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Inconsistency, injuries plagued Leafs

by Dan Rosen

The Toronto Maple Leafs' inconsistent play and injury problems plagued their 2007-08 season. Watch Maple Leafs-Senators highlights
It didn’t take long for the ominous clouds to start hovering over the Air Canada Centre this past season. Just three games were in the books before Jason Blake announced that he had cancer.

While Blake remarkably didn’t miss a game and eventually won the Masterton Trophy, hardly anything in the Leafs' world seemed to go right after he broke the news of his treatable form of the disease.

For the third-straight season, the NHL conducted its Stanley Cup Playoffs without one of its most storied franchises. The Maple Leafs finished the season one game over .500 with a 36-35-11 record for 83 points, good for 12th in the Eastern Conference.

The bright spots, such as the improved play and health of Nik Antropov and another consistent season from captain Mats Sundin, who became the franchise’s all-time goals and points leader on Oct. 11, were overshadowed by inconsistent play, no-trade clauses and an embattled general manager who eventually lost his job.

“Personally it was great, but the first thing for me is team play and unfortunately we didn’t make the playoffs so that’s kind of frustrating,” Antropov told Leafs TV.

The Leafs won only nine of their first 26 games, but finally got on a roll in early December by winning five of their first six games to improve to 14-12-6. But as quickly as they got back into the hunt, they fell out by closing the month with a 1-4-2 record and starting 2008 with losses in five of their first six games.

The last loss during that stretch came in San Jose when the Sharks rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period for a 3-2 victory. Rumor mongers were having a field day with the embattled Leafs.

Toronto rebounded to win three in a row, but it wasn’t enough for GM John Ferguson to keep his job. Ferguson was relieved of his duties on Jan. 22 and replaced by former Leafs and Flames GM Cliff Fletcher, who signed a contract to run the team through June 30.

“After full consideration of the Leafs’ situation, it has become clear that change and a new direction is needed,” Richard Peddie, president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., said at the press conference re-introducing Fletcher. “John has been given the opportunity and the resources he requested to deliver results from the strategic plans that he put in place when he was named general manager in 2003, and while the new collective bargaining agreement required some re-shaping of those plans, the results have fallen short of what our organization, including John, and our fans expect.”

With the rumors swirling around Ferguson finally in the past, the Leafs could go about the business of righting their season. However, it took only one game for the injury bug to bite.

Alexei Ponikarovsky dislocated his shoulder in the team’s first game after the shakeup. Alex Steen hurt his shoulder in the very next game. Ponikarovsky would miss seven straight games. Steen missed five in a row.

By Valentine’s Day, the Leafs were the 29th ranked team in the 30-team League. They were eight points out of a playoff spot with 23 games to play in the regular season, but only five to go before the Feb. 26 trading deadline.

“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Ponikarovsky said at the time. “We still have to play. You can’t just give up and do nothing.”

The Leafs didn’t give up. In fact, they won four of those next five games before the trade deadline despite a swarm of rumors surrounding nearly every player on the team, most notably Sundin, who was one of a bevy of Leafs with no-trade clauses.

All of them, including Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina, told Fletcher they would not waive their no-trade clauses, leaving the GM who was hoping to re-shape the team at the trade deadline limited in what he could accomplish.

Fletcher wound up trading defenseman Hal Gill to Pittsburgh for a second-round draft pick in 2008 and a fifth-round selection in 2009, and forward Chad Kilger and little-used enforcer Wade Belak to Florida for third- and fifth-round picks in 2008.

The Leafs still never gave up. They finished February with an 8-4-1 mark and went on to win seven of their first 11 games in March to stay in the playoff hunt. However, a 4-2 loss in Boston on March 27 eliminated them from postseason contention.

“I see a lot of things I like that we can build on moving forward,” Fletcher said following the loss in Boston. “We are determined to bring this team to the next level. Nothing happens quickly, there are no quick fixes or miracle cures.”

The Leafs' sub-par 2007-08 season cost coach Paul Maurice his job, as he was relieved on May 5. Maurice was 76-66-22 in two seasons behind the Leafs bench.

A little over a month later, Fletcher announced the hiring of former San Jose coach Ron Wilson as the Leafs’ new leader. Wilson, who was let go as the Sharks coach following their two-round playoff run, played for the Leafs for three seasons in the 1970s.

“It’s a challenge,” Wilson told Leafs TV. “This is a dream that I never thought I’d have. I never thought I’d coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. I think I can help the Leafs turn the corner and get back something they have lost in the last three or four years. … Hopefully in a couple of years we’re knocking on that Stanley Cup door.”

Apparently, the Leafs feel Fletcher can help them get there, which is why only a day after Wilson was introduced as coach, Peddie announced that Fletcher would stay on in the interim role for the 2008-09 season.

“With all of that data, we identified who we thought were the top candidates,” Peddie said. “Then we started asking for permission and started finding out they were under contract and that the free agency class in the spring of 2009 was pretty good. So it’s unlikely Cliff will leave any time soon.”

With the team of Wilson and Fletcher, Leafs Nation is hoping for some better returns, starting with a playoff berth in 2009.

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