LOS ANGELES—Maybe the rebuild really began here, in the cosseting warmth of the California sun. Brendan Shanahan was running the Toronto Maple Leafs, but had been lying in wait. Mike Babcock was coaching in Detroit; Auston Matthews was breaking Patrick Kane’s points record with the U.S. National Team Development team in Ann Arbor, not far away. And the Leafs had fired Randy Carlyle and were 1-1 after he was canned, and they were in L.A. and they had In-N-Out burgers after practice. That was about the high point of the whole trip, really. That was where it started.
“Not a lot of fond memories,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly, who was one of three active Leafs on that team. “I think you play with guys and create friendships that you like, and you try to approach every day with a good attitude, but when you’re losing it’s not very fun, you know? But that was kind of how we got where we are today. A lot of changes, new faces, and it’s a process. That’s sports.”
Those three losses were the first of an epic 11-game losing streak, and 16 of 17. They were talking on the trip about buying in under interim head coach Peter Horacek; they had been in the playoffs the year before and taken Boston to seven. When Carlyle was fired the Leafs were holding on to a playoff spot in the East, despite the kind of ominous underlying numbers that had never bothered the front office much before. And they came to California.
“This trip has always been a really hard trip,” said defenceman Jake Gardiner, the second of the three Leafs still around from that trip. “You like to get at least one win, but yeah, that was the rebuild’s start.”
“Yeah, that was a pretty frustrating time to be a part of the organization at that point,” said Nazem Kadri, the third. “Yeah, just got to stick with it, and you start to understand. You put some pieces in place, and the future starts to look a little brighter, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
At the time it was just a tunnel. Under general manager Dave Nonis the Leafs had reached the playoffs in that lockout-abbreviated 48-game season by doing the hockey equivalent of Wile E. Coyote running out over a cliff and never quite looking down enough to fall. Shanahan had been brought in by then-Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke, but he hadn’t made a move as the Leafs started 19-9-3 in their first 31 games, running on air.
The Leafs began to sag, and Shanahan canned Carlyle. They won one, lost one, and in California talked about how they were going to try to do things the right way: no more relying on the rush, no more getting pinned in their own end. What if it had worked? What if Horacek’s attempt at responsible hockey had stuck, and they had been rewarded here?
That was probably impossible, though. Lucky for the Leafs, they scored one goal in three California games to start an 8-27-5 plummet the rest of the way. They should almost put a small plaque here. It wasn’t fun, but it was for the best.
“It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” said Kadri. “Losing night in and night out is exhausting. It’s just no fun. It’s tough to get motivated and it’s tough to get energized, game in and game out. When you’re in the hunt and you’re playing for something I think it gets a little easier to be inspired. Now, I’m happy where we’re at.”
At the end of the season Nonis, Horacek and the rest of the coaching staff were fired. William Nylander was already in the organization, over in Sweden. Kyle Dubas was already the assistant general manager, and Mark Hunter was director of player personnel. Hunter pushed for Mitch Marner on draft day in 2015, and Arizona passed at No. 3. Toronto hired Mike Babcock to coach after he swerved from Buffalo at the last second. Phil Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh because the Leafs figured he wouldn’t last one Babcock practice. They got back Kasperi Kapanen.
And after one last-place year the Leafs got the No. 1 pick and Auston Matthews. Three years after that California trip they went into Monday night tied with Boston for fifth in the NHL in points per game despite Matthews’s shoulder injury — he is on this trip, because they think it’s better for a player his age to be around the team — and Nylander’s lengthy, potentially alarming holdout. The Kings were defending champs in 2015, and have won one playoff game since that 2014 Cup. Anaheim is a mess, and San Jose is in between. These games can be had.
“It’s a process that’s been going for more than just the 20 games or whatever we’re in,” says Rielly. “I think we know who we are, we know our identity and how we have to play, but it’s hard to do night in and night out. But the good teams find a way to do it, so it’s important that we focus on being consistent, and being one of those teams that can win every single night, and keep it rolling for long periods of time.”
They’ve come a long way, with a long way left to go. The Leafs had In-N-Out burgers after practice again, but everything else had changed.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur