The Leafs were bad last season. But with a few smart moves, optimism might be warranted again.
July 1 marks the beginning of the NHL free-agency period, which is a benchmark of hockey’s off-season. Being a lousy team, the Toronto Maple Leafs did not make the playoffs so their off-season started in early April. But that’s not to say they haven’t been busy.
The day after their season ended they fired General Manager Dave Nonis, their entire coaching staff, and most of the team’s scouts. In May they hired free-agent coach Mike Babcock—the guy that coached our men’s hockey team to gold medals in 2010 and 2014—and just completed a successful NHL entry draft on the weekend.
Turning around a long-struggling team like the Leafs takes more than a few weeks, though. Here, we take a look at how Toronto’s most infuriating franchise got to this point, what lessons they’ve learned, and what to expect from them this summer and beyond.
How we got here
When Brian Burke was hired to be the team’s general manager in 2008, he promised they’d play “black and blue hockey.” At that point, putting on the foil was not what the Leafs needed. They weren’t horrible, but they also weren’t good enough to make the playoffs—which they hadn’t since 2004. Franchise cornerstones like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos would be available at the draft if Burke committed the team to being bad, which would enable them to secure a series of high draft picks.
But Burke chose a different route, and wanted to “rebuild on the fly”—to both compete in the short-term and build for the long-term. As a result of trying to have it both ways, the Leafs did neither well. The rebuild that Brian Burke refused to take on in 2008 is what these Maple Leafs are embarking on now—and only seven or so years too late.
You may have missed how pitiful things were at the Air Canada Centre this year because you were watching the Raptors or doing literally anything else because you’re not a sports masochist, but you really missed quite the display. The Maple Leafs finished fourth-last in the league and were outplayed in most games. Fans regularly threw their jerseys on the ice in disgust, and the team’s best players had several run-ins with local hockey media. After a poor stretch of games, it was up to Anne Murray to express what we were all thinking:
I wish the Leafs were better.
— Anne Murray (@annemurray1) October 26, 2014
Well, good news, Anne—it’s happening.
The new philosophy
Since being hired in April 2014, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has completely refreshed the management and coaching teams. That was no more obvious than in the first round of the draft on Friday night when they picked Mitch Marner from the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
At 5’11”, 160 lbs, Marner is undersized by typical NHL standards. But he was thought to be the most skilled player in the draft after Connor McDavid (first overall, Edmonton) and Jack Eichel (second overall, Buffalo). He’ll definitely put on some more weight, and maybe grow another inch or two, but this pick is still a departure from the philosophy that Burke and so many other Leafs fans subscribed to for so long. Skill wins hockey games—not guts or brawn or any of that other tripe that so many in this city hawked for so many years.
So now that the old guard is gone, one of the league’s top coaches has been hired, and a new team building philosophy has been embraced, you may be wondering if this team is going to be any good this fall.
The short answer is “Not likely,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” Babcock said after his hiring on May 21. As we all know, there has been pain for years, but now it’s all part of the plan.
In addition to Marner and the others drafted on the weekend, the Leafs have some pretty good pieces going forward. When MLSE green-lit Shanahan tearing this team down back in the winter, five key players were identified as building blocks for the future: talented young defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier, scoring forwards James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, and their 2014 first-round draft pick, William Nylander. These guys could still get moved, but they’re generally considered pieces of a good Leafs team in the future. It’s open season on pretty much everyone else.
The two players you’ll hear about most this summer are Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Kessel is the team’s best player and Phaneuf is team captain and their workhorse defenceman. It is certainly not their fault that this team has been so bad, but they are the highest-paid and most polarizing. It doesn’t sound like they have been tabbed to be big parts of the team’s future as Kessel will be 32 (and likely not the tremendous scorer he now) and Phaneuf will be 35 when this team starts being one that can win in the playoffs again. If there’s a deal for either that works for the Leafs this summer, it will likely happen. Scorers like Kessel aren’t available often, and Phaneuf can be a really helpful player on any team he doesn’t have to be “the man” on.
Besides those two, watch for others like forwards Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak and defenders Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas to be moved for almost any reasonable offer. Bozak does not score enough to justify his $4.2 million cap hit (number via Hockey’s Cap), the oft-injured Lupul can fetch a decent return for the team as he is still a useful player when healthy, and the two defenders are taking up roster spaces that could go to younger players ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Will anyone be joining us?
“I don’t think we’ll be shaking the hockey world,” Shanahan said to reporters on the weekend, when on the subject of free-agency signings, but of course there will be some. The Leafs aren’t in a position to be making an offer to a big-ticket free agent this summer (besides the fact there aren’t really any big names available this summer), but like the moves of last year, we should expect some shrewd, sensible signings.
Last year, the Leafs picked up defensively responsible and offensively competent forwards Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik and then flipped them to playoff teams for draft picks and assets at the trade deadline. Expect more of the same this summer, and keep names like Michael Frolik, P.A. Parenteau, and Andrej Sekera in mind. They won’t be picking up all-stars, but they will be chasing good hockey players for short-term deals: players that don’t give the puck away and can keep it out of their own zone and net. Guys that can be traded next March for another war chest of picks at the NHL draft.
It remains to be seen if some of the young guns will make the Leafs next year. Don’t count on seeing Mitch Marner with the team at all, but we will likely see stints from Nylander, Connor Brown, Viktor Lööv (pronounced “love”), and Petter Granberg. In addition to the players, the Leafs are yet to name an actual general manager to replace Nonis—assistant GM Kyle Dubas and director of player personnel Mark Hunter have been handling that job for now. Shanahan says at some point there will be a replacement, but it’s just not a priority right now, especially because things have been going so well since they canned the last guy.
What to expect next year
There’s no point in lying; Babcock is right, there will be pain next year. And likely the year after too. But you can rest assured of the following:
- There is a plan in place. This is no longer a franchise left twisting in the wind. They are going to build a good team without taking any shortcuts. Babcock is here for eight years, and the management group has the mandate from MLSE to burn it down and then rebuild.
- This team will be better than last year. Mike Babcock is a great coach and will manage his roster effectively. Rielly and Gardiner will be another year older and that much better. Kadri will benefit greatly from having a good coach and will continue to develop into a more complete player as well. If Kessel is still around, hopefully he finally gets some playing time with Kadri. Anything you’ve ever heard about so-called chemistry between Bozak and Kessel is a lie.
They may not win a lot, but they should be fun to watch—if only because they’re more competent that we’ve seen in years. A properly coached Leafs team that can score, defend somewhat, and possess the puck more will be a pain the ass to match up with every night. They won’t make the playoffs, but they might make you look forward to the future, and that’s more than we’ve been able to say for a while.