I think a lot of us (not everyone, I realize) believed the Maple Leafs would take a step forward in 2013-’14. The near upset of the Bruins last spring—albeit on the heels of a short season that may have camouflaged their roster flaws—suggested there was enough talent on the squad to do some damage in the mediocrity-plagued Eastern Conference.
The arrival of Bernier in goal, Bolland as a ‘glue’ piece in the middle (providing legitimate Cup-winning experience) along with the signing of Clarkson last summer had suggested progress was around the corner. And at various points during this past season, the Leafs appeared poised to do just that, perhaps most notably in the 15 or so games just prior to the Olympic break.
That the Leafs are where they are is frustrating for most supporters, but I do still believe there is talent here, some high-end talent in fact sprinkled throughout the roster. Whether we have a) an identity that I have long talked about here or b) the leadership required to get them where they want to go, I still don’t know.
We have spent the season debating about the coach, his roster decisions, the system of play, the fourth line and everything else we can imagine. Whether a new coach would solve lingering and persistent issues (puck possession, shot differential, game night roster decisions, etc.), again, I don’t know for sure.
All of the above (leadership, identity, coaching, the direction of the team) will now fall under the oversight of Brendan Shanahan, a well-regarded ex-NHler with championship credentials as a player but no management experience as such.
Regardless of what imprint Shanahan makes on the organization in the short term (if nothing else, I will prefer listening to his hockey thoughts than those of Tim Leiweke), my thought for today is not about coaches or systems but about individual players. Do we have, I wonder, not only the necessary team chemistry but also the right roster mix to be a serious contender?
Beyond the status of the General Manager and the Head coach, the Leafs (and Shanahan) will have to decide, it seems to me, who fits and who doesn’t—and who can be key pieces on a championship roster. I can’t see them moving players like Kessel or van Riemsdyk, simply because it makes little sense to trade guys who put up huge points only to have to replace them somehow anyway with similar players.
What I’m trying to determine is: who are the absolute “must keep” Maple Leafs at this point in time, that is, players management must refuse to even consider trading? (I touched on this subject in my most recent VLM podcast.)
For me, beyond the aforementioned forwards, it’s a short list. Bernier is there for starters. I don’t really know if he is as good as some fans have made themselves believe, but there is no point continuing to play goalie carousel in Toronto. I thought last May we would finally have a summer without a goaltending debate, but then the brass decided they didn’t want Reimer. So if Bernier is their guy (and he obviously is), they need to make that commitment. Play Bernier and bring in a real back-up, not a guy that also wants and deserves to be a number-one somewhere.
The most obvious name on the "must keep" list (and this shouldn’t even be a point of discussion) is Morgan Rielly. Those kinds of talents really do come around infrequently, so when you have one on your roster, and they are only 20, you keep them as long as you can. The Leafs would not part with him, and shouldn’t.
That’s four guys (Bernier, Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Rielly). And to be honest, my list stops there.
I have zero issue with having Gardiner and Reilly on the same team. In fact, I like a lot of what they bring together, but if trading Gardiner (and you know how often I’ve said I loathe the idea of trading young defensemen) would get the Leafs the kind of gritty, skilled forward who would make a big difference, I’m for it.
I like Bolland but how much should we pay him? Kadri has game, but, well, I’ll just say for me the jury is still out. I see Mike Ribiero in Kadri and I was never a Ribiero guy, as good a player as he has been over the years. You’ll have to convince me Kadri absolutely needs to stay.
I’ve written very positively about Bozak here, and still see him as a valuable piece. He won’t likely be moved given his status on the first line, though we'll see how Shanahan views Bozak. I don’t know what Bozak would net in return, anyway. (He's making a lot of money and some General Managers may wonder how he would produce without Kessel by his side.)
Phaneuf? A very good, hard-working player who has played a ton of minutes here. He's on a very expensive long-term contract and I can’t see him going anywhere but if he was traded, I would be un-moved. I like Gunnarsson because I always like quiet, steady defensemen who just do their job, but as with Phaneuf, we haven’t won anything with him. He’s maybe not the problem, but is he really indispensible?
There are Kulemins and Raymonds all over the league. Replaceable.
I like the kids including D’Amigo, Ashton and Holland, but can we honestly say none should ever be moved?
Lupul is someone I thought had leadership abilities but I don’t know if any Leaf 'follows' anyone else on this team. So he can go, too.
A team that has not won a thing over the past few years (and no, we can’t blame the past on this year’s roster) surely can’t have a truck load of “can’t be moved” players, can it?
Can we win anything of consequence with the four centers we have right now, for example?
I understand that the Leafs have assiduously built up a young pipeline, and maybe it’s a question of time and patience. But do you really believe that all we have to do is “wait” and somehow this group will automatically be better a year from now and two years from now?
A new coach might help, I don’t know. New coaches almost always have a positive impact—at first. And that’s regardless of the system they implement, and whether they are a no-nonsense coach or a so-called player’s coach.
I expected a better result from the Leafs this season. I was convinced they would make the playoffs and could be one of the better teams in the East. Why they struggled at the end of the season, I can’t say. Yes, the goaltending was off at times, but it was the same goaltending that stole games the team had little business winning earlier in the season.
I'm of the view that as culpable as Nonis and Carlyle may be, this is on the players. While we keep saying this is a young team, look at the years of experience most guys have. This is not a team of 20 year-olds with zero NHL experience.
So for me, the list of untouchables is pretty limited. Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Bernier and Reilly (and Bozak by default). And I’m not even sure you win a championship with Kessel- I just don’t know that it makes any sense to try and move him.
Is my list too long—or too short?