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Brad Richards saga a “lesson” for the Maple Leaf brain trust….

When Brad Richards was a big name UFA two summers ago, I remember writing that it was a “chase” I was very glad that the Maple Leafs did not win.  The Leafs were clearly interested and as I recall made a big-time contract offer (maybe bigger than other teams, though not on term) but were rebuffed.

Why was I not enthused about signing Richards?

It was pretty simple:  as fine a player as he had been, including being a key member of the 2004 Tampa Bay Stanley Cup team, I wrote that, even though he was only 30 or 31 at the time, he had a lot of wear on his hockey tires (especially in the playoffs), and I did not see that getting better in the years ahead. 

I would have been much more enthusiastic about acquiring a young Brad Richards, rather than paying silly money for a guy whose best hockey may be in the rear-view mirror.

Seeing that Richards was a healthy scratch for Game 4 (and Game 5, too) of the Ranger-Bruin series simply reinforced that my misgivings two years ago were maybe not entirely off base.  I’m not, by the way, suggesting that Richards has been a bad player with the Rangers.  The effort is still there.  But for Tortorella to make this kind of decision, well, there are reasons, clearly.  He had seen Richards up close in the player's hey-day in Tampa.  Something had changed.

While it may have been jarring for some to see the Rangers play (instead of Richards) guys making a fraction of what the veteran winger does in  “must-win” elimination games, it was not a shock, really.  Richards has been a tremendous player, but most NHL'ers don’t get better in their 30s.  Some may, but it’s pretty rare. It seems to be especially the case nowadays, given the pace of the way the game is played.

So for me, the Richards saga is just a gentle reminder for Dave Nonis and the Leaf brass that a mad rush to sign big-game free-agents is not always “the answer”. 

What was the best signing the Leafs made last summer?  Arguably, it was the quick move on the first day of free-agency to sign a third-line player most Leaf fans (myself included), if they were honest, barely knew was in the league:  Jay McClement.  The veteran center brought maturity, tenacity, a strong work ethic and a professionalism that obviously enhanced the Leaf roster this past season.  Was he a difference-maker?  I would argue that he was, in that he not only was a strong defensive player who finished his checks and did the little things well, but he helped to completely overhaul what had been a dreadful Leaf penalty-kill in recent years.

Now, can you win just buy signing a series of McClement-type players?  Not likely.  You need high-end talent, too, preferably high-end talent with heart and character—and experience.  (Richards had all those qualities two years ago, yes, but at a price that was not a wise long-term investment…)

I would say that the Leafs’ “needs” at this stage in their development are pretty apparent even to we mere uninformed fans.  They need a true first-line center (this is a recording…); they require a stud defenseman (where do these grow?) and while I would make the case that they have gone a ways toward becoming “team tough”—something I’ve written about extensively here—they still have to do something to add real experience to the roster.   I’m talking about the kind of players who can close the deal in big games in the spring—something that didn’t happen in Boston on that fateful Game 7 night a couple of weeks ago.

I like the arc the team is on, and believe that Nonis knows what he “needs”.  (That is different, of course, from being to actually execute the “plan”.)  For his part, Carlyle just finished a short year of experimentation, and because he tried a lot of people in different slots, he should have a very good sense of what he needs to do going forward to get this team closer to what he wants it to be.  He still doesn’t have the roster he wants (I’m sure most coaches don’t) but he demonstrated that—albeit with some flaws and warts in evidence—he could still guide the team to some degree of success.  And he very nearly led them to what would have been a stunning first-round upset of the Bruins.  They came a lot closer than the Rangers did.

