Brendan Shanahan Addresses Depth, Not Core of Toronto Maple Leafs

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28: General manager Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens speaks with President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan (L) of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2014 NHL Entry Draft at Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

When Brendan Shanahan was introduced as the new President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was met with skepticism and the focus centered on Tim Leiweke’s consistent reiteration of the word “culture.”

Conversely, Shanahan’s focus was not on buzzwords of culture change, or calls to arms, but a methodical approach to assessing and addressing the needs of a team that has very good parts but ultimately is a poorly built team. “I’m not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations; None of that matters. Wins do,” Shanahan said at the time. He is right, wins are what matter. But on second look at that press conference, it was maybe a bit more revealing than given credit for. “I do like a lot about this group. There are some good pieces a lot of teams would covet,” Shanahan told everyone. “You start to look at making improvements in small increments,” he said, alluding to their offseason plan quite accurately. The Leafs were simply “not deep enough,” Nonis added. In Elliotte Friedman’s last ’30 Thoughts’ of the season, he too noted that: [pull_quote_center]28. One of Toronto’s players said it was very clear after the season the organization wants to even-out everyone’s ice time, both up front and on defence. The feeling was a number of critical players — Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk — hit the wall.[/pull_quote_center] So far, the Leafs have stuck to the script. Earlier in the summer, I wrote about the Leafs bottom six and their lack of production, specifically when it came to the third line.

In a nutshell, it said:

  • The Leafs third line had the worst points per game in the league compared to other third lines.
  • The bottom six couldn’t help kill penalties.
  • The bottom six couldn’t help protect a lead, in which the Leafs led the league in blown third period leads.

The bad penalty kill and inability to protect a lead don’t fall solely on the bottom six, but in the big picture they couldn’t help offensively, defensively, or on special teams. There is no nice way of saying that. That is how the Leafs ended up having three forwards in the top 12 of average time on ice (for forwards) in the league. The only other team in the league to have three forwards average 20+ minutes of ice time per game was Vancouver, and only 29 forwards in the entire league averaged 20+ minutes. To say nothing of JVR and Kessel playing in the Olympics, too. The second line had two 20+ goal scorers, and nearly a third (Raymond had 19). Both Lupul and Raymond are listed as left wingers on NHL.com, and they both finished in the top 30 at that position in ice time. They each would have finished in the top 30 as right wingers as well. This is getting magnified to really make it clear how bad the Leafs bottom six was, how much they relied on their top players because of it, and to highlight how the Leafs ran their top forwards right into the ground.

Their top six across the board, as illustrated, played a huge amount. Shanahan, true to his word about the team having good pieces — and to Nonis’ point about the lack of depth — has so far gone about reconstructing the rest of the roster around “the core,” which includes Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Kadri, Bozak, Phaneuf, Gardiner, and Rielly, with Bernier and Reimer in net.

Last season, Kulemin led the Leafs bottom six in scoring with 20 points. New additions Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik both topped that, Booth had one less point, Holland was on pace to beat 20 points, while Frattin, Komarov and even Bodie have flashed the ability to be at least reasonable contributors. In fact, if you combine Winnik’s 30 points, and Santorelli’s 28, they total more points than the Leafs most played entire bottom six based on games played (Kulemin, McClement, Clarkson, Bodie, Orr, Holland combined for 51).

That is why, despite a lack of big move to help boost the team and ignite the fan base, there is reason for optimism heading into next season. As per James Mirtle, the team got rid of six of their worst eight possession players. Every forward they have added has a history of strong underlying numbers, but beyond that they all bring different elements and styles to a bottom six that last year sorely lacked any sort of contribution to the team. Leo Komarov draws penalties and is excellent on the forecheck, David Booth works the walls and drives the net, Mike Santorelli is very fast and a dog-on-a-bone on loose pucks (similar to former Leaf Dominic Moore), Winnik is strong defensively and a big body, while Matt Frattin adds a big shot, physicality and speed. Peter Holland adds more size and skill. These are not the big and flashy names fans were hoping for to make a big difference, but it is hard to imagine they don’t significantly boost the worst bottom six in the league to at least the middle of the pack. And that is a big addition.

It has gone under the radar, but Shanahan has basically cleaned house—save for making any headline grabbing moves. There were 25 players that played at least 10 games for the Leafs last year and ended the season as a Leaf or Marlie, and 13 of them—over 50%—are either out of the organization entirely, or appear on their way to the Marlies for the start of next season. To date, six forwards and two new defensemen have been acquired. Three assistant coaches have been fired, two long-time management members, and Kyle Dubas and Peter Horachek have been brought in while Steve Spott has been promoted. All three have strong recent histories that suggest the Leafs just got a whole lot smarter and methodical in their approach, which will have a systemic trickle down effect to the on-ice product.

