Sunday, January 30, 2011

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 2005-06 Season

The 2004-05 season was lost to the lockout. Coming out of the lost season, the Maple Leafs, who were one of the oldest teams at the end of the 2003-04 season, were even older and not any better, as the new salary cap tied their hands from being able to really make any key improvements. In typical fashion, Maple Leaf management totally misread how the labour disruption would play out and did not have contingency plans in the event a salary cap became a reality.

The Leafs had a large number of large contracts including Mats Sundin ($6.8 million), Ed Belfour ($4.6 million) and Bryan McCabe ($3.5 million) which pushed them close to the $39 million cap. As result the Leafs were unable to retain Alexander Mogilny, Brian Leetch, Gary Roberts, and Joe Nieuwendyk, badly weakening the team. It could have been worse. Prior to the lockout the Leafs had Owen Nolan under contract. Nolan a clause in his contract from his San Jose days that stated if the 2004–05 NHL season was canceled, then he would gain a player option for an additional year in 2005–06. With the new NHL salary cap, the Maple Leafs deemed Nolan's salary too high, and refuse to recognize Nolan as under contract. Nolan argued that the option was valid, that he would play, and be paid, for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and that he deserved to be paid during the 2004–2005 NHL lockout due to injury. The Maple Leafs, who deemed Nolan as healthy just after the lockout, claimed that the injury was incurred off the ice and refused to pay Nolan's desired US$12 million. The case went to an arbitrator. This case was settled in late 2006.

Teams were allowed a one time buyout of contracts to reduce payroll without a cap penalty. As a result between contracts that were expired and buyouts there were a tremendous number of free agents. Unfortunately the Leafs were only able to sign older players in their decline. One player that was added was Eric Lindros who, once was touted to be the next big superstar, but with several injuries had become average at best. Other free agents were Mariusz Czerkawski, Jason Allison and Alexander Khavanov. In addition, the Leafs picked up Jeff O'Neill in a trade with Carolina. O'Neill had three 30-goal season with Carolina but in the season prior to the lockout, his production had dropped to 14 goals. For many of the new Leafs, the post-lockout crack down on obstruction seriously impacted on their impacted on their effectiveness.

The Leafs started the season on the wrong foot as they were beaten by the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in the first shoot out in NHL history. After a mediocre October the Leafs played well through most of November and December, as they entered the New Year with a record of 22-14-3.
However, in January the Maple Leafs would unravel enduring an eight game losing streak as Goalie Ed Belfour struggled badly. Heading into the Olympic Break the Leafs continued their poor play as they slipped down the Eastern Conference Standings and found themselves in danger of missing the playoffs.

During the Olympics in Torinio Maple Leafs Coach Pat Quinn already taking heat for the Leafs struggles led an unimpressive Canadian team that would not even play for a medal. When the season resumed the Leafs continued to fall as Lindros spent much of the second half on the injured list, as did Ed Belfour who became the second winningest goalie of all-time during the season was eventually benched with a 3.29 GAA and a .892 save percentage. Back up Mikael Tellqvist would not fair much better then Belfour as the Leafs held a 32-32-6 record on March 25th needing to almost run the table in April to have a shot at the playoffs.

After Belfour and Tellqvist each struggled the Leafs called up Jean-Sebastien Aubin hoping that he could give them the goaltending they needed to finish the season strong. Aubin did better than anyone could have imagined posting a 9-2 record with both losses coming after regulation as the Leafs posted a strong 9-1-2 record over their last 12 games to finish with a record of 41-33-8, but it was not enough as they missed the playoff by just two points. It would also not be enough to save Pat Quinn's job as he was fired as Coach (he had lost the GM job prior to the lockout) and replaced by Paul Maurice. During the off-season the Leafs also went after goaltending help acquiring Andrew Raycroft from the Boston Bruins for highly touted prospect Tuukka Rask.

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