All this said, I don't think we can just wait for the “kids” to gain on-the-job experience. As important as it is to build with your own youngsters, good organizations also have to find and attract “winners”, like the Leafs did with Gary Roberts many years ago. You need experience.  You need leadership. (And some would have argued two years ago that Brad Richards would have been a perfect fit for the blue and white.  And I can understand the thinking. That’s what makes these managerial decisions so difficult.  Sometimes what looks like a great idea, in retrospect, isn’t. )

At the end of the day, when push came to shove in the playoffs, the Leafs did not have what it took to close the deal in the playoffs against Boston.  They lacked the confidence to finish the Bruins off.  It wasn’t just skill, though that is always part of it.  But they lacked the leadership and proven playoff experience. (Again, this should not have been a surprise- we talked about it here at VLM a fair bit, that the Leafs did not have playoff leadership in place yet.  In fairness, many fans did not even expect the Leafs to make the playoffs.  But once there, expectations from the fan base suddenly rose, making the early exit all the more bitter…)

All this said, the team did gain invaluable playoff experience against Boston.  They may well have seen what it takes to advance.  The obvious challenge now is finding the right pieces to add.  (Or at least what turn out to be the right pieces.)  Brad Richard has proven, it seems, to be the wrong choice for the Rangers, as good a professional as he has been throughout his career.

When it comes to players the Leafs might look to trade for or sign in free-agency, I don’t know “who” should be on the Leafs' radar.  That’s Nonis’ job.  But now that the roster is where it is, the next few added pieces will be absolutely huge in determining if the Leafs become just another decent team that, sure, makes the playoffs but doesn’t go anywhere, or a team that becomes a true contender.  I sense we’re on the cusp of becoming something. 

Exactly how we do find the right pieces - and attract the "right" kind of veteran at the right price (either in terms of cap impact or loss of young assets) - will be crucial.  The Richards/Rangers marriage is yet another example that not all signings of "high-propfile" elite players are the right fit for a given organization, even when it feels right at the time.  With Richards and Rick Nash in place, I'm sure the Rangers believed they had the roster to win it all.  They didn't.

Adding high-end skill, leadership and experience always sounds like a good idea.  And it generally is the thing to do.  I talk about it here often.  But somehow a GM has to, again, find the right player to fit his team's situation. Though the Richards experiment did not work out on Broadway, we all know that the Rangers were trying to make something happen.  It just didn't work. Maybe it was the right idea, but not quite the right player? (And on that note, I wouldn't be surprised if a number of teams were interested, if the Rangers buy Richards out this summer- and maybe they'll be "right" in signing him...who knows?)

Which leads me to my question for the day:  when it comes to the task of finding the right pieces to the Leaf roster puzzle, do you think Nonis is the guy to find what we need to get us that next (truly elite) level?


  1. Hey Michael,

    It's such a fine line when it comes to free-agents, isn't it. I'm sure, you, me and a number of the regular readers could compose a long list of guys we've seen signed/traded for for to provide X, Y or Z, just to see them used incorrectly, or exposed as declining, or requiring top-notch teammates to shield them... Nolan, Murphy, Raycroft, etc.

    To your question...

    I am not sure Nonis is the guy, nor Carlyle. And that's because for me, the 'elite level' won't be reached for a number of years yet, and I'm not sure I see either of them not being let go before then, simply thru the vagaries of the sport.

    That said, if Nonis is smart, he won;t be going and signing 'big names' on the decline. I am hopeful there is a measured plan to add guys like McClement – veterans with specific skill sets, who are known to be good 'team guys', who may be around 30-31. Easy right?

    My point is, the plan has to be to
    a) secure a core - Lupul, Grabovski, Kessel, JVR, Phaneuf, Kadri, Gardiner, Reimer
    b) continue to promote from the prospects ranks
    c) be judicious in acquiring experienced veterans to fill in the gaps.

    The temptation to make the big splash must be avoided at this point. This team took the Bruins to 7 games – but we have to remember this is still essentially a 'bubble team'. No one should have illusions that the Leafs will be a lock for a playoff spot. (This is why I am still somewhat dumbfounded by those who see game 7 as some kind of colossal collapse, as if this team was odds-on to win the Cup, but that's another story).

    Ferguson, Fletcher and Burke put some pieces in place here. Nonis needs to build on it.

  2. You're so right, Mark, it's awfully difficult to hit a home-run with a UFA. Sometimes a single or a double is just fine.