The reality is that all of Leafs Nation is on a completely different timeline than Brendan Shanahan. He just got here. He is trying to evaluate every corner of the organization. With everything that happened and what they lacked last year, it makes it extremely difficult to evaluate the core that many wanted blown up or at least altered, because they had no support. With the pieces put in place he can now do that. Provided the new additions fit in and contribute – and there’s more reason to believe they will than won’t — the eyes are all geared towards the core players now to step up and deliver. “This is the time for me to start learning about the organization from top to bottom,” Shanahan said in his introductory press conference. “It’s a time for me to listen, to learn and get to work. That’s all that’s really worked for me in my career. That’s what’s worked for me when I was done playing hockey and that’s what I intend to do here.”

With a handful of cheap, solid, productive acquisitions, and a revamped defense, he now has the opportunity to focus on the top of the roster properly and take the next step in his plan. The core players, Carlyle, and Nonis are all on the hot seat now, but at least they have an opportunity to succeed with what has been done. It is up to them to seize it now in conjunction with a solid supporting cast. “When I first started in Detroit, they weren’t the team they are,” Shanahan said about the once maligned and comically laughed at organization. “Sometimes success is just around the corner.” There is reason now to believe that might just be the case.

A few interesting notes I have been sitting on:

  • With Carl Gunnarsson now off the team, Dion Phaneuf is sure to be paired with his best partner since Francois Beauchemin. Since the Leafs moved the veteran rearguard to Anaheim, Phaneuf has played with Keith Aulie, Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, and Carl Gunnarsson. Any of Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, or even Stephane Robidas, are big upgrades over any of those options. Gardiner and Rielly aren’t sure things yet, but it will be really interesting to see how Dion responds to playing with some legitimate talent in Toronto for once.
  • I have been over Clarkson’s shooting percentage and shots on goal count to illustrate why I think he will naturally bounce back (plus he probably won’t start next season with another ten game suspension…), but the Leafs have also brought in some wingers that play the game more suited to his style. Booth is very good along the boards and brings the puck hard to the net, Komarov works the walls well and engages in battles, while Winnik is a big strong body that goes to the net and can cycle. Kulemin was the only player Clarkson played with that could do this stuff, but with McClement as the center coupled with Kulemin’s complete lack of confidence, that just wasn’t going to get it done. Clarkson played a bit with Ashton at the end of the year, and looked very good working the wall. Their CF% was over 52 and although it was only a short period of time, to my eye it was the most comfortable Clarkson looked here- working the walls with another big body on the cycle and eating up offensive zone time.
  • Ashton, however, will be in really tough to crack the roster this year. Troy Bodie made a very good impression last season, can play both wings, is 6’5, and can fight a little, so save for a horrendous camp I think he is safe. Add in Petri Kontiola, who the Leafs brought over from Finland, and Ashton is facing an uphill battle. Perhaps the two-way deal should have been a tip-off.
  • Capgeek has too many forwards listed on the Leafs roster right now, so looking at the Leafs cap hit there at the moment, it should go without saying, is not correct. With three forwards most likely getting relegated, there is more than enough cap space to sign Gardiner and account for a seventh defenseman. I still wonder if Franson will start the season in Toronto.
  • As interesting, dynamic changing, and mindset swinging as the Kyle Dubas hiring and Dave Poulin plus Claude Loiselle firings were, only in Toronto does it get the coverage that it did. NHL GM hirings don’t get that much attention in some cities. Dubas will be a fresh addition to the staff, but to suggest the 28 year old who has never been a part of the NHL is ready to be a GM, or that the Leafs are about to fleece teams now that he has been hired, seems imprudent. There is stratospheres of difference between the OHL and NHL. Like any younger person joining a massive company, it takes time to learn the ropes and even just get your bearings. The SOO turned the corner towards the end of his tenure, but if you go look at his complete history (I’m not going to dissect it and criticize it) it wasn’t always smooth. He has a lot to learn and he knows that, but he is a great young management asset to groom. For me though, the signing says a lot more about Shanahan and where his head is at. I think we are at a point where we should be questioning if some of the things the Leafs were doing systemically and deployment wise last season should be obsolete. Shanahan is going to cut it off at the knees; he basically already has. He has two potential NHL head coaches standing on the bench as assistants right now, and he already blew a hole into upper immediate management. It is adapt or die time in Toronto right now. The stories have been about Dubas, Leiweke, culture change, and whatever else, but the real story is Shanahan putting succession plan pieces all into place and gearing up the organization for his tenure.
  • Mcost61

