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Your! Call: Who is to blame for the Leafs' late struggles?

Shane McNeil, TSN.ca

3/31/2014 1:53:30 PM

Depending on one's level of optimism, the Toronto Maple Leafs are either running out of time or are completely out of it in their search for a playoff berth.

The Leafs have lost eight straight games and have tumbled all the way from second in the Atlantic Division to two spots back of the final Eastern Conference wild card position.

Reminiscent of the team's struggles in February of 2012 that saw them drop 10 of 11 games and fall from fourth in the Eastern Conference all the way to 10th, it appears that the proverbial 18-wheeler is going off the cliff once again, to borrow former Leafs general manager Brian Burke's immortal turn-of-phrase.

The 2011-12 failure would cost head coach Ron Wilson his job, with Randy Carlyle taking over before the Leafs' March schedule even began.

Burke, too, would become a casualty in the season's aftermath. He would be replaced by his colleague - Dave Nonis – prior to the lockout-delayed start to the 2012-13 season.

The Leafs are still mathematically in the thick of the wild card hunt – two points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets entering Monday night. But with games-in-hand to be factored, the hill could become steeper still.

Regardless of whether the team makes the playoffs or not, they have certainly done themselves no favours with the slide. With the skid, the Leafs have lost the possibility of home-ice advantage against the likes of the Montreal Canadiens or Tampa Bay Lightning and have painted themselves into a black-and-gold corner that would likely see them draw the Boston Bruins (again) in the first round - that is, if they even make the playoffs.

So who takes the blame this time around?

Traditionally, the coach is the first to shoulder the load. So does Carlyle wear the horns? He has been a polarizing figure if former players like Mikhail Grabovski are to be believed and as the old adage goes, "you can't fire the team."

Dion Phaneuf has drawn his share of criticism over the streak as well, making notable on-ice gaffes against both the Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis Blues and taking additional heat after refusing to speak to the media after the streak hit seven. He has posted a minus-8 rating in the Leafs past three games.

Nonis, too, could shoulder some of the blame for failing to add to a team that many had predicted was overachieving earlier in the season. Not only did Nonis not make a trade leading up to the Mar. 5 trade deadline, the Leafs' war room was shown deserted in the minutes leading up to 3pm et that day. A lack of deadline activity is nothing new to Toronto as the team has avoided big name additions in each of the last three seasons, but should Nonis have pressed harder to improve his club?

Or does the blame fall to the team's long-term core?

The Leafs have five forwards - Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak – locked up over the next four seasons beyond 2013-14 at a combined cost of just under $27 million. While Lupul's productivity has actually trended upwards during the slump (three goals in his last five games and six points over the eight games), the big line of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Bozak has not been up to the lofty standards it set earlier this season.

Kessel has scored just twice in eight games and the entire line has combined for just 12 points with only one player (Bozak) having managed a multi-point game over the stretch, and that only once. As for Clarkson, his career lows in goals and assists this season speak for themselves.

The blame game could go on and on.

The team has given up three goals or more eight straight games. That statistic could be pinned on the defence corps, overall team defence, or a four-game stretch without Jonathan Bernier.

So who takes the blame for the Leafs' late-season struggles? As always, it's Your! Call.