Maple Leafs: Whipping Boys From the Last Decade

Toronto is often referred to as a mecca for hockey – a fishbowl city where the play of its players is criticized sometimes unfairly and their mistakes are magnified. For the Maple Leafs, they’ve had a number of whipping boys over the years – players that fans and press have piled blame on for the lack of success in Toronto over the past 53 years.

Recently, the team has had a number of these players who’ve left town and found success in other cities around the NHL. While some of the criticisms might’ve come unfairly, each one of these players came under the microscope at some point during their Maple Leafs’ tenure over the last decade.

With that, here’s a look at the Maple Leafs’ top whipping boys from the past decade.

Phil Kessel (2009-2015)

Acquired by the Maple Leafs from the Bruins in exchange for a 2010 first-round pick (Tyler Seguin), a 2010 second-round pick (Jared Knight) and a 2011 first-round pick (Dougie Hamilton) on September 18, 2009.

Kessel had some good seasons for some bad teams in Toronto during his tenure. That included an 82-points season in 82 games in 2011-12 as a 24-year-old with a career-high 37 goals. Still, Kessel was criticized for not being a consistent player as a Maple Leaf.

Phil Kessel Maple Leafs
At times, Kessel seemed defeated while playing in Toronto. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Even his coach in Toronto – Ron Wilson – accused the forward of being a player who took two weeks on and two weeks off at times. But the criticism didn’t seem to faze Kessel – at least according to him.

“Obviously we haven’t been winning,” said Kessel in 2015 as the team was spiralling. “We’ve made the playoffs once out here. Obviously that’s what happens. They’re going to come after you. Obviously it’s never fun but it’s part of the business.” (from ‘Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel on criticism: I don’t really care’, National Post – 1/7/15)

The stories went as far as accusing Kessel of eating a sickening amount of hot dogs outside of his Toronto residence and pushed the star forward to the point of biting back against Toronto media, most notably Dave Feschuk.

Still, Kessel put up 181 goals and 394 points in 446 games with the Maple Leafs. He averaged 0.88 points per game as a Maple Leafs forward which is higher than his 0.81 career point-per-game average.

He saw the playoffs just once with Toronto and tallied four goals and six points in seven games in 2012-13 against the Bruins before losing in the first round. While he may have been a whipping boy with the Maple Leafs, Kessel went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 446 GP | 181 G | 213 A | 394 P | -80 | 140 PIM
Playoffs: 7 GP | 4 G | 2 A | 6 P | +3 | 2 PIM

Dion Phaneuf (2010-2016)

Acquired by the Maple Leafs from the Flames along with Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie in exchange for Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers and Ian White on Jan. 31, 2010.

He may have worn the ‘C’ for the Maple Leafs during his tenure in Toronto, but Phaneuf was rarely looked upon as a legitimate top pairing defenceman by most fans and media around the city. Playing on the team’s top pairing for most of his time with the Maple Leafs, Phaneuf caught a lot of slack for his inability to get the puck out of his own zone – an issue that often led to offensive chances for the opposition.

Still, in his six-plus seasons with the Maple Leafs, Phaneuf averaged 0.46 points per game and tallied 45 goals and 196 points in 423 regular season games. That, however, was overshadowed by his minus-31 rating over that span.

Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Maybe it’s because he wore the ‘C’, but Phaneuf took a lot of flack for his play in Toronto. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

While his play in Toronto can’t simply be defined by his plus-minus rating, especially in an age where advanced statistics are so prevalent in hockey circles, he will forever be connected with one of the toughest moments in franchise history – the Game 7 debacle against the Boston Bruins in 2013.

That series has defined the last decade of Maple Leafs hockey – their inability to exit the first round of the playoffs and, more notably, their inability to overcome the Bruins. Phaneuf was just one of many in that series whose play cost the team the series win, but as the captain it fell on his shoulders.

While his play on the ice fell under the microscope of the fishbowl in Toronto, he was an easy scapegoat for a team that simply wasn’t well developed or built. Sure, he wasn’t a top-pairing defenceman, but he played the role he was forced into when he was acquired by the Maple Leafs.

