted in a decade of futility can be boiled down into what I believe are the five franchise altering decisions made at the GM level. Long story short, moves that stink of impatience, short sightedness and possibly job-fearing panic decisions altered the course of the Maple Leafs into a downward spiral that is now a decade long. When we peer into the details of the moves and the subsequent trickledown effect of each, we can see just how much each mistake cost this team. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it didn’t take long to be destroyed. The post Pat Quinn Leafs were no different. Starting from 2005 onward, here are the stories around those decisions and just how big an impact they have had.  Hopefully the Shanahan era knows all too well what kind of damage was done and will not repeat history.

Rask, Raycroft, Toskala and the JFJ goaltending debacle

What could have been hailed as a long term success was impatiently and reactively turned into the single biggest hole in the roster for nearly ten years.

The Leafs, under JFJ, drafted Tukka Rask in 2005 – the post lockout Crosby draft.  The draft gods did no favors for Toronto that year (sound familiar?) but Dave Morrison and team managed to pick a stud goalie from Finland.  Goalies tend to be real wild cards at the draft and other than Carey Price, none had been chosen in recent memory who went on a straight and narrow path to NHL success.  Rask did, just not with Toronto.

In 2005/06, the Leafs then had both Rask and Justin Pogge playing lights out, both ending up backstopping their respective countries at the World Junior Championships. The Leafs suddenly had an embarrassment of riches when it came to goaltending prospects.  This was really the only position they were looking good at now, with the cupboard being quite bare from several years of deadline trades to try and get the Sundin-era Leafs over the hump.  These two kids made the future look okay.

Post lockout, a suddenly old looking 2006 Leafs team is not a contender anymore.  JFJ, presumably under extreme pressure from the MLSE board, makes a series of reactive moves that start the downhill slide… the beginning of the same slide we are on today in 2015.  The board + JFJ fire Pat Quinn and proceed to make a comedy of errors.

Goalie Debacle Part 1: Trading Rask for Raycroft

Tukka Rask was still in Finland, about to enter mandatory military service.  At the time there was some question as to whether he would be finished his service in time and able to sign an entry level deal prior to the expiration of his draft rights (2 years).   The Leafs clearly could not wait for Rask to be NHL ready. In 2007 hespent another year in Finland, post-Military and then 2 more in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL.  4 full years of waiting or as I like to call it…a proper development window for a young player!

Andrew Raycroft was 2 years (lockout in the middle) removed from winning the Calder Trophy and in ’06 was coming off a very rough season with Boston and had gone from stud goalie to a huge question mark. From 03/04 to 05/06, his numbers went from a 2.05 GAA to 3.71 and a Sv% from .926 to .879 – an enormous drop off.  Nevertheless, JFJ agreed with his scouts that Raycroft just had a bad year and was the answer to their prayers in net now and the future, and pulled the trigger on the trade.  At the time, knowing little about Raycroft,  I remember thinking the trade in concept made sense – “fast forward the development window and the risks associated with it and get this guy who had busted on to the scene 2 years ago and probably just had a bad year.  Okay. I’m down with it. I’m sure JFJ and pals heavily scouted and scrutinized Raycroft before making this move. “

Today, I look back and think they pulled this idea out of their rear ends at the draft and got summarily fleeced by Boston. Again.  Badly.

We all know the rest of this story.  Raycroft bombed in Toronto, was dumped after the following season, spending a few years as a back up before falling right out of the NHL. Rask has gone on to backstop the Bruins, win a Vezina, a Stanley Cup as a backup and make the finals as the #1.

Unfortunately, the story gets worse.

Goalie Debacle Part 2: Vesa Toskala

Not satisfied with dumping his best prospect in Rask the year before, JFJ yet again makes a draft day deal to shore up his goaltending, this time giving up his 1st, 2nd and a 4th in 2007 for Tukka Rask and the right to carry the baggage known as Mark Bell.  This was instantly considered an incredibly high price to pay for a career backup who was thought to have been pushing Nabokov for the #1 job, but really was just another middling netminder who showed flashes of brilliance.

The running total number of assets spent on goaltenders (excluding contract $$): Tukka Rask, 2007 1st, 2007 2nd and 2008 4th round pick.

The Leafs now had Raycroft AND Toskala for coach Paul Maurice to try and deal with.  It became a constant distraction who was the #1 and who was the backup (again, sound familiar???!!), starting opening night when Raycroft was given the start. The team was abysmal and the unraveling of a former contending team was all but complete. The questions in net made every Leafs fan bonkers, and it didn’t go away until JFJ was fired, Cliff Fletcher came in and bought out Raycroft the following summer.

Debacle Part 3: Burke’s misplaced faith in Toskala

The final part of the story is how Burke inherited Toskala and proceeded to spend 2 full seasons supporting him as the #1 goalie when he clearly was not only not capable of doing so, he couldn’t stay healthy enough to even try.  Burke’s long track record of miss evaluating goaltenders (Dan Cloutier, anyone?) came into play again and Toskala cost the Leafs two full years of futility.  He was good enough to keep them from hitting rock bottom but nowhere near good enough to give them a shot at the playoffs.

Toskala was unloaded in 2010 and was never seen again in the NHL after that.

Updated running total:

Rask, 1st, 2nd, 4th for ZERO. ZILCH. NADDA. NOTHING, and Toronto’s goaltending remained questionable until James Reimer helped stabilize things in 2011, 6 years later.

A Relatable Aftershock:

Whether or not you believed in James Reimer, Dave Nonis made the decision (with much arm twisting from Timmy Lieweke) to acquire Jonathan Bernier, resulting in even more assets traded away for goaltending help.   And while it’s still not safe to say the goaltending is finally not the primary issue of this team, it is far from a non-issue.  So even after a decade of spending assets to plug the most important job on the team, the jury is still out.

Lesson Learned:

Goalies are a highly unpredictable bunch.  Spending expensive assets to acquire a goalie of questionable track record is a recipe for disaster.  Doing it over and over again when the previous attempt fails is the purest definition of insanity.  It has been a buyer’s market for goalies since 2005.  Too bad JFJ went to the flea market with his gold shoes on and was easy prey for Boston and San Jose to be overcharged for cheap knock off garbage.

If you can stomach it, stay tuned, more to come……..

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