When the media asked who has final say on roster decisions at today’s introductory press conference for Brendan Shanahan, there was a pause followed by some laughter shared on the podium between Tim Leiweke, Shanahan, and Dave Nonis.
“I have a boss. It’s Brendan. Your boss has the final say — that’s just common sense,” Nonis finally said.
And, with that, a changing of the guard has officially begun in Leafs Nation.
When Brian Burke was hired in 2008, the Leafs were supposed to be building this great front office team to match some of the other powerhouses in the League such as the Detroit Red Wings. It was the “in thing” at the time and widely lauded in Toronto and beyond. Now, the new “thing” seems to be hiring a former player to act as President.
At this point, the only thing we can really judge is that it is a change and it is different. Shanahan has no real management experience, and although he has worked in the NHL, we have no true indication of who “his team” and “his guys” will be yet. This is, in other words, completely uncharted territory.
Last year, the Oilers brought in Craig MacTavish to change things and they hired a “forward thinking” coach from the “new school” in Dallas Eakins. They were the same old Oilers. Big changes were promised there and they made a few nice moves, but, ultimately, the Oilers’ first year under MacT was disappointing.
On the other hand, Dallas hired the coveted Jim Nill, he brought in the respected Lindy Ruff, and made a massive blockbuster to bring in Tyler Seguin along with drafting Valerie Nichushkin. They made the playoffs in the West and look to be a team on the rise.
Everyone wants to know immediately whether this is a good move or a bad move, but nobody can answer that right now from the outside looking in. We will, however, know very soon if the direction of this team is going to change.
Many fans want to know if Shanahan will be analytics-inclined; by all indications, he’s at least open to that kind of stuff. In his former role, he was an outside the box-type who held player research and development camps to try and think of ways to improve the game. So, by all indications, he’s not set in his ways and is looking at new ideas all the time.
More importantly, to me — and he possibly gained this from his time as the Head of the Department of Safety — is whether he will be open to making bold and controversial moves that are for the best. Since the original lockout lifted, this organization has been gun-shy when it comes to trading players enjoying career years and maximize their value. It started with Bryan McCabe way back when it was rumoured Carolina was ready to give up Andrew Ladd. Ultimately, the Leafs kept McCabe, missed the playoffs a few more times, and sold him on the cheap.
We’ve seen more recent examples with Lupul, Franson, and maybe even Reimer. Conversely, this organization has set themselves up to fail in the player-stock-market-game more often than not lately. They will be trading Reimer from an all-time low right now in terms of his value, they bought out Grabovski after a career-worst season, Liles was healthy scratched for the majority of the year before being moved, and so on.
Buy low and sell high are the basics for any good asset management and it just has not happened enough in Toronto over the last decade. There have been awful contracts handed out to players and not enough buying from the scrap heap even though it’s where they have benefitted the most (Raymond and MacArthur vs. Komisarek and Clarkson). Hopefully, Shanahan grew some extremely thick skin working in his previous highly-scrutinized position and will have the guile to make moves like that in this market.
But first thing is first: Will the coach be back? If he’s let go, who will he hire to succeed him? Will the management team get the axe? Then there’s the draft followed by free agency. It’s full steam ahead for Shanahan and he doesn’t have a lot of time to put together a plan.
There are some good pieces on this team and they aren’t nearly as far off as some people seem to think. Kessel and JVR are arguably the best top line winger duo in the league (I don’t think any team has a better duo to be honest), Rielly and Gardiner are young horses on D, Kadri is 23 and just had a 20-goal, 50-point first full season in the NHL, and perhaps most importantly they have very good goaltending. It is up to Shanahan, and whoever he brings in now, to make the best of it and pull the right strings.
It sounds easy enough on paper, but we all know it is always much easier said than done.
With the Leafs officially eliminated from playoff contention, the dissection has officially begun. One buzzword we will hear moving forward is “leadership.”
After a third straight collapse with this core, the inevitable discourse is now underway and fans, more than ever, are questioning if this group can win. When they look so good for stretches and suddenly collapse like this repeatedly, the only fall-back explanation for many is that they don’t have enough character and that there aren’t enough leaders in this room. That must be it if there is enough talent to win, or at the very least qualify for the playoffs, right?
