TORONTO - Over the past couple of weeks, the Toronto Maple Leafs have perfected the deer-in-the-headlights look.
Ever since losing their eighth game in a row to all but end the playoff dream, there have been plenty of questions about how a once-promising season fell apart. Even as they cleaned out their lockers Monday, the Leafs couldn't figure out exactly what happened.
But they do understand things will look different before the 2014-15 season starts.
"I can't point a finger to one thing. We just didn't play well," star winger Phil Kessel said. "Obviously there's going to be changes here. Who knows what's going to happen? We have a great group here and a great group of guys, and no one's happy right now."
Even as general manager Dave Nonis talked up the positives of Brendan Shanahan coming in as president to oversee changes, he called this a day of "failure" because of the way the season ended. It was impossible to spin missing the playoffs after last year's return as any kind of a positive.
"I think last year we took a couple of big steps forward, and unfortunately I don't think we built upon that," Nonis said. "That's the one negative — a big negative — when I look at this year, and it's one of the things that we've passed on to the players: that a lot of the good that we did last year in terms of how we played and how committed we were seemed to disappear at times."
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke even went so far as to say it didn't look like players bought into coach Randy Carlyle's identity this season as they did in 2013.
"I think you look at that locker-room and the talent that Dave has put together, this team should've been better and we'll leave it at that," Leiweke said.
Carlyle could soon become a fall guy for a two-week collapse that made the memorable Game 7 disaster against the Boston Bruins look forgivable. Shanahan and Nonis declined to discuss Carlyle's future on Monday, and the coach was not made available to speak to reporters.
That left the players to assume the blame, even if they still couldn't figure out where it all originated.
"Was this year a step back? Probably," winger Joffrey Lupul said. "It never even crossed my mind that we wouldn't be in the playoffs this year. Even during that skid I thought we were still going to get out of it. It just never happened. Sitting here talking about it is a pretty bitter pill to swallow because I never thought I'd be in this situation."
A month ago the Leafs were sitting pretty in second place in the Atlantic Division, a spot that would've give them home ice in the first round of the playoffs and two games at Air Canada Centre this week. Instead, the building was fully transformed into a basketball venue for the end of the Raptors' regular season and at least two playoff games.
The Leafs thought they were cruising to the post-season before goaltender Jonathan Bernier was injured and a couple of losses became a season-defining skid. Centre Nazem Kadri said he and his teammates "tried to play an 82-game season in 60 games, which is not going to cut it in this league."
"It was just we got into a slide that we couldn't get out of," Kadri said. "We dug ourselves too deep of a hole to climb out of. That was just the bottom line. It's hard to think that a few weeks ago we were eighth, ninth in the league and now we're towards the bottom. That's a pretty drastic slide."
Nonis, like Carlyle did a few weeks ago, pointed to the start of the year as reason to believe the Leafs were in trouble. Victories were coming, but the play didn't add up.
"Over the course of a season, that is going to catch up to you at some point," Nonis said.
Nonis didn't want to try to justify valid reasons for the streak of eight consecutive regulation losses in March.
"Schedule was an issue, injuries were an issue, there were times where bounces, officiating — whatever you want to use — those were all issues," he said. "And I call tell you that those cost us games. Every other team in the league faced the same issues we had. So to use those as an excuse, it's not something that we should do or ever will do."
Excuses are hollow this time of year as 16 of 30 teams get ready to open the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Leafs' failures ensured there's only one Canadian-based NHL team in the playoffs for the first time since the 1972-73 season.
"I think we all know as a group that we didn't play at our potential all year," said Bernier, who will have surgery to repair a sports hernia on Wednesday. "I think we waited too long to turn the switch on and start playing some good hockey, and obviously other teams wanted those two points, as well, so it made it even tougher. We know it's an 82 (game) season.
"I don't think we played hard enough for the whole season. That's where you end up when you don't."
The Leafs ended up talking about and waiting for change. Backup goaltender James Reimer isn't likely to be back, though he said he has no clue what will happen, and while unrestricted free agent forwards Mason Raymond and Dave Bolland expressed desires about returning, that's no safe bet.
Toronto has almost US$50 million committed to 12 players for next season, with the salary cap expected to be around $70 million.
The Leafs absolutely must improve their organizational depth, but one of the big questions after this season's turn for the worse concerned whether there was enough leadership on the team. Captain Dion Phaneuf does not think that's lacking, but Lupul said any team could always use more.
"I'm sure that's something that's going to be addressed," he said. "But it also comes with younger players becoming more mature and comfortable in the NHL and those guys becoming leaders. It's not like you can just go out and find guys with certain leadership qualities, it's tough to do."
If that's something Shanahan and Nonis pinpoint as an area where change is needed, they'll make an attempt to address it. And while the Leafs have six players (Kessel, Lupul, David Clarkson, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phaneuf) signed through at least the 2017-18 season, Nonis doesn't see that as a hindrance to making moves because they don't have full no-trade clauses.
"They're movable," he said. "Whether or not all of the players that are here that are signed end up here long-term, that depends on if we can improve our team."
For the 12 players who already have contracts for next year, the waiting is the hardest part. This team could look very different by September, which has to be expected.
"I just kind of want to kick-start next year right now," Kadri said. "We're ready for it. We're excited for change and excited for next year."
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