    Great read AP. Interesting times ahead

  • ShiftyD

    Nice write up A.P. wish I had a longer lunch to comment further.
    I really like and agree with this:
    “Every forward they have added has a history of strong underlying
    numbers, but beyond that, they all bring different elements and styles
    to a bottom six that last year sorely lacked any sort of contribution to
    the team. Leo Komarov draws penalties and is excellent on the
    forecheck, David Booth works the walls and drives the net, Mike
    Santorelli is very fast and a dog-on-a-bone on loose pucks (similar to
    former Leaf Dominic Moore), Winnik is strong defensively and a big body,
    while Matt Frattin adds a big shot, physicality and speed and Peter
    Holland adds more size and skill. These are not the big and flashy names
    fans were hoping for to make a big difference, but it is hard to
    imagine they don’t significantly boost the worst bottom six in the
    league to at least the middle of the pack. And that is a big addition”
     While under rated moves they are as important as the big, obvious ones everyone is always on about.

  • LeafErikson

    Good work, Anthony. I really like that part about Dubas, and not jumping too far into thinking he has a big, immediate impact. And I see it as you do, a shift in thinking with Shanahan at the core of it. It’s get on board, or get out time in Toronto.

  • LeafsGuru

    I’ve been impressed with Shanny I have to say.  I think Stevie Y has some competition, and I could see Shany running team Canada very soon

  • Greg Fenton

    LeafsGuru lets see how the moves play out first.

  • LeafsGuru

    Greg Fenton LeafsGuru  of course but I’ve like the approach he has taken

  • Cameron19

    LeafsGuru You think Shanny could handle the easiest job in hockey?

  • LeafsGuru

    Cameron19 LeafsGuru  do you really think it’s the easiest job in hockey?  the team has to win silver isn’t good enough

  • Doorman

    Thanks AP!  Yea The bottom six was The prob. along with Coaching!!!  I hope the coaching prob. has been rectified!!!

    Great write up!!!

  • wendelsway1

    A great read, as always, Anthony.  We are definitely on the Shanahan Highway……..get on board, or get left in the dust…lol   Can’t wait for the season to start  :)

  • Cameron19

    LeafsGuru Cameron19 Well, maybe it’s a high pressure job, but picking the team is pretty easy – and what else does he really have to do?  Everyone on this board is within 1-2 players of what ends up on the roster with their guesses. The only differences come down to preferences/biases like Carter/Giroux, Hamhuis/Phaneuf. Ultimately changes that probably don’t effect the outcome.

  • ProfessorRance

    LeafsGuru Cameron19 They sure make it look easy though…

  • Loric76

    Great read Anthony.  Well done.

  • The_Polish_Cannon

    Cameron19 LeafsGuru don’t forget Kunitz

  • LeafsGuru

    Cameron19 LeafsGuru  it’s also passing on star players, guys that are on your team as well, picking the right coaches and Assistants there more than picking players to the job. and it takes only one player to pass over to get all the blame if they lose as well.

  • Loric76

    https://twitter.com/mirtle

    https://twitter.com/mirtle/status/494175083917623298

    “It is adapt or die time in Toronto right now.” Good read from https://twitter.com/APetrielli http://t.co/9l5qtqurcb

  • Loric76

    https://twitter.com/mirtle

    https://twitter.com/mirtle/status/494175410851024896

    I’m not crazy about the Leafs
    blueline changes but their forward depth is miles better. Bottom six was
    horrendous – and that’s easy to fix.

  • Loric76

    https://twitter.com/mirtle

    https://twitter.com/mirtle/status/494177299546112000

    There’s basically zero chance
    the Leafs are a brutal 42% possession team again. Success of new system
    determines how high they get.

  • Doorman

    Loric76 Maybe Mirtle knows what he is talking about after all!!!

  • hoolihan

    Good read. Agree with almost all of it … I don’t think Bodie cracks the lineup.

  • Loric76

    Doorman Loric76 only when he agrees with me

  • Mcost61

    hoolihan  He will if RC has a say. #facepuncher

  • Loric76

    hoolihan I think he does.  Bodie will replace Orr as the ‘enforcer’, mainly because RC needs his security blanket.

    As long as the traditional enforcer can contribute while not enforcing, I’m happy.

