Maple Leafs look broken in loss to Florida Panthers

Ken Campbell
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A Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers a week before Christmas. If there was any game that had, “give-the-company-tickets-to-the-guy-in-the-mailroom” written all over them, it was this one. Good thing, too. The suits could not have been more depressed if the Toronto Stock Exchange dropped 500 points.

Speaking of dropping points, the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing that with incredibly horrifying regularity. There is something very wrong with this team. Its season is slipping away before its very eyes. The defense corps looks skittish and unsure of itself, its star forwards seem to show up when they feel like it and their goaltending can’t possibly hold up the way it did earlier in the season.

In fact, this season has the same feel as the 2011-12 season for the Leafs. You know the one. It was the one former GM Brian Burke said was, “akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff.” Except this one is even worse. Two seasons ago, the Leafs were 7-3-1 through October and were 16-13-3 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference the morning of Dec. 18. This season, they were 10-4-0 in October and first in the Eastern Conference, and wake up this morning 17-16-3 and in eighth place in the east. Yes, their 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers was their fifth game in seven nights. But every team goes through those kinds of stretches – and it was the Florida Panthers.

Or as goalie James Reimer said, “Injured, tired, it’s all B.S.,” (And being a Christian, he actually said “B.S.”) “Those are just excuses. We should be able to win these games.”

If the Maple Leafs don’t make the playoffs this year, and with a 7-12-3 record since the end of October that prospect is very possible, they can look back to the nights of Dec. 16 and 17 and lament the lost points. Realistically speaking, the Leafs should have earned three points out of games against an injury-depleted Pittsburgh Penguins and the Florida Panthers. Yes, because they’re the Florida Panthers. But the Leafs came out with zero, which seemed to match their level of effort.

When it comes to troubling trends, take your pick. Of the six defensemen dressed for the game, Jake Gardiner was fifth in ice time and was benched for parts of the third period. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, the players around whom the Leafs seem intent on building their hopes, were invisible (Kessel) and shaky (Phaneuf). Phaneuf was caught pinching on the Panthers first goal and his giveaway led to the third goal, although he was kind of hung out to dry on an “I-don’t-want-it-you-take-it” drop pass by Mason Raymond.

And what might be the most concerning issue is what to do about David Clarkson? There is irrefutable evidence this team is better without him in the lineup than when he plays. Clarkson has been suspended for 12 games this season and the Leafs are 8-4-0 in those games and have outscored their opponents 42-28. In the games in which he has played, the Leafs are 9-12-3 and have been outscored 77-54.

Clarkson is having a difficult time fitting into a set line and, more importantly, he looks as though he’s pressing to earn the $8 million he’ll be paid in salary and signing bonus this season every time he steps on the ice. It seems every hit has to be a thunderous one, every physical battle has to make a statement and every shift has to be a beacon of excellence. The more he tries to accomplish, the less effective he is.

It’s not a good trend. When Clarkson came to the Leafs, many expected to see a 25-goal scorer. But Clarkson is not that. For one, he doesn’t get near the power play ice time he received in New Jersey. When he scored 30 goals two seasons ago, he received 3:03 per game and last season he played 3:33 per game and was playing with Ilya Kovlachuk. This year, he’s receiving 1:46 per game on the second power play unit. For another, he’s not a 25-goal scorer. When a player signs a contract like the one Clarkson did, expectations change, but the player doesn’t. That being said, he has to be better.

And his teammates have to be better, and quick. Coach Randy Carlyle was remarkably patient with his team and even gave them the day off Wednesday. He said they, “tried to play shinny against an NHL hockey club,” but was otherwise not downtrodden about his group. It’s pretty obvious he doesn’t want to kick them when they’re down. Cody Franson said the Leafs made a bunch of “uncharacteristic” mistakes, but the only problem is the way they played was quite characteristic of their effort and execution since Nov. 1.

Many more games like this and the Leafs foray into the playoffs in 2012-13 might be remembered as a one-off.