The Correction: A Toronto Maple Leafs Solution

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Preamble

Before you start reading, please know this about your writer and his perspectives: I have absolutely nothing to do with the profession of Sports or Sports Management. I am simply an avid, yet rational Toronto Maple Leafs fan of four years, and consumed thousands of hours of hockey opinion and analysis from professionals of all the major Canadian sporting networks and media outlets.

The below is a theory on how the Toronto Maple Leafs correct the mistakes of the recent past that has left the world’s biggest Hockey Franchise in a state of disarray. Considerations towards the excessive media reaction to the team and it’s place as a major corporate entity have been factored in to my thoughts.

I understand that the concept of what I am writing is meaningless, and that there is no resolutions I have offered in terms of options for trades, or assessment of upcoming draft prospects. That is not my strong point, and without being privy to the inside knowledge of the NHL, anything I write would only be speculation and conjecture. 

The below is simply my suggested framework for success. 

The Correction: A TML Solution

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a broken hockey team.

Their recent inability has long predated my hockey consciousness, in in my short career of fanaticism of four seasons, they have reached some shockingly historic troughs. When you move to this city and hear the locals talk about the team with a shake of the head and shrug of the shoulders, you wonder how much more people can take.

I’m not a hockey expert. I am a Sports enthusiast who moved to Toronto in 2008, and started watching the Leafs with regularity in 2011. Since then I’ve logged as much Leaf mileage as any hardcore fan has. While the intricacies of the game may still pass me by a little more than those of you who grew up on the ice, I do understand what I’m watching here. Whatever my opinions on players technical ability is, I do understand cap management, the media’s obsession with this team, and team dynamics.

It’s not much but it’s something.

My love of the game, and of this team, has lead me follow the work of many journalists and analysts who have provided countless number of hours on what this team needs to do to rebuild. With the nature of the industries that they work in, they generally only offer individual takes on individual pieces: Is Phaneuf a good enough Captain, Is Kessel uncoachable, Is Kadri a Number 1 Center, and so on. In isolation, these are all reasonable questions. However, there’s more than one problem with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and all of these singular problems are subsections of bigger problems.

The below is my root and branch review on how to correct the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Highlights:

  • Ride out the 2014/15 season;
  • Cap Space is King;
  • Rid yourself of $20 million/4 Major Long-Term Contracts;
  • Build a high-character 2015/16 team;
  • Do not offer long-term deals;
  • Draft better.

2014/15 Season:

This season is gone.

With all the talk of tanking amongst the media and the fans, it looks like Leaf Management are going to get a bit of a pass on this one. Working with the majority of players that they have now, the Leafs are going to end up with likely a top 10 pick in the upcoming draft without having to trade the big-name players and give off the impression that they are “Tanking”. Under normal circumstances the media would be having a field-day with the concept of Tanking, but the reality is that this team just is not good enough to do any better than they have been. That means the heat is on the players, and the General Manager for signing them.

This is the year to have a bad season. Analysts suggest that the 2015 draft is as deep as it has been for a while, and the Leafs are going to pick up a good prospect, maybe a great one. The fans have accepted this season as gone, so there’s no reason to hold on to anything now. It’s not salvageable.

The Key Now? Shed your assets to get as much value as you can. A major trade for a big ticket item is unlikely, but there are a few pending free agents that Leafs Management has to maximise at the deadline. The rest? If you can get a good deal before the deadline then by all means. Otherwise, let’s just ride it out.

2014/15 Player Evaluation

Using the starting point as now, with the final two months of thirty-odd games to be played, you finish your evaluation on your UFA’s. We’ve had at least half a season to digest a couple of the assets, and a lot more time to figure out what you’ve got in others. I’m sure decision’s have been made on all of them right now.

With the RFA’s, there’s nobody you have here that hasn’t been a Leaf for at least a year and a half now, so you should know what you’ve got at this stage. However, the requirement to move them is probably less urgent.

Let’s look at the UFA’s.

Cody Franson – Move

Cody Franson is going to make six million a year for at least five seasons in the open market when his deal expires at the end of the season. He’s a good player at the right age and can contribute offensively to almost any team in the league. His right-handed shot, his power-play minutes and his propensity for putting up points, all while playing for the most part on Toronto’s number one defensive pairing, equates to big dollars at free agency. For the Leafs, though, his time has past. He’s been treated poorly here and underpaid for the last two seasons. He’s been part of a lot of pain on this team, and everyone here needs a fresh start.

Cody Franson should warrant a first round draft pick this year when traded at the deadline. His cap hit is reasonable and he’s going to make a good team better instantly. The market will be hot for him over the next month, and the prospect of a first round pick is a great return for someone you’re not going to keep. This move has to happen.

