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Siegel: Maple Leafs 2011-12 season in review

Jonas Siegel, TSN.ca
4/9/2012 1:07:26 AM
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Only one word is needed to sum up what took place in 2011-2012. Cruising toward their first playoff berth since the lockout, the Leafs came unglued in stunning fashion, ultimately missing out on the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.

Here's a look back at the highs and lows of this year's edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What Went Right

Rookie emergence: 21-year-old Jake Gardiner was a standout from the first days of training camp, combining an icy poise with an effortless stride. Gardiner averaged over 20 minutes per game in his first NHL season and was surprisingly consistent – late December being the exception – gaining steam offensively in the second half with six goals and 16 points in 33 games.

Breakout year: There was an air of confidence about Joffrey Lupul in September which suggested he was primed for a big year. Healthy for the first time in years, the 28-year-old broke out in big-time fashion, becoming a first-time All-Star en route to a career-high 42 assists and 67 points. If not for a late-season shoulder injury, Lupul may have finished among the top-10 in league scoring and might have even hit that preseason prediction of 30 goals (he finished with 25).

First half powerplay: Under the watchful eye of assistant coach Scott Gordon, the previously dormant unit was third-best in the NHL (21.6 percent) at the midway point.

Step up: It'd be difficult for even the most ardent opponent to deny the exploits of Phil Kessel this season. Kessel was among the league leaders in goals (tied for sixth) and points (sixth), establishing career-highs with 37 goals, 45 assists and 82 points. The 24-year-old also became the first Leaf since 2001-2002 to hit the 80-point plateau. His defensive zone intensity needs work, but considering the offensive leap he took forward and Randy Carlyle's looming influence, maturation in that capacity seems well within the realm of possibility.

Firepower: Nik Kulemin went from 30 goals last year to just seven this past season, but the Leafs still scored with the best of them. With 227 goals, the club ranked 10th overall in 2011-2012.

Third Seasons: He's not an ideal fit for the first line centre gig, but Tyler Bozak did post some very respectable numbers in his third NHL season. The 26-year-old totaled 18 goals, 29 assists and 47 points, all career-highs. Carl Gunnarsson meanwhile, was a quiet, but consistent performer, logging more minutes than any Leaf but Dion Phaneuf.

Captain: He's not the perfect defender and may not be ideal for the number one defender role, but Phaneuf does deliver big minutes for the Leafs (10th in the NHL) against the opposition's best every night. The offensive production which gradually disappeared the past two seasons also returned; Phaneuf finished in a tie for 6th among blueliners with 12 goals, tied for 12th with 44 points.

Five Points – Top Performers

1. Joffrey Lupul – 25 goals, 42 assists, 67 points

2. Phil Kessel – 37 goals, 45 assists, 82 points

3. Mikhail Grabovski – 23 goals, 28 assists, 51 points

4. Jake Gardiner – 7 goals, 23 assists, 30 points

5. Dion Phaneuf – 12 goals, 32 assists, 44 points

What Went Wrong

An Epic Collapse: The defining stretch of the season - 19 losses in 24 games - cost Ron Wilson his job and eliminated the Leafs from the postseason for the seventh consecutive season. Defeats piling on defeats, the club became despondent, disillusioned and completely without confidence. At no point were they able to slow the tide of adversity and reel their season back in.

Goaltending: The snowball effect of the Leafs two-month tailspin began in goal. Neither James Reimer nor Jonas Gustavsson could establish any stability between the pipes with a series of shaky starts putting the club behind the eight-ball early in games. Reimer rarely looked comfortable in the aftermath of his suspected concussion, the ensuing months a constant challenge with confidence. Gustavsson showed signs of progress in his third NHL season – notably in January – but proved too fragile and inconsistent to handle the starting load. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning had worse goaltending this season.

First Half Penalty Kill: At its worst in December (64 percent), the ailing unit posted a miserable 73.5 percent efficiency in the first half (41 goals against), worst in the NHL.

Concussions: Reimer's head injury proved the most devastating, returning in distressing fashion late this season. John-Michael Liles and Colby Armstrong also struggled to regain past form following their concussions. Liles was en route to a career year – 21 points in 34 games – before missing 16 games with the injury, bothered by persistent neck problems. The Indiana native returned in early February only to post six points in the remaining 32 games (with a minus-16 rating). Armstrong bounced in and out of the lineup following a concussion which sidelined him for 18 games – he missed 23 games earlier in the season with a sprained left ankle – just another curse of bad luck for the oft-injured winger.