  • hoolihan

    Mcost61 hoolihan He will drop the gloves, no doubt, but he doesn’t have the strength or (more importantly) the balance on his skates to win any fights. Not much of a deterrent.

  • hoolihan

    Loric76 hoolihan I don’t think the Leafs will carry a “designated hitter”.

  • http://mapleleafshotstove.com/ DeclanK

    FOR OFF-TOPIC AND 
    GENERAL CHAT
    PLEASE GO TO THIS PAGE
    http://mapleleafshotstove.com/2014/07/28/toronto-maple-leafs-sign-daniel-winnik-to-a-one-year-deal/

  • Mcost61

    hoolihan Mcost61  Id hate to go into Boston too soft , maybe I’m old school too

  • hoolihan

    Mcost61 hoolihan Is there a softer (smaller) team in hockey than the Habs?

  • The_Polish_Cannon

    AP killing it again with this one

  • Mcost61

    hoolihan Mcost61  We usually have the Habs number in their house

  • hoolihan

    Mcost61 hoolihan Yeah, but they knocked off Boston.

  • Mcost61

    hoolihan Mcost61 Yeah, was not happy about that.

  • hoolihan

    Mcost61 hoolihan Me either … HATE the bleu-blanc-rouge … but it’s a sign that Conn Smythe was wrong (at least in today’s game). You don’t have to beat them in the alley to beat them on the ice.

  • Walter_White

    I really don’t like how the D is assembled right now. 4 guys that play the right side (5 if you include Granberg) and only 2 that play the left side. Unless we move Dion to the left side we end up with 2 lefties on the top pairing and 2 righties on the bottom pairing. Am I thinking that’s a bigger deal than it actually is?

  • BPsotka

    DeclanK This should be posted at the bottom of the article- then it doesn’t go away.

  • hoolihan

    Walter_White What are your pairs?

  • Walter_White

    hoolihan Walter_White Well…if Dion stays on the right side (which is clearly where he is comfortable) it would likely be:

    Gardiner – Phaneuf 
    Rielly – Robidas
    Polak – Franson

  • Walter_White

    hoolihan Walter_White Moving Dion to the left side solves the L/R pairing issue, but Dion struggles on that side pretty noticeably.

  • hoolihan

    Walter_White hoolihan I honestly don’t see much of a difference 😉

  • http://mapleleafshotstove.com/ DeclanK

    BPsotka DeclanK It always is. It’s a “featured” comment.

  • BPsotka

    DeclanK BPsotka I just learned something.

  • Walter_White

    hoolihan Walter_White Putting a left handed dman and right handed dman together creates a much smoother breakout.

  • Walter_White

    hoolihan Walter_White I worry about our breakout/transition game if 2 pairings have same-handed dmen.

  • hoolihan

    Walter_White hoolihan Agreed. And it should make both more effective along the walls and in preventing opponents from splitting the defense … sticks both in the middle of the ice.

  • deedrag

    I’m not going to say i liked your piece AP. If you get too many likes some big corporation will steal you away from us and we’ll have to listen to some idiots’ drivel. On second thought screw it, I liked your piece! There, I said it, now some big media corporation will be trying to poach you from us. Keep the good work up MLHS staffers.

  • Loric76

    Walter_White Still think Gorges fucked up their plans.  They’re concerned that Rielly might faulter in his sophomore year, so the plan was

    Gards – Phaneuf
    Gorges – Robidas
    Rielly – Polak
    There’s still time to work out a deal to move Franson out for ideally a top 4 LD with 2-3 years left to fill that spot Gorges refused to fill.  Not sure who tho.

  • Burtonboy

    Best article you’ve written all yr. and you have written some real dilly’s. I had a feeling backed by a lot of reading that Shanny was going to have a huge impact on the whole organization and I said so many times .  I can honestly say I didn’t expect all this to happen so quickly but the man seems to know exactly what he wants and he’s not wasting much time .

  • Walter_White

    Loric76 Walter_White Dealing Franson + a forward for a top 4 left D would solve everything.

  • hoolihan

    Loric76 Walter_White I said in the other article that they will be getting either Ellerby (more likely) or Stuart (both LDs) in a deal from Winnipeg, with Reimer and Franson going the other way. The Leafs will also get Hutchinson (G) and Kane, but I’m not sure who/what else they’ll send west.

  • Loric76

    Burtonboy I wonder if even he’s somewhat surprised.  This coincidentally is the first year in many that so many decent defensive and bottom 6 FA’s have hit the market, and the prices haven’t been astronomical like in previous years.  I give Shanny tons of credit, but the timing couldn’t have worked out better.  Lucky.