Mike Santorelli – Move

Mike Santorelli follows Mason Raymond the year before him as The Leafs’ breakout star with minimal investment. This has been a good arrangement for Santorelli, who should earn himself a 3 year / $3 million per contract next year. Furthermore, he has a chance of getting traded to a Stanley Cup contender this year. He doesn’t owe the Leafs anything and management should be acknowledged for picking him up and turning him in to a potential 2nd round pick. Take it and let him hit the open market next year. There are more Santorelli’s out there in the cap crunch era.

Daniel Winnik – Keep

Dan Winnik is another strong performer this year, albeit in the context of his current deal. He has clear leadership qualities and ideally can be cast as a solid third/fourth line player for a team looking to invest in the future. Someone like Winnik can lead by example and offer stability in uncertain times. He’s a likable character who tries hard and will suit a 2015/16 version of this team that might not be very good, but should be hard-working. He hasn’t experienced the same torment here as most of his teammates too, which is important. I wouldn’t move heaven and earth to keep him, and would hesitate if it went far beyond $2 million cap hit next year, but assuming you don’t get an overpayment offer at the deadline, he has a good mix of character and ability this team will need during the transition phase.

Korbinian Holzer – Move

Fine at his current cap hit of under $800k but anything more and I wouldn’t be too interested. I’m not a prospect evaluator but I haven’t seen enough from him down the years to warrant any reason keeping him. No long-term commitment with money will be made to him.

David Booth – Move

From what I can tell, David Booth is a hard worker. Optional skates, his name is one of the few that appears to be referenced as often as any. His play on the fourth line this year has been noticeably higher quality than Trevor Smith and whoever else accompanies him. I would have no problem retaining David Booth for a couple of years in the same way I would Dan Winnik. I don’t think a pay raise is necessarily warranted so I would let him go now and see what the open market brings him. If he gets a better offer, good for him. If I was offered another year at $1.1 million for David Booth, I’d take it for what I’m trying to do for 2015/16.

Trevor Smith – Move

I have much the same feeling on Trevor Smith as I do David Booth. Another hard worker, a product of the Marlies, and someone that I don’t mind seeing on the fourth line and penalty kill. He’ll never be a game changer, but he’s not likely to hurt you too much either. Again, at a minimal cap hit I’d accept him for the 2015/16 project.

On to the RFA’s.

Jonathan Bernier – Keep

I would keep Bernier because I am not 100% sure what I have here, and yet I want to give him a chance to gain consistency in net. However, for me this has to be a bridging deal, or three years maximum. Bernier has shown enough potential to be a high-end goaltender that I’d give him the benefit of the doubt to retain him. His job, much like Reimer, has been extremely difficult these past two seasons, and in many ways he’s been the hardest player to evaluate because the team has asked too much of him. In order to try evaluate how good he can be, you have to give him a chance to succeed. The job of a Stanley Cup contending goaltender is different to the job of a Goaltender for a non-playoff team. I’d go as high as $5 million per season for 2 years with him, although they should be able to get him for around $4.5 million per.

Nazem Kadri – Keep

I think Kadri has had a good year, and I think he is a good player. He’s not perfect, but his numbers are consistent with top players in his position at his age, and he’s still young enough to develop more. I’ve seen more maturity in his performances this year, and I think what you have is someone with potential to be a 2nd line center, but ideally 3rd line on a top team. The money he will command could be high, but he’s in a position of need for a team with few options. I’d like if you could restrict him to 3 years, but I can see a 5 year deal for $5 million per being the outcome, which I would not love, but feel like he can be moved in 3 years. Mark Hunter is apparently a big fan of what he can become, so I would be surprised if he left.

Richard Panik – Move

He was worth a try, and he’s shown glimpses of the player he could be, but ultimately he’s of no worth to this team this season. He’s an ok player but probably not what the Leafs need right now. Worth it at under $1 million, but otherwise I don’t think he’s going to come back to bit anyone in a major way.

Petter Granberg – Move

Leaving behind Petter Granberg is unlikely to prove to be one of the Leafs biggest mistakes in modern times from what I can tell, and it doesn’t sound like a major commitment to money and term is coming his way. Again, $800k players are not going to kill you, especially on a two-way deal.

So far the only major decision we’ve made with regards moving players out is Franson, while we have retained the services of bigger question mark players of Kadri & Bernier. Kadri, in particular, is a lightning rod for controversy for the Toronto market and media which is something I’d love to try and steer clear of, but the reality is that Toronto always picks on somebody. Kadri has been sheltered a little bit by the likes of Phaneuf and Kessel in recent years, and my major fear about keeping him would be that he’d become more of the focus, something I don’t think he will respond to well. Kadri is a good player who I’d be sad to see leave, but he’s been through a lot here, and if the right deal came along then I’d accept a departure there too, if you’re so inclined.

The Big Cap Save

Right, let’s get down to the big ticket items, and ultimately what I’ve got to focus on: The Big Cap Save.

