Over the past two weeks, much has been made about the Toronto Maple Leafs and their historical Game Seven collapse in 2013.
Believe me, I’m as ready to dispel that narrative as you are.
In the years since that followed, have you ever sat down and rewatched any footage from that fateful night? Or even given the roster the ol’ once-over?
Judging from how open of a wound that game still is for most people, I’d guess not.
Well, last night I took the plunge, crushing the entire 40-minute recap Sportsnet thrust upon us in one sitting. Boy, was it something. Frankly, the experience was cathartic, akin to checking in on the Facebook page of an ex you’re completely over.
Now, pointing out the many top-to-bottom differences between this current Leafs team and the 2013 version is an easy thing to do. Although, I’d argue the differences don’t truly sink in until you actually observe them in action. Because no matter what happens tonight, one fact remains concretely certain.
This is NOT 2013.
By all accounts, Randy Carlyle was and continues to be a thoroughly pleasant person to deal with. Coming in fresh off the mercifully departed Ron Wilson and his impression of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Carlyle’s lighthearted demeanour was a breath of fresh air.
I mean, who could forget comedic gems such as this?
And while Randy was undoubtedly a fine person to interact with on a human level during his tenure in Toronto, the man had absolutely NO CLUE how to coach a hockey team.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the deployment of his forward corps, coming to a particularly mind-boggling head in Game Seven.
That fateful night, the Leaf forward with the lowest amount of ice time was none other than enforcer Colton Orr. Patrolling a densely sheltered fourth line, Orr only saw the ice for a mere 6 minutes and nine seconds, in a game that happened to span the entirety of regulation along with six minutes of overtime.
Let’s just first acknowledge the logical gymnastics Randy must have performed to justify keeping a player like Orr in his lineup, in an elimination game no less, knowing he’d only throw him over the boards for roughly the equivalent of two commercial breaks.
Can you imagine if that happened today? Twitter would go medieval, demanding Mike Babcock‘s head on a platter. And funnily enough, that’s not the worst part.
You see, the Leafs forward who finished with the second-fewest minutes that night was Leo Komarov, clocking in at 8:23.
Keep in mind, we’re not talking about present-day “cause Nazem Kadri to go pointless for an entire month because of my offensive impotence” Leo. No, this was 2013 Leo. The Leo whose brash playing style and defensive prowess captured the collective hearts of an entire city.
And speaking of defensive prowess, leave it to Randy to botch that too.
Despite having a front row seat to his team slowly handing their season’s defining game over to their opponents in an unprecedented fashion, Carlyle chose to sit Leo for practically the entire third period.
You know, the period where the collapse occurred. Good call, coach.
On an unrelated note, allow me to present a brief list of fellow Leaf forwards who received more ice time than the beloved Estonian-born Finn from Russia: Jay McClement, Joe Colborne, and Matt Frattin.
Both McClement and Frattin roughly doubled Komarov’s minutes, logging totals of 15:58 and 17:03 respectively.
Just let that sink in for a moment. Matt Frattin logged over 17 minutes of ice time IN A GAME SEVEN. Regardless of tonight’s outcome, Leafs Nation should at least have the comfort of knowing they won’t be subject to similar horrors.
Oh, I must remind you that Kadri, fresh off a point-per-game rookie campaign, played just under 14 minutes, good for the fourth-lowest mark on the team.
Now, this is the good stuff.
For as long as most of us can remember, Toronto’s blueline has been nothing short of an abject disaster. No period of time has such a reality been more apparent than during the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
In the regular season, Randy graciously blessed fans and spectators alike with such classics as first-pairing RHD Michael Kostka, 18 minutes a night of Korbinian Holzer, and frequent Toronto Marlie Jake Gardiner, to name a few.
In fact, were it not for taking a puck to the skull two nights prior, Mark Fraser would have very likely carried his Game Six ice time total of 18:15 into Game Seven.
Now, I can’t deny that Fraser could indeed “skate”. Just, only in the most abstract use of the term.
Which brings us to Game Seven.
Shortening The Bench
In the postseason, most coaches shorten their benches as the game progresses. With their season hanging in the balance, the best course of action is to ride your best players. If not, what’s the point of even having them?
Well, Randy grabbed this mentality by the throat and cranked it up to 11.
As the defacto number one, Dion Phaneuf was handed the most minutes of all blueliners, clocking in at a whopping 28:17. Even back then, contending teams simply don’t send Phaneuf out for nearly half an hour in a game seven.
On the opposite end of the spectrum sat the duo of Ryan O’Byrne and John Michael-Liles. Both were members of a scarcely used third pairing, finishing the night with respective totals of just 13:11 and 13:28.
Say what you will about the Leafs D corps of the present, but I’d take Roman Polak over either of those dudes eight days a week. And this comes from someone who has written multiple articles focused solely on how Polak is no longer an NHL-calibre player.
Jumping forward to tonight, the Leafs are set to ice a third pairing which prominently features our collectively adopted son, Travis Dermott.
A former second-round pick, Dermott was drafted by this very organization, spending the ensuing two years being closely developed in-house, for the purpose of allowing him to successfully blossom as a future blueline staple. Precisely zero assets were spent to acquire his services, with the Leafs now having their future top-four pillar locked down at a cap hit of just $863,333 until 2020.
I emphasize this for the sole purpose of illuminating just how drastically different the circumstances surrounding the defensive depth (Dermott) of the current group are compared to O’Byrne and Liles’.
The latter two were acquired by the Leafs for draft picks, assets the team didn’t exactly hold a surplus of at the time.
Liles came to Toronto in June of 2011 for a second-rounder, with then-GM Brian Burke re-signing him the following January to a 4-year extension bearing a cap hit of $3.875 million.
Thanks to Carlyle, his defensively desperate lineup had their $4 million former All-Star puck mover shackled to the third pair. Now THAT’S some sound logic.
For O’Byrne’s services, Dave Nonis was somehow duped into spending a fourth-round pick. That’s quite a hefty price to pay for a historically mediocre defender who ultimately washed out of the NHL altogether that very summer at age 28.
Half a decade later, Toronto’s third pair costs a combined cap hit of $1.863 million. Safe to say business has changed.
James Reimer was perfect and those who disagree with such a statement aren’t worth associating with.
As the puck drops and the Leafs put their season on the line for what may be the final time, remember just how much has changed since the last time they were here.
Because, if the Leafs lose tonight, it will be an undeniable shame. Albeit, one with a silver lining of hope.
Hope that simply did not exist on that muggy May night five long years ago.
Thanks for reading!