When Tim Leiweke officially took over as President of MLSE on April 2013, the Maple Leafs finally made the playoffs after a long drought, the Raptors were awful and didn’t have a first round pick, and Toronto was pretty well done with TFC.
Boy, how things change in barely a year.
Since then, Leiweke has stepped in and brought one of the supposed brightest young minds in basketball in Masai Ujiri. All Ujiri has done is pull off a string of moves (Andrea Bargnani trade, Rudy Gay trade, Hansborough signing, etc.) that has the Raptors sitting third in an admittedly bad Conference.
Meanwhile, TFC has completely transformed their roster by spending over $100M to bring in marquee names. They are off to the best start in franchise history at 2-0-0. It’s early — and I’m sure you’re thinking, “the Leafs were good to start the season, too” — but things look promising for this franchise again. The buzz is back about TFC in this city.
And then there is the Leafs. After a stunning game 7 collapse against Boston last May, they are on the verge of another spectacular breakdown that could see them not qualify for the playoffs at all.
It’s hard to imagine Leiweke will twiddle his thumbs and idly watch this offseason unfold if the Leafs do ultimately miss the post season.
Last Spring, when the Leafs collapsed, Leiweke compared it to a similar experience for the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers:
“You go through that last game and it either makes or breaks an organization in my opinion. I’ve seen games like that. I remember the Portland Trailblazers when they had a collapse against the Lakers and they were never quite the same after that. And it still hangs over their head. This is going to make us.”
Will he think the same if this collapse happens? Will he conclude that the Leafs will never quite be the same and that dramatic change is required?
Look at some of the teams poised to make it right now in the Eastern conference in comparison to the Leafs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were missing their best player — arguably a top 3 player in the world — for a large chunk of the season, had to trade one of their franchise’s all-time best players, and their starting goalie got hurt and missed some time (along with a host of injuries to other key contributors). They are ahead of the Leafs.
The Detroit Red Wings are missing a large chunk of their team and relying on a bunch of kids that would otherwise be in the AHL if the team is healthy. Their two best players appear gone for either the rest of the season or the majority of it. They are winning games (including beating the Leafs), and are tied with Toronto in points with two games in hand.
The Flyers had a terrible start to their season, fired their coach, made some trades, and now are ahead of the Leafs, too.
When Leiweke arrived in Toronto, he noted that hockey was a different animal compared to the other sports. He’s right, of course. There is a much different building system in place in hockey. It’s not a case of drafting kids who will be stepping right onto the roster and helping the team right away, generally speaking. It’s a process. But this Leafs team is not an expansion team or terrible team that needs a tonne of time and patience. They have one of the best players in the league in Phil Kessel; further, his entire line is one of the best in the league, with each player having a career season. They just signed their Captain, who is turning 29 in a couple of weeks, to a mega deal. They have good goaltending (even if not lately). They are a cap team. Is Leiweke going to sit around this summer and talk about hockey being a process if they miss the playoffs altogether, especially after being in a playoff spot for the vast majority of the year?
That seems unlikely to me.
When the Leafs made the playoffs last May, Leiweke said, “I came here and it was ‘Oh my goodness, look at this.’ This happened Day 1. This happened the first day of the playoffs. You had more built-up passion for this hockey team and organization on an away playoff game than we ever did, including winning the Stanley Cup in Game Six on home ice.”
With what the Raptors and TFC are doing right now –- in large part because of the blocks he put in place -— this guy can walk on water in Toronto at the moment. But the Leafs are the crown jewel of this town, and he knows it. He got a little taste of the ‘fan-sanity’ of Leafs Nation last year in just round one (round one!). He liked it. A lot.
It’s doubtful the GM is on the hot seat with a shiny new five-year contract in hand, but the coaching staff is far from secure. Carlyle is not Nonis’ guy, and while Nonis might want to store the “fire the coach” card for a little later on, a shoe will drop if the Leafs continue this downward spiral. Maybe it will be an assistant coach taken away from Carlyle a la the first nail in Ron Wilson’s coffin. Maybe a prominent veteran is going to be moved. Maybe Nonis is going to bring in his own staff altogether.
The truth is I don’t know what will happen come summer time if the Leafs miss the playoffs, but it is hard to envision Leiweke accepting it and overseeing no major changes to a team undergoing its third epic collapse in a row with its current core.
- There is a storyline about the Leafs this season that says they are not as tough as they were last season. Yes, losing Komarov and even the scrappy Grabovski has hurt to a degree, but what is still not being talked about enough is the fact that the Leafs can’t kill penalties. The team has the third worst penalty kill in the league at 78.7%. In the shortened season, Toronto led the league in penalty minutes per game and were 14th in minor penalties per game. In 2013-14, the Leafs are 22nd in minor penalties per game and are fifth in overall PIMs/game. They simply can’t afford to take penalties this season because their PK is once again very bad. The exact same thing happened under Ron Wilson.
- It doesn’t really get talked about much, but Gardiner has a cannon of a shot. He walked in against the Habs and beat Price clean with a snap shot that unfortunately hit the bar. Not many players can beat Price cleanly with a snapper (even though it was technically wide, it was by mere inches). This has always been a favourite highlight of mine in reference to his shot:
- This is also the second straight season where crunch time has arrived and Gardiner has delivered. Last Spring, Gardiner had five points in six playoffs game and was a huge factor in the team pushing that series to seven. Often times he was a one-man breakout, skating the puck out of the Leafs zone and limiting the Bruins forecheck.