Home Record: Seven weeks passed between wins (February 6-March 31) as the Leafs dropped 11 straight – an NHL season-high – at the Air Canada Centre. Only three teams finished with fewer wins at home than the Leafs' 18.

Blue-line Strength: Pegged as one of the better units in the league in the preseason, the Leaf defence was rarely cohesive – speed and puck-moving ability were sore spots – as a six-man unit this season. Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Gardiner provided the most in terms of consistency, but were taxed at times under the grind of heavy minutes. Liles was precisely the puck-moving defenceman the Leafs desired before his concussion, but struggled to gain solid footing when he returned. Little went right for Luke Schenn early on this season, whispers of a trade and the shadow of a hefty contract looming as a distraction. Cody Franson figured he'd fit in as a significant contributor in his first season with the Leafs, but got off on the wrong foot with Wilson in training camp. Rebounding after an injury to Mike Komisarek in mid-November, Franson found himself in the press-box again after Carlyle took over. Seeming to relish a fresh start after Wilson's departure, Komisarek had another disappointing season.

Team Defence: Only the Lightning allowed more pucks to find twine (3.16 per game).

Offseason Additions: Only David Steckel – sixth in the league in faceoffs – matched expectations amid a group which included Liles, Franson, Lombardi, the disappointing Tim Connolly - 13 goals, 36 points, minus-14 rating in 70 games - and the Marlie-bound Phillipe Dupuis.

Five Points for Improvement

1. James Reimer

2. Mike Komisarek

3. Luke Schenn

4. Tim Connolly

5. Cody Franson

Key Moments

October 22, 2011 at the Bell Centre: A jarring shot to the head from Canadiens captain Brian Gionta derailed Reimer's sophomore season. The 24-year-old missed six weeks with a suspected concussion, rarely finding the game which made him successful as a rookie.

November 5, 2011 at the Air Canada Centre: The defending Stanley Cup champs would stomp the Leafs 7-0, the second win in a dominant season sweep for the Bruins.

December 22, 2011 at the Air Canada Centre: Hammered by Sabres centre Paul Gaustad in the third period of a 3-2 Leafs win, Liles missed the next month with a concussion, struggling in the aftermath of his return.

January 31, 2012 at the Consol Energy Centre: Up three with less than 12 minutes to play, the Leafs came undone, eventually dropping a 5-4 decision to the Penguins in a shootout. Stable in the crease all month long, Gustavsson slipped up in the loss, effectively losing control of his starting gig; Wilson picked Reimer to start at home a night after the defeat. A fragile source of confidence already on tenuous footing with the coach, Gustavsson was never the same in the months that followed.

February 1, 2012 at the Air Canada Centre & February 4, 2012 at ScotiaBank Place: Briefly rewarding Wilson's faith, Reimer posted back-to-back shutouts over the Penguins and Senators. The shutouts proved an mirage to past struggles though; the Manitoba native allowed three or more in eight of his next nine starts. Having turned away from Gustavsson at the first sign of weakness – the shootout loss in Pittsburgh – Wilson now had two goaltenders devoid of confidence with nowhere else to turn.

February 6, 2012 at the Air Canada Centre: River hockey at its finest, the Leafs sacrificed their defensive progress in January (26 goals against in 12 games) for a wild 6-3 win against the high-flying Oilers. The effort proved a springboard for a myriad of trouble defensively in the looming collapse.

February 11, 2012 at the Air Canada Centre: Mats Sundin night proved a disaster for the Leafs, who were dropped 5-0 by the lowly Montreal Canadiens.

February 27, 2012: Unwilling to compromise the future for an uncertain group, Brian Burke stood pat at the trade deadline. Playoffs still in sight, Burke also declined to part with current talent – Grabovski, MacArthur, Schenn, and Kulemin – for future first round draft picks.

February 29, 2012 at the United Center: Tension rising amid a skid of nine losses in 10 games, the Leafs blew a 3-1 first period lead in Chicago, falling 5-4 to the Blackhawks in Wilson's final game behind the bench.

March 2, 2012 in Montreal: Darren Dreger delivered the news late Friday evening: Wilson had been fired as the 27th head coach in Leaf history. Randy Carlyle joined his new club at the team hotel late that Friday evening, coaching his first game a day later.

March 27, 2012: A 3-0 loss to the Hurricanes eliminated the Leafs from the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.

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