The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won a
Stanley Cup since 1967. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the last 10
years and over the last few seasons they’ve been through several coaches and a
couple of General Managers. It’s hard to imagine a team that has hit more of a
rock bottom after another 30-44-8 season.
They did manage to get their man plucking
Mike Babcock as head coach from the Detroit Red Wings for a reported $50
million over the next eight seasons. They do have a respected hockey man in
Brendan Shanahan as the franchise’s President.
However, they are also without a GM and
trade rumors are swirling around several of Toronto’s key players including
Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. There’s a general
concern that some of the roster’s talented young player have stagnated in their
development, notably forward Nazeem Kadri and defenseman Jake Gardiner.
In reality, the Maple Leafs suffered from
roster mismanagement, partially encouraged by making the playoffs and taking
the Boston Bruins to a Game 7 in 2012-13. They’ve suffered from all too often
having coaches and GMs working from different scripts and they’ve struggled to
establish clear on-ice leadership.
Shanahan’s number one priority must be to
get the right man in place as GM and there’s every possibility that that could
mean serving as interim GM himself for a period of time. Babcock’s hiring gives
the veteran head coach a lot of power and he’ll clearly have plenty of say in
the roster’s direction.
Perhaps that is deserved considering his
history of success with the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks. However,
there’s also no question that returning this roster to competitiveness will be
a greater challenge than either of those stops. Neither Ron Wilson nor Randy
Carlyle could turn Toronto’s post 2004-05 lockout fortunes around, both
well-established NHL head coaches with impressive records.
Every time a team misses the playoffs, they
need to “re-“ something – either re-build or re-tool. The course that Toronto
chooses may very well depend upon Babcock’s opinion Phil Kessel and Dion
After signing a large, eight-year contract
extension, Kessel experienced his poorest goal-scoring output since 2007-08,
which was just his second NHL campaign. Widely regarded as a little media
unfriendly and known for having some so-so relationships with coaches, Kessel
had an especially combative spell in 2014-15. He was almost constantly in local
media coverage sparring with one reporter or another and there have been
multiple reports suggesting that his relationship with the team isn’t much
However, Kessel is a superb skater and pure
goal-scorer who has nearly 250 regular season tallies to his name and five 30+
goal campaigns in the last seven seasons. His success is even more impressive
considering that for the most part Tyler Bozak, a solid, but unspectacular
offensive player, has been the man centering him.
Meanwhile, Phaneuf is the explosive,
physical and offensive-minded defenseman that many teams dream of having to
light up games. The problem is, that he is now 30, it has been a while since he
was at his explosive best or most offensively productive, but he still makes
the same defensive gaffes that have always plagued his game.
Babcock dealt with adversity during his
time with the Red Wings. His last two seasons coaching a young roster are
evidence of that. However, he was always able to build around a group of
well-rounded players, who also possessed terrific intangibles, see Pavel
Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall.
Kessel and Phaneuf are ultimately
one-dimensional and they've struggled to establish themselves as leaders on
this team. On the flip side, their skill sets are not that easy to replace.
Indeed, Babcock might look at this roster
and think that he is spoilt for young talent including Kessel, Phanuef, James
van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Tim Erixon, James
Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. You can throw in the 2015 fourth overall pick from
the NHL draft as well.
It’s not that bad of a starting point and
perhaps a re-tool and change of approach is more necessary than the complete
overhaul – again dependent on the veteran head coach’s perception of Kessel and
Advanced statistics like Corsi generally
suggest that Gardiner and Rielly in particular have a bright future in the NHL
and you can bet that Babcock will like their puck movement. He’ll also surely
be able to implement systems that have an immediate impact on the special teams
units, which both ranked in the bottom eight in the league percentage wise last
He’ll want to carry over some of the puck
control and puck possession element from Detroit and whoever takes the GM
position will surely need to address the team’s challenges at the center
position, which have been a reality for several seasons now.
Kadri may one day be that top option, Bozak
and Holland are both useful utility options, but this team is thin down the
middle of the ice and that’s a challenge for any coaching system.
a fine line between success and failure in the NHL, especially in the salary
cap era. One piece added or one piece missing can seriously change the look and
feel of a roster. For the Maple Leafs, it might be a center, it might be a more
secure defensive set-up in front of Bernier and Reimer. It might be Babcock.
For Babcock, he has chosen a tough
situation. Enjoy success in Toronto, and his legacy will be sealed. Fail, and
he joins Carlyle and Wilson in the line of coaches that just couldn’t make it
work with this group for some reason.
Whichever of those it ends up being, one
thing is for certain – the Maple Leafs will be an interesting team to follow
and watch this offseason heading into 2015-16. Those that love and hate the
Leafs, and there are plenty that hate them, will want to see at least something
a little more interesting happening In Toronto this coming season. It's an
Original Six franchise and huge fan base after all.
Labels: Written by Sebastian Egerton-Read - @Seb_Read