The Big Cap Save is a simple concept that may be almost impossible to execute. The Maple Leafs are committed to a $48.5 Million cap for 2016/17 as it stands right now, that’s one and a half seasons away. My proposal is as follows:

Shed $15 million worth of cap space by the start of the 2016/17 season dealing any of the following players:

Dion Phaneuf (7m)

Phil Kessel (8m)

Tyler Bozak (4.2m)

David Clarkson (5.25m)

James Van Reimsdyk (4.25m)

Jake Gardiner (4.05m)

Leo Komarov (2.95m)

Joffrey Lupul (5.25m)

In my eyes, literally any one of those players can be moved. There is not one player in that list that I would absolutely keep for the future. Each, in isolation, has offered some big performances for this hockey club. Each would bring back varying degrees of assets, and rightly so. Most importantly, each can offer a lot to a lot of teams.

The reality is that some of these contracts are unmovable, whether it be because the deals are terrible or because the asset return just wouldn’t make it worthwhile. My below proposal is done with the idea that Cap Space is the most important asset the Leafs can attain in the next two/three years, and while I’ve tried to be realistic about what can and can’t be done, the Leafs management needs to get to the magic number of $15 million worth in space by the 2016/17 season out of the above assets while allowing for the fact that they will likely take back salary from others.

In my estimation, the first two players I’m going to mention have to be moved in order for this team to properly turn the page.

Dion Phaneuf – Move

How do you move an overpaid defenseman who’s got six years left on a deal paying $7 million per? I don’t know, frankly. What do you get back for this asset? I don’t know that, either. Here’s what I do know: Dion Phaneuf has been miscast as captain and a number one defenseman in Toronto. He’s been a lightning rod of fan discontent for years. He’s overseen an epic collapse with Ron Wilson, a nightmare play-off collapse with Carlyle, a mid-season collapse with Carlyle and another meltdown this year. His play has not been all bad, but the pressure of who he is, playing where he is, has beaten him down. It’s not his fault. He was put in a position where success was nearly impossible. The team needs a new captain and a fresh start. Unfortunately he is exhibit A of what was the Brian Burke/Dave Nonis era.

So what do we need back for him? Well, we need something useful. Whether it be a pick of note or a prospect, or a player that’s going improve a position, we need something. I’m not sure what kind of bargaining power Leafs management has, but Phaneuf is a useful player to a lot of teams, and should be marketed as such. What absolutely has to happen, in my view, is that the Leafs need to create at least a notable amount of cap space from a move, whether it be now or in a contract that is to expire in at most three years. It may be asking a lot, but this is something a good general manager needs to negotiate for.

Phil Kessel – Move

I love Phil Kessel. He is my favourite hockey player. He’s fast, he’s exciting and he scores goals. For a team that’s ready to push for the cup, he is your top line winger. The Leafs positioned themselves so that now was the time for Phil to shine on a team that was ready to get there with him. That hasn’t happened, and it’s not going to happen for the remainder of Phil’s best years. Kessel, like Phaneuf, has never been given the platform to fully succeed. Unlike Phaneuf, Kessel has delivered exactly what he was asked to deliver. Heck, imagine if he had a center like Toews or Kopitar on his line what he may have achieved? Instead he’s had Tyler Bozak. Years and years of Tyler Bozak.

Phil is the other major media lightning rod, and although far more beloved by the fans, he has had his hands on the wheel of the bus that went over the cliff these last four years. Is it his fault? I don’t think so. He’s probably been the best player on the team throughout that time. But the best player needs to set an example on and off the ice. Kessel can’t be what the younger players on this team coming through the ranks see as the top dog because his philosophy of the game is different than what this team needs it to be. Kessel is a small-town guy who needs to be kept out of the spotlight and not scrutinized. Toronto is the wrong place for Phil now.

So what do we get back for him? I think much the same as Dion. It’s a huge contract he holds, which is the biggest problem. But Phil is worth a lot to a lot of teams, and he is an asset to the Maple Leafs. However, like Dion, cap space has got to be the ultimate goal. You’ve got to find space over the next few years with him being moved on, and you should get at least one top six forward/top 4 D man or a top pick for him because he’s worth that to someone.

Joffrey Lupul – Keep

Joffrey Lupul is a good, level-headed and experience hockey player who is capable of playing top line minutes, and is potential captaincy material. He possesses the qualities that make you believe he may be capable of sticking around and managing the media’s expectations for the next two years while the Leafs try to make themselves relevant again. His production can be up to a point-per game and he could take the torch of being the lightning rod, assuming the media is going to need one here.

The problem is Lupul, obviously, is his injury record. It’s not worth trading Lupul for that very reason, because he’s a devalued asset. A good player that struggles to make 60 games of an 82 game schedule, his 5.25 million cap hit for the next four years is going to be too difficult to move for anything really worthwhile. His presence in Toronto is probably more valuable than it is elsewhere in the NHL, and the fact remains that when he’s on the ice, he’s a good player.