    The Leafs do have a nice core and as you indicated, they now need to ensure all the guys they really want to keep are signed or extended sooner than later.

    I like your last point, too- each of the three GM's you mentioned were part of building the current roster. Now it's up to Nonis (or as you allude to, his successor) and the coach to get the Leafs to a level of consistently elite play. As you mentioned, one playoff appearance doesn't guarantee much. (And I agree- it's not like we were destined to win the Cup even if we had upset Boston...)

    Good to hear from you- thanks Mark.

  3. So true Michael. As the Brad Richards saga shows, free agency is not the place to build a team. It is the place to supplement the team. That is not to say if a guy who is 27 or 28 hits the market (think Malkin in a year) you don't go all out to sign him. It is to say signing a 30+ declining player to big term, big dollars is not the right course of action and rarely if ever works out.

    In a way looking back at it now I'm kinda glad the Leafs went out early and the way they did. This way no one should mistake the actual progress of the team and make wildly bad descions. This is what Edmonton did after a suprise run to the final and where did they end up? No where good. The Leafs have a solid foundation, now is the time to add some peices to it, give some of the "prospects" time to grow and see where they are next summer when both Phaneuf and Kessel are UFA. Next summer is the big one. Now is not the time to break the bank on overpriced free agents. As I have told my brother many times free agency is a fool's game, by the very defintion of it you have to over pay to get what you want much like an auction. If two people or teams both want the same thing the price goes up. Not worth it in most cases.

    The answer to your question where does a team find a "stud" defenseman or center is of course you draft him. I would not be adverse to seeing the Leafs part with a second tier dman to try and move up in the draft this year. This is a deep, deep draft by all accounts and there seem to be more than a few "franchise" players in the top 6-7 or so. The time is now to find out if a guy like Blacker can play and with Reilly coming there could be a few guys who could fetch a big return, specifically Franson or Gunnarson. Try to find a top center, give him another year in junior, find out where Kessel and Phaneuf are going to be and in year go for broke. The time is close but not quite yet.

    1. You and I have batted this around here before, Willbur. It is precisely a question of timing. They will need pieces, clearly. Is this summer the time to find those elusive pieces, and maybe take some risks? Or is it, as you suggest, better to do that a year from now, when other big decisions will have to be made (i.e. Kessel and Phaneuf)?

      It will be interesting to see if Nonis gets an extension (I'm not sure what his contract "status" is) from the new ownership. If he does, then they are obviously saying this is the guy they want to finish the job.

  4. Sorry but I don't think much is going to happen this year.

    I finally re-watched the end of game 7 again. I was expecting it to be horrible mistake filled ten minutes but it doesn't seem the "collapse" that it is labeled. The Leafs didn't look that bad. That Horton goal, that started it, is a terrific thread-the-needle pass. The Bergeron goal to tie has pretty good eyes. Sometimes things like that happen, even to veteran filled dynasties...just ask Steve Smith.

    I don't think this is a bubble team. I think this is a good team with a lot of speed and talent. It is well coached and finally they are getting pretty good goal-tending.

    Much of what happens will depend on Tyler Bozak. I hear that not too many GMs are interested beyond 3 million. They know Kessel and Lupul inflate Bozak's numbers, so Bozak could be back.

    On defense, it would not surprise me to see Franson and Gardiner become the second pairing behind Phaneuf and Gunnarson. Fraser might play fewer minutes with Liles on the third pairing or perhaps they trade Liles for veteran two-way defenseman to play limited good minutes with Fraser. A veteran for limited minutes on a third pairing is a very achievable goal. Heck, maybe Paul Ranger could do that?

    As far as this year's Jay McClement? Boyd Gordon is UFA. He plays good defense and is a good faceoff guy. His faceoff skills would be a good backup plan should somebody get stupid and offer big money to Bozak. Kadri would then play first line center. If they keep Bozak, Boyd Gordon and McClement could still be nice in a checking line.