If I had to boil down the Leafs problems to a few key issues, it is pretty clear to me that they don’t have the horses down the middle that every other good team in the East does, their defence lacks top 4 minute eaters, and the Bernier injury happened. On paper, at least, that’s how I see their problems in a nutshell.
When the Leafs are running Bozak-Kadri-Bolland-McClement down the middle against top teams in the East that run Giroux-Schenn-Couturier-Rinaldo/Lecalvier, or Bergeron-Krejci-Kelly-Campbell, or Crosby-Malkin-Sutter-doesitevenmatter… well, no amount of leadership is going to make up for that.
With that said, it would be foolish to completely ignore the off-ice happenings of this team and everything that goes into how they prepare for games. Depending on what corner of the internet you’re reading, leadership can swing from being the most important thing in hockey to one of the most mocked terms out there. The truth is, as always when it comes to these things, is that it probably falls somewhere in between.
For this Leafs team, where it really comes into play is how they approach the game and the success in the standings they were enjoying earlier. That leadership starts at the top and has filtered all the way down through to the players.
Early on in the season, the Leafs got outplayed but a few strong factors helped the Leafs get off to a great start regardless (namely a hot Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, and goaltending). Management’s response to this start from Dave Poulin was a resounding, “we look back at number [shot number] from three or four years ago and we were out shooting teams and losing. I’ll take this any day of the week.”
It is one thing for this Leafs team to get out-shot by a couple of shots each night because they probably have enough talent and good enough goaltending to make up for it, but we’re talking about history in the making here.
The wrinkle in all of this — the leadership– is that the Leafs were pretty okay with winning games while getting dominated. They were winning games getting out-shot by 20, weren’t going to apologize for it, and the coaching mantra was “we don’t criticize wins.”
In fact, last week, Carlyle lamented that he and the coaching staff were hesitant to criticize too much even though they weren’t playing well because winning was the bottom line. Results versus process, to a tee.
In the middle of the season, the team went through a stretch of 30 games where they won five times in regulation, and Bozak shot back with a line about them still picking up extra points in OT and the shootout as if to say it was being overblown.
Then, Kessel became pretty much the hottest player on the planet and Poulin is back saying, “instead of micro analyzing things nobody is looking at how high we are in the standings.”
It is easy to cherry pick quotes and form an argument, but these few lines from a few people involved with this team are indicative of how they felt pretty much all season. There were really only a few that were outspoken throughout the year on the problems.
The most consistent voice by far was Jonathan Bernier. For example, after a win at the end of January, Bernier said, “We’re still giving up a lot of scoring chances. Especially our last game [Tuesday against Tampa] wasn’t our best one. But we’re coming out with wins, which is the most important part. But I think if we want to be successful in the playoffs, I’ve been through that, and you’ve really got to bear down defensively and be a good defensive team.”
Imagine Darryl Sutter’s and Dean Lombardi’s reaction to being out played the way the Leafs were?
The Leafs brought in a veteran guy in Tim Gleason and it was one of the first things he noticed, saying, “You always look at the shot board, and they’re always ahead of us. So you come to the rink – do your best every day. As a group of six [defencemen] we do the best we can. It’s something to focus on every day. It’s a work in progress.” That, too, was in January in the middle of a hot streak.
Oddly enough, one of the only other outspoken members of the Leafs organization about their misleading play pretty well all season was Randy Carlyle. In preseason, he said he wanted to get better in the offensive zone, in a few of their losses he referenced luck turning on them, and he was trying to convert the way the team played all season, saying things like, “We’ve tried to create a template where we’re more conservative. from an offensive standpoint, we’re not making the Hail Mary plays, we’re not trying to just be a rush team, we’re trying to do a lot of different things as far as getting away from just a [one] chance and out. We want more puck possession time.”
But, as noted earlier, the sense of urgency wasn’t there from the coaching staff because they didn’t want to criticize wins too much.
Beyond that, the problem with Carlyle, it seems, through his roster decisions, system, and past history, is that he doesn’t have the answers to what ails this team and is arguably (probably) digging the hole even deeper.
