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April 10, 2012 | 11:37am ET
What happened to Wild, Leafs
 Minnesota and Toronto stared the season hot, but completely fell apart in the second half.

CHICAGO, IL -- Let's jump into the way-back machine for a moment, and travel all the way back to the middle of November. Specifically the fourteenth.

On Nov. 14, the NHL was approaching the end of the season's first quarter, and teams were clearly beginning to establish themselves as playoff contenders. Pittsburgh was on top of the East with 23 points (10-4-3), and Chicago was leading the West with 25 (11-4-3).

And, of course, there were the other "favorites" on the leader board back in mid-November. Toronto was on top of the Northeast Division while Minnesota was handling their business in the Northwest. And, after a week with Ken Hitchcock, the Blues were in eleventh in the West with 17 points in 16 games.

Jump forward to the 14th of December. Toronto had slipped to second in the Northeast with 35 points, but were still sixth in the Eastern Conference. Their pace had slowed a little, posting 14 points in 13 games after opening the season with 21 in their first 17 contests. But life was still OK in Toronto.

If things were OK in Toronto, the Wild were living large in mid-December. With 43 points in 31 games, Minnesota held a three point lead on Chicago for the top spot in the West, and were five points ahead of Vancouver in the Northwest Division. At plus-19, the Wild had the third-best goal differential in the conference at the time, and were 12-2-1 at home.

By mid-January, the wheels had started to come off for both the Wild. Minnesota finished December with a brutal 1-6-3 stretch, and then rolled off a 3-6-1 month of January to push them out of the picture. Indeed, the Wild have staggered home with an 14-28-7 record between a Dec. 10 win in Phoenix and Thursday night's date with Chicago.

It hasn't been an easy campaign for Mike Yeo, who, at 37, became the youngest head coach in the NHL when he accepted Chuck Fletcher's invitation in June. Fletcher was just beginning his redesign of the Wild when he promoted Yeo from Minnesota's AHL affiliate in Houston to the NHL level.

The trades between San Jose and Minnesota haven't worked out well for either franchise. The expectation that Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi would take the Wild's offense the next level never materialized; despite Heatley averaging 85 points per season since the lock-out, he and Setoguchi have posted only 86 combined points this season.

Fletcher was busy at the deadline, but his moves at that point were clearly looking to the future.

It took a few weeks longer for the syrup to go bad for the Leafs, but it went sour in a hurry. The players might tell you that the loss in Chicago on Feb. 29 was the deal-breaker this year, but that was the tenth loss in 11 games for Toronto.

Since perhaps the best three-game stretch of the year for the Leafs opened February -- shutout wins over Pittsburgh 1-0 and 5-0 in Ottawa followed by a 6-3 in against Edmonton -- the Leafs are 5-15-3 and have allowed five goals (or more) in regulation nine times.

Read that again: in a 23-game stretch, the Leafs have allowed at least five goals nine times.

But where trades may have ultimately failed the Wild, it's been the complete opposite in Toronto this year. Last year's home run acquisition, Joffrey Lupul (TFP's most recent cover), has blown away his career numbers this year. David Steckel has been solid, while Matthew Lombardi and John-Michael Liles have at least been serviceable this year in spite of their horrific plus-minus totals. Even Tim Connolly's numbers have been fairly consistent with expectations (well, rational expectations).

Ultimately, it may be the lack of moves from Toronto's front office that led to the team's failure to sustain the delicate balance between competing and surviving.

The goaltending situation in Toronto didn't wait for the deadline to fail. James Reimer staggered to a 4-6-0 record with a 3.19 goals against average and .901 save percentage in February, only to be trumped by Jonas Gustavsson's month; he was 0-3-1 with a 3.76 goals against average and .880 save percentage in February.

Maybe keeping Jean-Sebastian Giguere around wasn't such a bad idea after all?

Certainly the Leafs have had enough problems this season to be the subject for a psychology text book, so putting it all on the guys between the pipes wouldn't be appropriate. And while Burke's approach -- changing coaches while keeping the team together -- wasn't original (see Washington, Anaheim, Calgary and the band director on the Titanic), swapping a couple prospects at the deadline simply wasn't enough.

Looking back just a couple short months, things appeared to be headed in such a different direction for both of these teams. But there is a silver lining to this sob story: the weather in the middle of North America has been incredible early this year, so the golf courses in Toronto and Minneapolis should be ready for mid-April tee times.

Tab Bamford is a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Chicago Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.


 

 

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