    1. You've mentioned before that Nonis may not be terribly active this summer, DP, and you may well be right on the money. As I discussed above with Willbur, Nonis will have to determine just how far away he thinks the current roster is, before he makes any serious moves to get better through trades or UFA moves.

      I hear what you are saying about Game 7 and the final few minutes. Plenty of teams in all sports have given up big leads late in the game. It happens. That said, the Bruins were down and out and the Leafs should have been able to close the deal. Whether it was inexperience, luck, whatever, they had an opportunity and didn't do it.

      I thought Ranger might be a candidate this past season, but it sounds like he preferred to play with the Marlies.

      We'll see- maybe Nonis will surprise us! Thanks DP.

  5. I agree with DP here on the Leafs not being a bubble team. We indeed, in my opinion, have a very young, fast, skilled and tough team with a great prospect pool. Gardiner and Kadri will get better and they are already great. Kessel is amazing. We have a good pair of goalies now, depth on defence, a solid and constantly improving captain, hard-working role players in Grabo and Kuli etc. The playoffs experience is very valuable and the dramatic loss will prove to be a blessing in disguise.

    I think the challenge in this off-season is to not trade away talent for someone like Brad Richards. In fact I thinlk the big challenge is signing Kessel and Bozak. I think giving Steckel away was a mistake - having him win some face-offs and take some of the burden off McClement's shoulders could very well have got us through that first round.

    I really don't see this team going anywhere but up. I also like the idea of maybe packaging a few 'pieces' like Liles and MacArthur to move up in the draft and try to continue to stay young and vibrant.

    I also think that the Marlies not winning it all this year may work out in our favour as it will take some spotlight off Eakins who I'd really like to see continue his amazing work with the farm.

    1. I was wondering, too, leafdreamer, if Eakins may not be quite as hot a ticket now (I may be wrong)- and if so, whether we'll see him back with the Marlies. My sense is his next step is to become an NHL head coach (not an assistant) and he may not be the front-runner for any of the positions that come free this summer.

      I agree the Leafs are a young team seemingly on the rise. I do think they could use some size up front, some physical forwards, to go along with the other things I mentioned- a true number-one centre, another very good defenseman and players with 'winning' experience. But with the right moves (or non-moves) things should get better. Thanks leafdreamer.

  6. I'm sorry but I have trouble seeing the Leafs as anything but a bubble team right now. That being said the eastern conference is full of bubble teams. I do think the Leafs are a young team on the rise for all the reasons above but I am still not convinced they would have made the playoffs over an 82 game schedule. It is so hard to properly gage where a team really is over such a shortned season. I don't think there are any major moves coming espicially in free agency because I think next summer is when they plan to really "go" for broke.

  7. Michael,

    Hope that you and all the other Leaf fans have found something to do since the Leafs were eliminated. If I may be so bold as to chime in. I think that there are 6-8 bubble teams in the Eastern conference. You have stated all along how mediocre the East is/was. I don't think that has changed. Lots of teams are going to improve this offseason, lots will get weaker. Which side our boys in blue are on, is yet to be seen. The monumental collapse, yes, it was a collapse. Any other characterization of a lost 3 goal lead with ten minutes to go in regulation, then losing in OT. Is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig. A bad attempt at saving face. The Leafs needed a difference maker, someone to say not on my watch. They didn't have one in that game. One of them may turn out to be that guy in the future, but in that game no one stood up to be counted.

    A few years ago, I was very much in favour of the Leafs acquiring Brad Richards. He was a proven winner, internationally as well as in the NHL. Only 30 years old, and a true first line centre. I honestly thought it was worth the price to get 5 good years out of him, maybe more. Is he done as a top line player? I don't know, don't really even want to guess. Lots of talented players have trouble producing for Tortorella. Add Richards name to the growing list. Makes me wonder if Torts is the problem, again I don't really know. I just like to ask.