People will ask where the leadership was in the eight-game losing streak, but the truth is, the damage was done by then. There was no digging out of that hole halfway through. The lack of leadership was in everything that led up to that collapse when the team did not try and alter their play and correct the mistakes that were present throughout the year (let’s take this one step further – the PK was exactly the same all year despite being terrible; the PP saw changes after the damage was done despite slowing right down and going completely cold).
Leadership is a tough thing to talk about in this day and age for hockey. I don’t know if you would this call a lack of leadership to the exact definition, but I think it’s pretty clear, if we look back at this season from management on down to the players, few people in the organization were overly concerned with how they were getting dominated throughout the year as long as they were winning.
Even in defeat sometimes they were completely clueless. The Blues dominated the Leafs more than any other team did this year, and after the game Gunnarsson says, “If we play like we did in the 3rd period for 60 minutes I don’t think there’s a lot of teams who can beat us.”
That was because the Leafs made it close at the end, which was really just a product of St. Louis being so far ahead after the first two periods that they completely shut it down in the third. In the other dressing room, Ken Hitchcock was saying that was maybe their most dominant game of the season and that they could have scored ten goals. Gunnarsson is just an example here, but he was far from the only one to make a comment like this after defeat. Did anyone not realize what was really happening out there?
The Leafs brought in Bolland and Clarkson to be these leadership veteran guys, but Bolland got hurt and looked like he was playing on one and a half legs when he returned, while Clarkson was so bad that he really couldn’t say anything or command respect around that room. Looking around the roster, there really isn’t a lot of other experience to go around. Lupul has been to a Conference Final and Raymond went to the Cup Finals once. Those guys are pure scorers, though. JVR has also been to a Cup Finals, but played hurt down the entire stretch due to the Olympics. Franson went to the second round once with Nashville as a third pairing guy and was clearly out of his element in the top four this year. Save for JVR, none of these guys really lead where it matters the most: the ice.
So, really, we talk about leadership and this team, and my memory will be that they were winning games while getting dominated and were A-OKAY with doing so. I don’t think there was anyone in that room that was telling the team, “we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re going to win this way all year.” While I don’t think some respected veteran saying those 14 words saves the season by any means, I also don’t think this team should have given up the most shots in an 82 game season in NHL history.
The next question is if these guys are really going to pin this season down to one eight game losing streak, or realize that it is a bigger trend. Management can talk about leadership all they want in that room, but this whole thing starts with them. We are passed the point of just being happy to get two points with this team. It is now about doing it the right way. The way that wins you a championship eventually. If this team is winning games next year and getting dominated (which they are still more than capable of as currently constructed) and are okay with that and not demanding better, this organization still doesn’t get it.
Sometimes, in order to learn your lesson, you need to learn it the hard way. Hopefully that is what happened here this season.
10 Storylines to Watch this Summer
1. What will happen to the coaching staff?
Someone has to take the fall for this season, right? The PK reverted back to being very bad and the Leafs got dominated like never before this season despite icing a pretty reasonable line-up. They were a cap team that finished 8th worst in the NHL even though they had a banner year from their top line, almost no injuries on defence, and good goaltending. How can they possibly justify not making any changes to the coaching staff whatsoever? Whether it’s firing Carlyle or taking away a few assistant coaches (as was done to Ron Wilson), it is tough to envision a scenario where the exact same coaching staff comes back next year. And if they do in fact fire Randy Carlyle, who is going to come in and replace him? Guy Boucher? Kevin Dineen? Peter Laviolette? A complete junior unknown?
2. Will the Leafs management team be changed around?
Everything that applies to the coaching staff applies to the management group as well. We know Nonis is returning, but that doesn’t mean Poulin or Loiselle are coming back, too. There have been rumours all year that Calgary is interested in Poulin and now Vancouver has an open vacancy, too. Even if other organizations don’t poach these guys from the Leafs, is Toronto going to keep the exact same management group that put together this team going into next year and actually undid some of Burke’s good work?
3. Marlies on the team?
Kyle Cicerella wrote a nice piece looking into what prospects from the Marlies could challenge for spots next year. Give it a read here. The Leafs have six forwards under contract next season not including Orr or McLaren. There are no regulars that are RFAs, either. That means guys like Ashton, D’Amigo and Holland should all have real opportunities to crack the team next year while guys MacWilliam, Granberg and maybe even Brennan (who will need to be signed), try and make the D. How many spots will the Leafs leave open heading into camp? Will they tentatively write some of these names into the line-up this summer and then fill the other holes? We shall see.