I don’t want the Leafs to finish 30th in the NHL in 2015/16. I want to see a good team that works hard on the ice and wins hockey games. I want the young players that join this team to learn how to win here. Lupul gives the Leafs that chance when he plays. No team is going to offer a lot for him given his injury background, and that’s ok. I think he is a player that can set a tone for this Hockey Club and I want him here if I can’t get something very useful in his place.

David Clarkson – Keep

Look, I’d move Clarkson in a heartbeat. I would literally move him for nothing and retain as much salary as is allowed just to get his cap space. Unfortunately, I don’t think any other team in the NHL would take him for free and pay half his wages.

The guy is a good guy who works hard, but his contract might be the worst in hockey. Nobody is going to want him, and I can see why. Keep him here, keep him on your fourth line and hope that he continues to work hard and is a good influence on the next generation coming through. Take him off the power play and do not give him too much ice-time because he’s ruining those around him. I’m sorry.

Tyler Bozak – Move

Bozak has come in for a lot of derision from the fans, particularly those who pay any attention to advanced metrics. The reality with Bozak is that he too has been miscast as a first line center. Conventional wisdom is that he is a good third-liner, or maybe a low-end second line center. The problem with that is that he’s being overpaid by about 1.2 million bucks for that role, maybe more. It increasingly looks like Leafs management banked on his steady improvement of point production to continue, but the fact is that it hasn’t. He has been at the helm of the Leafs disasters in what should be the Leafs’ second most important position of first line Center. Bozak’s trade assets will probably not be anything to get too excited about, but let’s remember the aim of the game here: cap flexibility.

James Van Reimsdyk – Move

JVR has been a solid player for the Leafs since arriving here. The stench of collapse hasn’t stuck to him like it has others, mainly because we’ve seen steady point-production coupled with relative cap value. What should frustrate everyone is that he seems unlikely ever to take advantage of his considerable size, but that’s not to say he would not be a great second line player. JVR is the kind of player I would happily keep, but his moveable assets should be worth more to the Leafs than he is. He is likely the easiest of all the Leafs big ticket items to move, so they should get a good reward back for him.

Leo Komarov – Keep

Leo is a fan favourite in Toronto. He is a hard-working, honest hockey player of limited skill, which some would argue is the problem with him. What Leo can offer is a level of stability, a strong work ethic and an ability to shoulder some of the load of the big minutes for this team. While his injury problems this year should be of some concern, Komarov is a stout penalty killer and a strong third-liner who has showed flourishes of offense this year. Like Daniel Winnik, he is the kind of player fans can get behind during a couple of years of transition. Dont trade a fan-favourite because you want people to stay interested in the next two years.

Jake Gardiner – Keep

There’s been a recent financial commitment to Jake Gardiner which I think means there’s no point in thinking the Leafs are actively trying to offload him, regardless of whether I think they should do or not. Jake Gardiner is an exciting hockey player with a lot of upside, but whose career has been littered with moments of poor decision making. However, that is not uncommon for a young player. What you’d like to see, in time, is the slow elimination of these errors, which remains to be seen. Gardiner has the look of what you expect Defensemen are going to be more like in five years’ time, and I’d be inclined to give him more time to develop. The likelihood is that he has enough skill and upside to attract suitors in one or two years if you don’t believe he’ll ever get to the point you need him to, and on a contract that is not impossible to move.

Cap Saving: $23.5 Million in a two/three year period.

This could be wishful thinking, I get it. I haven’t offered trade alternatives, ideas of what to get back or anything else, I get it. I don’t want to guess as to what they could or should get for any of the above, because honestly I don’t really know. I’ve heard rumours and reports from journalists, but I don’t know what can realistically be done. Here’s what I do know: the most important thing, regardless of what return any of these assets get, is that A) core players in a team that have experienced too much failure will be gone and B) their loss needs to clear cap space in two/three years.

There’s a remaining list of players on the current active roster that decisions need to be made on one way or the other in the coming years. There is one who is an absolute keeper at this stage.

Morgan Reilly – Keep

Since Carlyle’s firing, Morgan Reilly has arguably been the Leafs best player. A hotly-tipped prospect, Reilly has flown under the radar to the rest of the league for the most part, but the kid has been extremely reliable and wise beyond his years. Whether he matures in to a top defenseman remains to be seen, especially given Toronto’s recent record of developing blue-line talent, but the fact remains the Leafs have a young, exciting player who makes few mistakes, and generates offense.

He is a key reason why you need to think about avoiding a complete bottoming out. He needs to be part of a winning culture, a team attempting to try and get better, and in an environment that fosters success. Surround him with pieces to help turn him in to a real asset, even if they’re not the most talented players you can get. Give him a foundation from which to grow, and make him part of your next core. He is an exciting prospect and needs to be nurtured.

Beyond 16/17, Reilly is going to command a decent contract which will be hard to deny. A bridging deal would be likely, and it would probably touch close to $4 million if he continues the upward trajectory. Let’s say $3.75 and hope Leafs can strike themselves a bargain.