All that said, Phaneuf still notched a 12-goal, 44-point season for the Maple Leafs in 2011-12 which was his best season since 2008-09 with the Calgary Flames. The following year, in the lockout shortened season, he finished 11th in Norris Trophy voting. Call him what you want, but he wasn’t the worst option given what the Maple Leafs assembled during that time period.

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 423 GP | 45 G | 151 A | 196 P | -31 | 598 PIM
Playoffs: 7 GP | 1 G | 2 A | 3 P | -6 | 6 PIM

Nazem Kadri (2009-2019)

Drafted by the Maple Leafs in the 1st round, 7th overall, in 2009.

Drafted and developed by the Maple Leafs, Kadri was a heart and soul player for the Toronto franchise for parts of 10 seasons. He wasn’t always the quickest on the ice, but his skill and shot set him apart from many around him.

Still, at times, his wires crossed and he made some plays on the ice that had fans questioning whether or not he was the right fit for the Maple Leafs. Even after his entry-level contract, Kadri was the talk of the offseason as he held out until the Maple Leafs and him could come to terms on a better deal – one to his liking.

Regardless, the Maple Leafs’ faithful embraced him and he went on to play 561 regular season games for the team that drafted him, putting up 161 goals and 357 points over that span. A feisty forward, he also had 387 penalty minutes, including a career-high 95 in 2016-17. That season he also notched a career high in goals (32) and points (61) that made his quite a popular player in Toronto.

Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri
Kadri took a lot of heat for his physical play in the postseason with the Maple Leafs. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Still, as we do with most of these players, playoffs redefined what they meant to the team and their fans. And while he was an asset for the Maple Leafs on so many occasions, two hits in two separate series against the Bruins left him as and expendable asset to many of the Leafs’ faithful.

Kadri’s two postseason suspensions had fans questioning what value he brought to the team come playoff time. Some believed him to be selfish in making these particular hits, while others just jumped on the ‘Trade Kadri’ train – completely disregarding what kind of player he was outside of the few lapses in judgement.

Either way, he was an easy scapegoat when the Maple Leafs’ eventually lost these series – often being referred to as one of the main reasons for the Maple Leafs’ squandered good postseason opportunities.

Nazem Kadri
Kadri’s edgy play made him both a beloved part of the Maple Leafs and an easy scapegoat in the playoffs. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Dwyer)

But this was a player that was once among the top 20 in Selke votes (in 2016-17). He a player that often gave it his all on the ice and played with an edge – something that comes with questionable plays at times. Still, the fans spoke and Kadri became a player that simply didn’t fit with the Maple Leafs plans anymore and off he went in a deal with the Colorado Avalanche.

Like many in this decade, he was around for the Maple Leafs debacle against the Bruins in 2013 and that demon haunted him and his teammates every time they took on Boston in the playoffs following that season. It was a hurdle they could just never overcome.

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 561 GP | 161 G | 196 A | 357 P | -27 | 387 PIM
Playoffs: 19 GP | 3 G | 7 A | 10 P | +6 | 56 PIM

Jake Gardiner (2011-2019)

Acquired by the Maple Leafs from the Ducks along with Joffrey Lupul and a conditional fourth-round pick in exchange for Francois Beauchemin on Feb. 9, 2011.

While he wasn’t initially drafted by the Maple Leafs, Gardiner broke into the NHL with the Toronto franchise after they acquired him in 2011. He made noise right off the bat with seven goals and 30 points in 75 games for the Maple Leafs in his rookie season in 2011-12 and finished sixth in Calder Trophy voting. Not bad for a player who would eventually become a whipping boy in the fishbowl city of Toronto.

His second season he played just 12 games due to injury before coming back and putting up 31 points in his third NHL campaign in 2013-14. Gardiner went on to have a 43-point season in 2016-17, finishing with a plus-24 rating and topped his point total again in 2017-18 when he tallied a career-high 52 points in 82 games with the Maple Leafs.

Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Gardiner was another defenceman that wasn’t always used in the right ways in Toronto. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Does that spell whipping boy? I didn’t think so. But Gardiner is a possession-type defenceman. He’s a player that is often the last man back and doesn’t mind skating the puck out of his own zone. That, however, comes with risks. And while risks can be just that – risks – in the case of Gardiner it often turned into opposition scoring chances and goals.