4. What will happen to Reimer?
Obviously a lot of people think he is done here. By the sounds of his interview after the Ottawa game, he thinks so, too. But he is an RFA and Bernier isn’t a proven 65+ game stud, so maybe the new guy in charge sees that Reimer is a good goalie and holds onto him. If they do decide to move him, they need to make sure they get good value for him. If he goes to the Islanders, for example, he immediately makes that team drastically better and they will be a serious threat to the Leafs for years to come. They can’t just get back a few picks with none being first rounders in that type of move. Really, it boils down to a two part question: Not only will they trade him, but will they good value for Reimer?
5. Will they trade a young gun?
Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri are the two obvious names that we’re all looking at. Some will say you have to give up to something to get something, but are these the type of kids the Leafs should be moving? I’m still of the belief that they won’t find the necessary value to justify moving these guys (and I don’t think they will move either for veterans), so ultimately I’d be surprised if they both aren’t on the Leafs to start next season. But, stranger things have happened. Gardiner is also an RFA that needs to be signed. That could potentially present a dilemma.
6. Will they shake up the core?
When you look at who the team has under contract for next season, pretty well every player can be a called core-type piece save for Tim Gleason. Maybe the Leafs are content with trading away a few RFAs (Reimer, Franson), bringing up kids, and signing a few UFAs, but if they want to make big changes you’d have to think at least one player part of the signed core is going to be moved.
7. Can they take advantage of a fire sale?
The Leafs look primed to make a big move or two, but in Vancouver and Carolina specifically, fire sales look incoming. Big names are potentially available in Kesler, Staal, Skinner and Edler. The price for these guys is probably huge, but if the Leafs can get in on a team selling a good player for a price that’s reasonable to them, it could go a long way to improving the team. Some other potential trade partners include the Jets, Predators, the Capitals, and maybe even the Oilers. The UFA market isn’t amazing, so it would really be a boon to make a good hockey deal.
8. Who are they going to draft, and will they add more picks to their collection?
By my math, the Leafs have 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picksgoing into the draft this year. They don’t have a second round pick next year, either, and have a bunch of players going to free agency or are restricted that they could move away for more picks. Most importantly, though, is what they do with that first round pick which is probably going to be the 8th overall selection. If you look at the picks in the 6-10 range over the last few years, there is usually at least one team that sees immediate help from their choice. This season the Stars got that with Valerie Nichuschkin. The year before was a weird one because of the lockout, but the Ducks with Lindholm and Jets with Trouba are seeing pretty strong early returns from that range as well. In successive years before that, the Flyers picked Sean Couturier and the Canes snagged Jeff Skinner, and both teams saw immediate production. It would be nice if the Leafs could find someone similar that cracks the team from the start, but that’s not the requirement here. They need to hit this pick out of the park and keep adding top 6 forward/top 4 D pieces.
9. Who are they going to resign?
Nikolai Kulemin, Mason Raymond, Jay McClement, Dave Bolland, Troy Bodie and Paul Ranger are all regulars that are about to become UFAs. All those guys appear to want raises from the outside looking in and the repercussions of signing certain players will have a domino effect (particularly if they bring back Bolland to be one of their top 3 C’s).
10. Will they fix a position of actual need?
Last season, the Leafs ended the year with question marks on defence and at center in particular. Their big moves to answer that were spending money on a winger, bringing in a goalie, and swapping out one good center with another one. A year later, defence and center are still the prime question marks of this team, so in saying that, will they bring in a top four D-man this summer or a legitimate horse at center this time around?
That marks the end of another season of Leafs Notebook. I can honestly say this has been the Leafiest season yet, if you know what I mean; a lot of highs, a lot of lows, a lot of arguments. It’s been a lot of fun as well. I hope you enjoyed reading throughout the year, and maybe even learned a thing or two. This isn’t the end of my writing season by any means, but it seems appropriate to extend a thank you to those who have been reading and interacting at this time. As is customary in Leaf land, we have a saying, “just wait until next year.” No matter what happens with the team, MLHS is always a tonne of fun. I can’t wait for 2014-2015 season.
Go Leafs Go.