Roman Polak – Keep

While losing Polak would not be the end of the world, his is the Komarov/Winnik school of grit which fans here will appreciate during a transition (Do you see a trend here in what I am trying to sell you on the transition?) Polak has shared a lot of time with Reilly, and I think he is the kind of player that would help Reilly flourish. His presence on the blue line alongside Mo should add a level of stability to what could be a turbulent couple of years. Polak is a solid player with a manageable cap hit, there’s no need to give it up unless you’re getting something of real value in return. There’s no long term commitment to him, either.

Stephan Robidas – Keep

It’s only because you have to, really. He’s over 35 so he’s guaranteed with a no-trade clause, but he’s not a bad guy to have around. He’s struggled with fitness this year, and that’s not going to get any better, but he’s a veteran who can provide leadership and shoulder a burden in the back end for the young guys. He’ll be off the books in two years and that $3 million will be valuable once open.

Peter Holland – Keep

A young, controllable asset who plays at center, shown improvement this year and only costing $775k against the cap? I’ll keep it all day. Interesting to see what becomes of Holland and if he can show any signs of growth in the next 18 months, but he’s playing above his contract right now. There’s time to make a determination on what he’s worth.

James Reimer – Move

Last, but by no means least, Optimus Reim. Goaltenders are going to have it hard in Toronto, and Reimer deals with the media probably better than anybody on the team. He is a good goalie. I’m not sure he’s a number one, but he’s a great back-up. $2.3 million for the next season is fine, but after that he doesn’t need to be kept here for anything more. Don’t overpay a backup goalie, you can’t afford it right now. Reimer is not content to be a back-up in the league, and that’s fair as he feels he deserves a chance to play having taken this group to the play-off’s in 2013. However, I don’t believe here is where it will happen for him.

2015/16 Season

In an ideal world, you will be able to shake as many of these big ticket contracts as possible, and with minimum commitment going back the other way. However, that may not be realistic, and in reality we’ve got to allow for this transition to spill over in to next season. The idea of the “rebuild” in the media will be the hardest thing to contend with to start the season. Some of your top stars may be gone and there may not be an obvious replacement for them.

How to contend with that? Build a gritty hockey club in the short term. They don’t have to be the most talented group of players, but they have to be tough, they have to do the fundamentals and they have to work damn hard. The Leafs fans and media have watched a club lacking bite for numerous years now. The one exception? The lock out shortened season. Fans can get behind a hard-working team, and if they display a notable increase in effort that sets up a strong locker room culture to build upon for the next wave of players.

I’m not saying we go back to the Goon Hockey of Orr and McLaren. Far from it. What we want is hard checking, maximum effort and high character individuals to lay a foundation. The talent will follow in time. A team with Lupul, Winnik, Komarov, Holland, Booth, Robidas and other high-character individuals will give Leafs fans something to cling on to for the season, and see where it takes you.

Overall Goal of Cap Commitment for 2016/17:

Lupul:                   $5.25m

Clarkson:             $5.25m

Kadri:                   $5m (est.)

Komarov:            $2.95m

Gardiner:             $4.05m

Reilly:                  $3.75m (est.)

Bernier:               $4.5m (est.)

Robidas:               $3m

Buyout:                $1.3m

Total:                    $35.05m

Cap Commitment from Assets Trading “Big Ticket” players:

Total:                     $8.5m (est.)

Overall Cap hit for 2016/17 season:          $43.55 million

Saving to current:                                            $5 million

Granted, looking at the lay of the land now you’ve not made any significant saving – what you have bought yourself is future flexibility, and a new core from which to build around. Furthermore, by 2016/17 you can make clearer determinations on:

  • Jonathan Bernier as a starting goaltender;
  • Jake Gardiner as a top defensemen;
  • Nazem Kadri as a Centerman;
  • William Nylander as a prospect.

What we don’t want:

#Tank Nation

I am not convinced by the notion of “Tanking”, especially in Toronto. The fan base here is loyal, but it has also been beaten down to within an inch of its life. There is a potential lost generation of Leafs fans here, and it will affect the brand in the future. The city is dying for a contender, and with the rise of the Raptors, there’s a real chance here that Hockey could start dissolving some of its power.

Toronto’s hockey team might not need a Top 3 pick every year for the next 3 years. Bottoming out is not something I can get behind, because in this day and age there is a race to the floor, and you may not be able to get all the way to the bottom here. Bad teams lose hockey games. Good teams try to build a culture of success by winning, not by losing. While it helps to get the first overall pick, the damage you do to get that top pick may negate the repair a top prospect can bring. Case and Point: Edmonton.

