Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Maple Leaf Collapse of 1968; It has indeed happened before Mr. Burke

Two seventeen games. On February 6 of this year, the Leafs had a 28-19-6 record and were in 6th place in the Eastern Conference. They were two points out of fourth spot and home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Since then, the Buds have unfurled an atrocious record of 2-13-2 and are now one point away from a Lottery Pick in the draft, the playoffs a distant memory. General Manager Brian Burke said that he had never seen anything like it before, and that it "was akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff." The question is then, how unprecedented is it for a Maple Leaf team to perform so poorly immediately after playing so well. It turns out it has indeed happened once before.

Firstly, how many times has Toronto had a stretch of such futility as they are currently in the midst of? In fact it's been over 20 years since such an awful stretch of hockey, but back then it was almost the norm. Following is the list of stretches of Leaf hockey as bad as the current one (2 or less wins in at least 16 games):
  • Oct.4, 1990 - Nov.4, 1990      2-16-1
Opened the season with this disaster therefore their record was 0-0-0 at the beginning of this streak so it can't be really considered a 'cliff-dive' like the current struggles.

  • Jan.8, 1988 - Feb.7, 1988     2-17-7   &  Feb.20, 1988 - April 1, 1988   2-16-0
This stretch came after a first half record of 14-20-6.  After turning around the poor results of Jan/Feb with a 3-1-1 stretch, the Leafs jumped right back into the toilet with the second awful run of the season before winning the final game of the season. Amazingly, the Leafs still managed to snag the final playoff spot by a point over the North Stars only to be ousted in six games by Detroit. The only reason they made the playoffs was the fact that Minnesota trudged to the finish with a 3-20-5 record. Yikes.

  • Oct.10, 1985 - Nov.14, 1985      1-12-3
Another fantastic start to a season. This time they'd easily make the playoffs even with 57 points thanks to the absolute ineptitude of the Red Wings.
  • Oct.14, 1984 - Dec. 9, 1984     2-19-5  & Dec. 14, 1984 - Jan. 9, 1985   1-11-0
After beginning the year with back-to-back overtime wins, the Leafs went 2-19-5 before beating the Flyers on Dec. 12. This 5-19-5 record would be parlayed into a run of 1-11-0 that took them to a 6-30-5 mark by early January. At this point in the season, in the Norris Division where no team was above .500, the Leafs were still 14 points out of a playoff position...this was my childhood.

  • Jan.3, 1984 - Feb.5, 1984        2-12-2     
On Jan. 2 the Leafs were a respectable (for them) 15-18-5 and sat third in the Norris. This terrible run knocked them out of the playoff picture and they finished last, 7 points back of fourth-place Chicago.

  • Nov. 17, 1982 - Dec. 23, 1982      1-14-1   
Started the year 4-7-5 before the annual tank-job. They still made the playoffs with 67 points.

  • Jan. 21, 1982 - Mar. 13, 1982      2-18-4
On Jan. 20, 1982 Toronto sat 15-20-12 and one point out of a playoff spot before this stretch knocked them far out of contention. They finished 16 points back of 4th place Chicago.

  • Jan. 24, 1968 - Feb. 29, 1968      2-13-1
The defending Stanley Cup champion Leafs were in second place on Jan. 23, 1968 with a record of 22-14-8, 2 points behind first place Boston in the NHL's Eastern Division. After this disastrous run they had plummeted to fifth spot, 11 points out of fourth. Just as today, the media was at a loss to explain the sudden collapse. Even with a victory on March 2, the terrible run of play was perhaps the final straw in a decade long struggle between Punch Imlach and Frank Mahovlich. On March 3, The Big 'M' was dealt to Detroit along with Pete Stemkowski, Garry Unger and Carl Brewer for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie.

Early on in the collapse newspaper headlines were sounding the alarm. On Feb. 15 the Ottawa Citizen stated, "Sliding Leafs Bow To Canadiens" after the fifth loss in a row. The Canadian Press ran a headline; "Leafs Lose Again; 'No Excuses'-Punch". This article noted forbodingly, "Mahovlich, who scored Toronto's first goal, did not make an appearance in the final period until 27 seconds from the end."

By Feb. 24 the CP previewed the next match; "Fallen Leafs, Bruins Heading for Showdown"
"As is usually the case when a club is going bad, Imlach is bearing the brunt of the fans' ire. 'People care,' Imlach says,'You never know how much they care until a slump hits the club. I expect this sort of reaction and I accept it. They've got to go after somebody and I'm the first man in line.'

Imlach looks over team statistics and answers the complaints of irate fans in his office at Maple Leaf Gardens. "Yes I'm here," he says into the telephone, "I'll be here for at least the next two years. I don't know if there are factions inside the club. If there are they have been well concealed. If there are not, it looks as if someone is trying very hard to suggest there is a fight between the players union and the management."

I find it interesting that Imlach took full blame for the failures and even went as far as answering phone calls from upset fans. I suppose this was just the equivalent of Twitter circa 1968.

The Leafs did end up going 9-4-1 in March but it was far too little, far too late. Imlach held out hope to the very end. The day after they were officially eliminated on March 20, the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph ran analysis by columnist Louis J. Fusk;  "Road Back May Be Tough For Toronto"

"It's finally official. For the first time in 19 years, Toronto Maple Leafs will not be in the NHL playoffs. The fact remains that in the future there will be no easy road to the playoffs, at least in the Eastern Division. Imlach is a diehard and refused to admit defeat until it was official...According to Imlach, the only bright spot in this waning season was the trade he pulled off with Detroit. Certainly three acquisitions, Floyd Smith, Norm Ullman and Paul Henderson have been producing since they donned the Leafs's uniform and now Sid Abel of the Red Wings charges that the three players he received from the Leafs aren't in proper shape, either mentally or physically, to play hockey."
 Mr. Fusk's words could not have been more accurate, for indeed the road back has been tough for Toronto. It has been for 45 years now and appears to be in the near future.

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