    These are the types of moves that I want the Leafs to make. I see no other way to acquire top flight talent than to make risky moves via trade or free agency. The Leafs aren't going to finish last overall for 5 consecutive seasons and draft Fleury, Malkin, Crosby and Staal. We may never see that again. Sure Shero made other moves to get other guys and drafted well. But, how good is Letang without the other four guys? Same for James Neal, good player but a complimentary one.

    The other way for the Leafs to get top flight talent is to develop it. The Leafs record in this regard is abysmal. Possibly the worst in pro sports. I consider their record here to be the worst in hockey in my lifetime. Can Kadri become a true number one centre? Is Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly a Norris trophy calibre d'man? Again, I don't know. I hope the best for all the Leafs draft picks. I would love for one of them to turn into more than a middling third liner or bottom pair defenceman. It's just that as time ticks by, I am losing faith. And honestly, interest in the team itself.

    Best wishes to all the regulars here, and especially to you Michael. I hope you all have a great summer. The draft and free agent frenzy will be here before you know it. Then, training camp. Go Leafs Go.

    1. Some may see your perspective as 'tough love' for the Leafs, but I fully understand what you are saying. As I have written here before, when the team is firing on all cylinders, yes, they look skilled and fast and promising. And because they are "young", we as fans want to believe that automatically means we will become really good within the next year or so.

      But lots of teams have gone "young", with no results in the end. Yes, it's good to "home grow" your key guys, of course, but the truth is teams need to add pieces, and that"s what I'm talking about in today's post. Yes, Kadri is a nice player and so likely will Gardiner become. But I can all but guarantee that, as the bar gets higher, our expectations will be, too.

      I always say the playoffs expose a team's weaknesses. Whether that is what happened in Game 7, I'll let others debate. But I do know that even if we had advanced this spring, and if and when we do in future seasons, it will be that much more difficult to succeed. Every round you face better players, tougher defensemen and elite goaltenders. Only then will we really be able to honestly judge what the Leafs are and will be. That assessment includes Kessel, Lupul, Kadri, Gardiner, Rielly and anyone else we in this market think is "elite".

      I have a hard time thinking the Leafs have anyone who is truly a difference-maker beyond the players I just listed, and most (all?) of them are still unproven in big games at the NHL level- i.e. a Conference final.

      I've seen players and goaltenders go from hero to bum as their team made it all the way to the finals. Same with coaches. The further you go, the tougher the competition is and some players struggle. (Look at Joe Thornton in San Jose...great player, but always maligned because he can't "win" it all.)

      So while I see hope and promise with the Leafs, I also see what you are talking about Jim. Thanks for chiming in.

    2. I'm not sure how bad the Leafs record is at developing players, the team just lacks a history of keeping them. On the current team Kadri, Frattin, Komarov, Gunnarsson, Kulemin and Reimer were all players who were drafted by the Leafs. In recent years the Leafs have traded away Stalberg, Rask, Tlusty, Schenn who have all gone on to have varying contributions across the league.

      While that's by no means a stellar record of developing players, that's a pretty good rate for primarily late round picks (with the exception of Schenn and Kadri).

    3. I can't speak for how others assess "development", mapleleafmjt, but for me, it has to do with helping young players reach their potential and maintain their confidence levels. I think this administration did a dreadful job with Schenn and Gustavsson, for example, but that's just my view. Others may see it quite differently.

      It could be argued the Leafs, despite the stunted progress of the individuals I just cited, have begun to do a better job in recent times of developing players, in part because of the work of Dallas Eakins. But we'll see how Frattin and others emerge in the years ahead.

  8. Hey Michael,

    Quick opinion question for you.

    If the Rangers used their Amnesty Buyout this off season on Richards, is there any chance you would give him a shot on the Leafs roster on a shot term low dollar amount deal?
    Something like what Redden and Gomez got this year after they were bought out?

    1. I would, Brent. Despite what I wrote in this piece, Richards is still a good NHL player. And clearly there were a number of issues he was dealing with this past season. He will be in the "want to prove everyone wrong" frame of mind this summer and next season. So yes, I would for sure- assuming the cost is reasonable. It's entirely different than paying him for ten years at 6 million a year.