Rushing the Prospects

The Leafs are probably going to get a top 10 pick in the upcoming draft, at least. That’s going to be a good player. He absolutely cannot play for the Leafs in the 2015/16 season. He probably shouldn’t play in the 2016/17 season either. Nylander, too, should also sit out next season and gestate in the Marlies. This rush to prominence for these young prospects has got to stop, because it’s not what the good clubs do. They’ve got to be given a chance to develop their skills and prepare. Throwing them in to the deep end is not beneficial to their growth long term, and this team needs to take the long-term view for the next two years. The key is to build a receptive environment for these players to land into in two years.

No Long-Term Commitments

Cap Flexibility is such an asset in this day and age. You need to have room to capitalize on the opportunities that may present themselves. The good hockey clubs like the Blackhawks are going to have major commitments down the road, and they’re going to struggle to make room for their players. The LA Kings already have cap issues, and somebody is going to swoop in there and take one of their good players. The Leafs have to be able to have room to take advantage of this. The commitment to this core of players was the big mistake. You can’t commit to anyone unless they have proven themselves to be a great player. Don’t tie yourself to anyone unless you’re absolutely sure. Kadri’s five years should be the only one that long, and I’d rather three or four.

Think You Can Save This Team

You can’t save this group of players. They are inexorably broken. Let it be. Please.

What we want:

A Strong Foundation

Easier said than done, granted. But the key, as I’ve been saying, is not necessarily a foundation of top 30 players in the league right now because they aren’t available. What the Leafs have to focus on for the next year and a half is building a core of high-chartecter, hard-working individuals who will foster a culture that the young players whom they draft will learn from. Kessel, Phaneuf, JVR, Bozak, these guys have failed in developing that locker room.

Draft Better

Again, easier said than done. I can’t give any analysis on this though because I’m not a scout. Just draft better players. There are not enough drafted prospects in this hockey club right now. This season they should have two first round draft picks, and a high second round draft. That should be three good players. Next season they’ll have another, and you should get a smattering of decent draft picks by trading some of the big ticket assets too.

And so ends my 6,000 word thesis on how to fix the Leafs. The prospect is almost ludicrous, I agree, but you’ve got to look at what my general plan is:

  • Play out the 2014/15 season as you are, gaining as much as you can from those who aren’t going to be here next year;
  • Take this off-season and the next off-season to rid yourself of as many long-term contract players as you can, and must be at least four;
  • Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel have to go. Good players, wrong place;
  • Make your 2015/16 team a squad of hard-working, high-character professionals, building a foundation of a culture that will allow young prospects to grow;
  • Draft good players;
  • Give the prospects time to develop;
  • Don’t rush.

It’s a hard thing to do in Toronto, I know this. But at this stage, Leaf management needs to ask itself what it wants for the future of this team. The core players could show signs of contending for a play-off spot in future years, sure. But there is nobody that things this team can win a cup, and very few who believe this team will be a regular play-off contender. If you’re looking to keep selling seats and have big names then fine, but the fans have run out of patience with this group.

It’s time to move on.

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Leaf Spot

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Puck Paddy is, unfortunately, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and has been since 2011. Every once in a while, he needs to vent.

Leafs Coach Randy Carlyle Canned

Leafs fans and media alike have lit up Twitter within the last 90 minutes as Toronto have fired Randy Carlyle after a turbulent three seasons in charge. Carlyle took over from Ron Wilson at the end of a mid-season collapse in 2012, and was at the helm for the infamous play-off first round implosion in Game 7 against Boston in the shortened season of 2012/13.

While there appears to be much joy in Leaf-land right now, to me they are are over-blowing what is at best a small step on what is destined to be a long and painful journey for this much-tortured hockey franchise. The reality is that the core of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been rotten for a long time, and it will take a generational coach to take this team to anything beyond it’s absolute maximum ceiling of a second-round playoff berth (and that is VERY wishful thinking at this stage).

I don’t think many in the hockey media were surprised to see Randy Carlyle go, and although there appears to by sympathy towards him, it’s hard to argue that this is not one of the moves the Leafs had to make, whether it be sooner or later. But the fact remains that this is a team that did not practice what Carlyle wanted to preach. It’s been argued for the longest time that Carlyle chose his lines incorrectly, leaning on the Kessel/Bozak/Van Reimsdyk line excessively and not blooding any of the young Marlies who had shown potential in the AHL, but the reality is that was not his remit. Carlyle knew that when Brendan Shanahan came in as President in the Summer of 2014 and subsequently fired his assistant coaches that he was next in line. It wasn’t within Randy’s best interests to blood youth and try to build something for this franchise long-term because he knew he needed results, and he needed them fast.

Considered one of the “old school” of hockey coaches, he didn’t seem to role with the Leafs management clear move towards advanced analytics when putting together his lines, and most saw it as a matter of time before the inevitable occurred. The Leafs puck possession stats continued to plummet, and as soon as they left the Air Canada Center for their extended road trip, this team were quickly found out. Couple all of this with the fact that there is a all-world draft class in 2015, as well as some big name coaches potentially on the market at seasons end and you have yourself the perfect storm.