- Since the Olympics this season, Gardiner has six points in 13 games and has been one of the few bright spots for this team throughout this brutal stretch. Gardiner led his D class in scoring in his rookie season. In his second season, he was great in the AHL with 31 points in 43 games (and anyone who saw him play there knows he dominated). He had a strong playoffs in the NHL last May. Now, this season, he is tied for 11th in goals by a defenseman while playing on the second power play unit all year long. Gardiner can still be frustrating and we’re not always sure what we are going to get from him night in and night out, but he’s turning 24 this summer and his body of work as a whole thus far has been largely impressive.
- The Leafs have had one other five game losing streak this season, but they did pick up two loser points during it. With points being dished out to losing teams, losing five games in a row in regulation just can’t happen. Now the Leafs play St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Detroit this week.
- Lupul was about as bad as you can be against Tampa, taking a penalty in the offensive zone that negated the second half of the five minute major and committing a brutal turnover leading to what was ultimately the game-winning goal. To his credit, Lupul responded with a big game against the Habs, but the Leafs best players have all taken turns making head scratching plays during this streak. Kessel had a brutal giveaway in the neutral zone leading to the Habs opening goal, Phaneuf stood beside Stamkos as he one-timed a puck in the slot past Reimer against Tampa, and so on.
- Should be interesting to find out what kind of injury Phaneuf is playing through at the end of the season because he is struggling to move around out there and actually looks like an old man on skates at time. At this point, it would be more of a concern to find out that he’s not hurt at all and is just playing like this.
- A quieter storyline throughout the media is that the players just look gassed. JVR, Kessel, Kadri, Lupul… these guys are all playing heavy minutes and have been for a while, and it appears to finally be catching up to them. Kessel and JVR are still creating chances, but neither seem to have a jump to their step and both have been visibly frustrated with each other lately. They have looked gassed at the end of games, and that’s a by-product of not running four lines throughout the season. Last season, with only 48 games played, it was continually said in this space that it’s not a major deal with the shortened season but that a 82-game season is a much different animal. It’s starting to show. It’s not like the Leafs don’t have the depth either — there are kids who can help this team currently playing for the Marlies instead.
- A few years ago, I wrote about how Ron Wilson started bypassing the media and tweeting out his roster and wondered if that could catch on over time. Ultimately, the Leafs got purchased by Rogers/Bell and we now know that is just never going to happen here, but it’s been interesting for me to see Eakins start doing this in Edmonton (he’s also a Burke guy, to a degree). It’s not relevant to the Leafs anymore, but I thought it was something worth mentioning.
- By that same token, when the Leafs were purchased I wondered how much media access would change since they’re owned by two media giants. To date, the signing of David Clarkson has been marketed more than any other Leafs signing I can ever remember, the team has a new “Behind the Leaf” show, they’ve been on HBO 24/7, and their management group makes the radio rounds very regularly.
- Howard Berger posted an interesting blog talking about a really under the radar story: The Leafs knew Bernier wasn’t 100%, but let him decide whether he could play against the Kings. Anyone who has been around any high-level athletes knows that they won’t pass on a chance to stick it to their former team or coach. They are going to play unless you drag them off. Ultimately, not opting for a few extra days of rest may have cost the Leafs Bernier for weeks, if not their season.
“Of course everything will be re-evaluated in summer. I’m not saying Carlyle will be fired, but there are so many balls in the air.”
- Bob McKenzie on TSN radio.
And that was said before the Leafs lost both games this weekend in regulation.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think it hasn’t been noticed that the Leafs have been shifting around their D pairings lately, but it’s worth noting the mixing and matching. At the end of the day, their best four defenders right now are Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner, and Rielly. Those four need to be playing the most, and if you mix and match them to do so — or go Gunnarsson-Phaneuf, Gardiner-Rielly to do it — so be it. At least go down with your best.
2 – I think Franson has to be playing his final season with the team. He’s an RFA and is going to want to cash in finally, to an extent, this summer. He hasn’t been a top four defenseman this season, he has struggled on the powerplay lately, and has is turning 27 this summer with 300+ games of NHL experience; how much more room is there for this guy to grow? Maybe the rumoured hip injury is worse than we know, but he appears to be a third pairing PP specialist at this point.
3 – I think I’d go with MacIntyre tomorrow if Bernier can’t play. It’s nothing against Reimer, but this appears to be a toxic environment for him now. It appears to be inevitable he’ll request a trade and be gone from this team this summer. He’s a good goalie, but he’s struggled lately and all the frustration of this season is building within him. Go with the 31 year old playing for his NHL life. Try to catch lightning in a bottle. He didn’t look out of his element at all against Jersey once he came in.
4 – I think Clarkson shouldn’t even touch the Kadri and Lupul line. They haven’t looked good as a trio, they haven’t produced, and Raymond or Kulemin have looked way better there. Take your pick between the two, but Clarkson shouldn’t be an option. That’s a line-up decision that just reeks of contract justification. Where would Clarkson be if he was making $1M playing the way he is right now?
5 – I think I’d try to bring in a youngster from the Marlies who can bring some fresh energy right now. These are tough times on this team and they look like they are getting worse instead of better. Try calling up a kid and adding some spark to this group. Holland, Ashton, D’Amigo, or even Brennan. There are options. This is the same line of thought when it comes to MacIntyre. Trying plopping in a guy who might play way over his head because he’s simply pumped for the opportunity. It’s clearly working for the Red Wings right now.