In hiring Tim Leiweke, MLSE has brought in a guy who is partly what many fans have always wanted in a President, and partly what they detest.
It is no secret that Leafs fans have always felt slighted within their perception that MLSE cares mainly about making money rather than winning. Leiweke, however, is a guy who most certainly does care about winning.
In LA, he bought his own tickets to Kings games so that, as Helene Elliott of the LA Times wrote, “he could vent his passion more freely than he could in a remote suite.”
When the Kings won the Cup, he walked around the concourse of the Staples Center allowing fans to try on his championship ring while posing for pictures.
At the beginning of this 2013 season, Leiweke said, “Our fans don’t want a free beer or free hot dog. They want another Cup. We get it… In fact they probably want a free beer out of the Cup, which is OK too.”
This guy is clearly a fan at heart.
But, like any fan would in his position, Leiweke often gets involved in the hockey decision making.
In an interview with TSN radio shortly after the announcement of his hire, Lieweke said, “Every day I ask management how we can get better. If that’s meddling, so be it.”
According to reports, that wasn’t where Leiweke’s involvement ended. He barged into the Kings’ locker room to lecture them at least once last season before they began their Stanley Cup run. He tried to sells fans on his opinion that Trent Klatt was a top six forward years ago. Browse his name in a search engine and you’ll find he was a popular punching bag in Los Angeles before they finally won last June. He is also pointed towards as a big reason why the Kings kept Dustin Brown.
In many ways really, Leiweke’s association with Leafs management will mirror the relationship he just came from in LA. Dave Nonis is known to be slow and methodical in his building and developing of a hockey team, much like Dean Lombardi. The reigning Stanley Cup champions slowly added pieces via the draft – such as Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Wayne Simmonds and Jonathon Quick – allowing them to grow slowly through the good times and bad.
Although Nonis didn’t necessarily directly acquire the pieces he had in Vancouver like the Sedins, Kesler and Burrows, he was more than willing to be patient with them. He cashed in pieces for Roberto Luongo the same way Lombardi brought in Mike Richards.
Leiweke made note of the Leafs’ great goaltending in his TSN interview. You have to consider it a good thing that’s he already gone out of his way to acknowledge, if indirectly, Reimer’s value. You have to wonder what he would have thought about the Leafs going after Miikka Kiprusoff.
Perhaps the most interesting soundbite Leiweke offered in his TSN interview was his quote about the Raptors being his main draw to Toronto. You would think the Leafs would be the main attraction, on the surface at least, but look at it closer and consider that the Raptors have a GM and coach possibly on the outs; it does make sense for Lieweke to relish the opportunity to build up a team essentially from scratch. Although it was curious to hear Leiweke call himself a “basketball guy.”
No matter what you think of the Leafs success this season, it’s undeniable that they have pieces in place. Reimer is a great young goaltender, Phil Kessel is a bonafide top 10 scorer and Dion Phaneuf is a legitimate top pairing defenseman; that core is supplemented with talents like Kadri, Lupul, Gunnarsson, Rielly and Gardiner.
The question for the Leafs and Leiweke now will be how much he pushes the envelope. The Kings were in on Ilya Kovalchuk when he was UFA, and they were in on Brad Richards, too. They made two huge trades to bring in Richards and Jeff Carter, and Leiweke made it clear when when he was with LA that his teams will pay any price to win. How hard is he going to push Dave Nonis to push the Leafs into Cup-contending territory?
He’s not the GM, and he stated as much, but there’s no denying that he’s going to be involved. How that, in and of itself, plays out in Toronto will be fascinating. Did Richard Peddie ever give the Leafs pre-game speeches in the dressing room and what would the reaction have been like if he did?
Leiweke did talk about the need for the Leafs to gain playoff experience. Surely he can recognize that the Leafs are only beginning to go through that process right now before they can take their next strides towards becoming a perennial contender.
Visions of a President that will factor into the hockey equation in Toronto will understandably send a shiver down the spines of many Leafs fans, but there are some major notable differences between Leiweke and Peddie. The first is the obvious – Leiweke is coming in with experience and a winning pedigree, whereas Peddie wasn’t involved with a hockey team before or since his time with the Leafs. The second point is also just as obvious – Peddie was meddling in the Leafs hockey ops at a time of transition, as the old guard – Sundin, McCabe, Tucker, etc. — needed to be moved out to prepare for the future. He lived in denial. Leiweke, on the other hand, comes to Toronto with the Leafs on the upswing. Further, Peddie hired a guy with little experience seemingly knowing he could control him, while Nonis isn’t really Leiweke’s ‘guy’ and has NHL GM experience. Those are significant differentiating factors.
Leiweke also praised the work of Nonis and noted the team’s identity under Carlyle. The jobs of the coach and GM who have overseen the Leafs’ first playoff appearance in nine years probably were probably safe anyway, but that still appears true.
And think again if you think MLSE just hired a glorified fan. No Kings owner ever had a profitable season before Leiweke’s time there.
All in all, Leiweke has bigger issues to worry about with TFC and the Raptors. We know he’ll be involved with the Leafs, but it remains to be seen just how much input he’ll really have in hockey operations.
If the end result is the same one Liewke’s hockey team produced last Spring, I don’t think anyone will complain.