So what next for TML? Dave Nonis, as nice a chap as he seems to be, must know that now he’s the next in line. He offered the huge deals to Kessel, Phaneuf and Clarkson (all of which are beginning to look a little worrying) and was involved in several other key deals that has formed this core of players which just look unable to make any significant progress. He’s been a part of the organization since the Brian Burke era prior, so whether he likes it or not, he has to wear a lot of the blame for this debacle of a team. He is, however, a good soldier, and appears happy to let Brendan Shanahan take the reigns as defacto General Manager. There may be a place for him still in the organization, but his decision-making powers need to be removed if they haven’t been already.

The main problem is the players, and the difficulty there will be in moving them. Starting at the top, Dion Phaneuf has just not worked out as captain of this team. He has been miscast as a number one defenseman, shows no aptitude towards leadership, and has a very difficult contract to offload. He is a good hockey player and a useful piece on a good team, but he is not someone you can build around. Not here. Not now.

David Clarkson was just a terrible evaluation by Leafs management, and will be a noose around the neck of this franchise for six more years. 5.25 million per in cap space is wasted on a third or fourth line winger who is a black-hole of offense. This is the most egregious decision of the Nonis tenure and will be put forth as Exhibit A by anyone who wants him out of the organisation. It would be a miracle if he was traded for anything more than a bag of pucks, and I’m sure Shanahan would bite your hand off for that if they could offload him now as a salary dump.

The Kessel/Bozak/Van Reimsdyk axis of evil appears to have lost a lot of it’s goodwill it had accrued over the past two seasons after about ten shoddy performances. The trio are unquestionably talent going forward, but their clear lack of desire to back check or fight for the puck is case and point of what is wrong with this team right now. They’re an all-killer line but not willing to do what it takes to do what needs to be done to help your team win. Of those three, JVR is the most tradeable asset with a reasonable salary and cap hit, propensity for goals, young and not too much term. Bozak is one a lot of the Leafs fans would be happy to see go, but it’s hard to imagine that happening as the rest of the league don’t seem to rate him like the Leafs do. And then there’s Phil.

I have been a Phil Kessel lover for a long time. The guy is electric on the ice. He produces goals, he generates goals around him for his line mates, he’s excellent on the power play, and he does not miss games. Ever. He might even be able to handle the scrutiny of the most intense hockey media in the world pretty well too in that he just does not care. But recently the guy has been a terrible influence on this team. His lack of work ethic, his selfishness in defense and his lack of willingness to lead the team by example off the ice is what exemplifies the problem in Toronto.

For me, the issue is the core of players that have been selected by the previous management regime. This team has had three years to figure it out, and they haven’t. They’ve showed they’re not able to deal with the pressure when the going gets tough. Kessel, Bozak, Lupul, Phaneuf, Franson, JVR, Clarkson, they have all been miscast as key cogs on a team building towards a championship. Independently they are all really good players that would probably perform well if they went their seperate ways (with the exception of Clarkson, that dude is terrible). Together, they can’t get it done. It’s sad, but it’s true.

Here is a core the Leafs need to evaluate, and quickly. Kadri, Reilly, Bernier and Gardner. Can you supplement them with a couple of the guys aforementioned? Lupul and JVR, perhaps? I don’t have a problem with keeping a couple of those guys around. But Dion has to leave, as the figure-head of this 5 year malaise. Bozak has to go if you want to spark some life in to Kessel. Maybe even Kessel has to go if you don’t think your young players are going to learn what it takes to be a top professional with him as the star player. But the reality is that this team needs a fresh start, and I’m not one to throw that kind of conjecture around very often. They’ve been through too many meltdowns now. They can’t do it.

Up For the Match – Puck Paddy visits Air Canada Center

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In a move that was both equal parts pathetic and a sign of my hockey fandom, Puck Paddy purchased a single ticket to go see his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs home opener in the Air Canada Center on Wednesday October 8, all whilst describing the situation in his blog in the third person. Why did I purchase a single ticket and go alone I hear you ask? For two simple reasons: 1) the tickets are ridiculously expensive and so most seasoned Leafs fans I know wouldn’t dare be so foolish to pay it and 2) even if they were foolish enough to pay it, the odds of finding two cost price tickets side-by-side were more or less impossible. Personally, I had made my peace with the decision to sit alone and enjoy the game surrounded by 22,000 of my new friends as I cheered on Hogtown against, as they say in French, Les Enemy.

This game was not my first jaunt to the Air Canada Center to watch the Leafs. In fact, I was fortunate enough to go three prior times over the course of the last four seasons. Unfortunately for me, the three previous occasions were all damp squib of games as the buds’ season outcome had already been played out. You guessed it, no playoffs. But this time would be different! Home Opener! First game of the season! Renewed Optimism! Analytics! Puck Possession! Brendan Shanahan! Culture Change!

Sort of….