Like Phaneuf, Gardiner was often placed in a position that didn’t really fit his style of play in Toronto. He played a number of top-end minutes and averaged over 21 minutes during his time in Toronto. While he may not have made more mistakes than other players on the Maple Leafs, his were magnified because, many times, they led to goals against.

Related: Maple Leafs – Revisiting 3 Pivotal Trades This Decade

His role as the fans’ whipping boy hit an all-time high when the team lost to the Bruins in the first round of the 2017-18 playoffs. Surely not as devastating as the team’s loss in 2013, the Maple Leafs took the Bruins to seven games and held a lead that they would eventually give up. Gardiner finished the series a minus-six and was on the ice for a number of the goals against in the third period of Game 7.

Gardiner played on more year with the team, was part of one more first-round exit against the Bruins and became a free agent. Having been offered a contract with the Montreal Canadiens, Gardiner chose to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes and it was speculated that it was in large part due to him not wanting to play under the microscope again in a big market like Montreal.

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 551 GP | 45 G | 200 A | 245 P | +9 | 185 PIM
Playoffs: 26 GP | 2 G | 10 A | 12 P | -9 | 6 PIM

William Nylander (2015-2020)

Drafted by the Maple Leafs in the 1st round, 8th overall, in 2014.

Like any big-market franchise, the Maple Leafs’ fans and media will always need someone to talk about. Whether it’s a player that hasn’t lived up to expectations or one that hasn’t lived up to a specific contract, there will always be some kind of target on specific players.

While he’s off to career-best start this season, Nylander has stepped into that role nicely following the departure of Gardiner. Heck, even before Gardiner left, Nylander was taking blow after blow from a number of outside sources thanks to the big contract he signed following the expiration of his entry-level contract.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Nylander can dictate still how he will be remembered in a Maple Leafs uniform. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

Questions circled on whether he was worth the money or whether he would remain a 60-point player for the remainder of his deal with the Maple Leafs. Even now, people have discussed his sometimes lazy play without the puck and whether he’s a player the Maple Leafs should look to move at some point in the coming seasons.

There’s no question he had an off year following the signing of his big deal, with just 27 points in 54 games following a holdout that stretched into December. But that doesn’t take away from him having put up back-to-back 61-point seasons prior to that including a season in which he finished sixth in Calder Trophy voting.

Now, 40 games into his fifth NHL season, Nylander has 16 goals and 33 points in 40 games for the Maple Leafs and is well on track to a career-high in goals and points.

Related: Nylander Receives Keefe’s Message Loud & Clear

All that said, Nylander still cracks the list for the top whipping boys in Toronto over the past decade. While he might be on his way to changing the storyline when it comes to his career in Toronto, the fact is he’s been a focal point on this young club in past season and not for the right reasons.

Time will tell if he can pull himself off this list, but for now, Nylander remains one of the team’s current whipping boys in Leafs Nation.

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 279 GP | 71 G | 124 A | 195 P | +16 | 70 PIM
Playoffs: 20 GP | 3 G | 8 A | 11 P | +2 | 4 PIM

Honourable Mention

Cody Franson (2011-2015)

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 236 GP | 20 G | 95 A | 115 P | -24 | 86 PIM
Playoffs: 7 GP | 3 G | 3 A | 6 P | +/-0 | 0 PIM

David Clarkson (2013-2015)

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 118 GP | 15 G | 11 A | 26 P | -25 | 185 PIM
Playoffs: 0 GP | 0 G | 0 A | 0 P | +/-0 | 0 PIM

Jonathan Bernier (2013-2016)

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 151 GP | 59-68-17 | 2.81 GAA | .915 SV% | 6 SO
Playoffs: 0 GP | 0-0-0 | 0.00 GAA | .000 SV% | 0 SO

James Reimer (2010-2016)

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 207 GP | 85-76-23 | 2.83 GAA | .914 SV% | 11 SO
Playoffs: 7 GP | 3-4-0 | 2.87 GAA | .923 SV% | 0 SO

Martin Marincin (2015-2020)

Maple Leafs’ Stats
Regular Season: 124 GP | 3 G | 16 A | 19 P | -7 | 72 PIM
Playoffs: 6 GP | 0 G | 0 A | 0 P | +2 | 2 PIM