For some reason, the atmosphere outside and around the Air Canada Center is often a lot better than in the actual arena itself. Because it’s attached to Toronto’s Union Station and right beside the main downtown highway, it’s already a hive of activity at 7pm at the best of times. As I entered the arena at 6:30pm and began my long ascent to the 300’s where my $150 solitary seat awaited, I was excited by the buzz around the kiosks as people lined up for beer and snacks. Feck it, I’ve already dropped a boat load on my seat, why not top it off with an overpriced beer to supplement the two I pounded before entering? This was me getting in to the spirit and getting ready to be rowdy for puck drop.

A favoured technique of mine is to get to my place early and start soaking in the atmosphere, and let the excitement build. So a full thirty minutes before the start of the game, I took my place where I was happy to see a white Maple Leafs towel waiting for me. Ok, it had a couple of Scotiabank logos on it too, but still I was pretty pleased with this gesture. I envisioned one of the great sites of my sporting lifetime, swirling my scarf proudly as the game began as Tyler Bozak wins the face-off and begins a long rally of Leaf possession in Montreal’s zone resulting in a Kessel wrister to beat Carey Price. What a moment!

Unfortunately my scarf remained shackled to my neck for most of the game.

So here’s the deal about the Hockey Mecca that is Toronto, and specifically going to a Leafs game: the atmosphere is practically non-existent for the most part. It’s Toronto’s dirty little secret, except that it’s not a secret to anyone. If you watch a game on TV, the sounds of the players cutting the ice and sticks swiping at each other kind of over-shadows generally how dull it can be in there. Once the game starts, that’s the end of it. There’s a hum of people talking amongst themselves, and general movement of fans to and from their seats, but the only time you’re likely to hear any sort of fan reaction to anything is when there’s a shot, a hit or a goal. Otherwise, that’s it. Nothing. No encouraging chants, no pre-faceoff cheering. Nothing.

What’s the problem then? Well, as far as I can tell, there are a few. First and foremost, the games are generally a corporate sporting event rather than the true sporting occasion. That’s the reason why the Leafs have so much money, their corporate sponsorship is unrivalled. I am very sure that a very significant portion of the fans in attendance (probably more than half) did not actually pay for their tickets. They were corporate tickets and they were invited by clients or colleagues or whomever. This results in, for example, the Montreal fans that I ended up sitting beside who were both drinking WINE AT A HOCKEY GAME! (damn French) Not only that, but they had no more interest on what was happening on the ice than they did texting their friends who were sitting in the lower bowl, also presumably drinking wine. My point is that they didn’t care about the game, they weren’t emotionally invested and they clearly just turned up because they could. I have no doubt that this can be said of a lot of people at that, and every Leaf game.

Which brings me to my second problem. Because Monseuir and Madame Vino had two corporate tickets instead of four, it meant that they couldn’t be beside their friends in the lower bowl to maybe talk a little bit more about the game, or maybe feel a little bit more excited about cheering on Montreal, or even anything remotely more interactive than how they were with each other. Their problem was that there was just two of them, side by side. That’s it. And that’s because the tickets are ludicrously expensive, and the corporate entity that forked out for these season tickets could only justify two for the season. That’s ok though, because there’s 41 home games, that’s plenty to dish out to clients! Two tickets is better than nothing! But the problem with everyone turning up in pairs is that it’s just that bit harder to build a group camaraderie. When you’re cheering on your team and you’re getting excited, there can a safety in numbers. If you can generate a cheer or a chant or celebration with seven of your closest friends, instead of just the one person beside you and not the weirdo Irish dude sitting by himself on your other side, then that can be infectious. That is just a lot harder in groups of two, or in my case, one.

And lastly…and possibly most importantly…is that the team just isn’t that good. And they haven’t been for a pretty long time. The product that is presented to Leafs fans has not only been sub-par from a hockey standpoint, it’s actually leaving fans bitter because they’re paying such exorbitant sums to watch such mediocre performances night-after-night. The town is bitter. They want to see their team work hard and perform like a Chicago or LA, but they just can’t. They’ve specialized in collapses, in folding, in fizzling out, in meekness, in excuses.  The Leafs can’t be accused of not trying to fix the problem, but they just can’t get it right because ultimately the market makes too much money to actually tank for a couple of seasons. The Leafs try to rebuild without knocking down the terrible foundations year after year. Never the worst team, but never good enough. These years of sub-par performances have left everyone wondering why they should bother forking out ludicrous sums.

And really, who can blame them?

The game itself was none-the-less enjoyable. 7 goals, a late equalizer followed by a late Montreal winner. Toronto nearly did enough to just about escape with the minimal acceptable standard before falling short at the end. Again. As for my solo run to the Air Canada Center, my scarf didn’t wave for any other time except for the three goals, and the despite the crowd being relatively hyped by the late equalizing goal, the experience was more eye-opening than it was memorable.

Until this team gets better, spend your money elsewhere.