The Stanley Cup playoffs are now in the books, and Leaf fans can reflect (not like we haven’t already) on what the Shanahan/Nonis roadmap is to get the club back into contention.
By the spring of 2015—the next opportunity for the blue and white to be in the playoffs—more than ten years will have passed since the Leafs last won a playoff round. The Hawks, Kings and Bruins—all teams who had serious struggles at various points since the early 2000s—have won Stanley Cups and become consistent NHL powerhouses.
I’m not a hockey analyst, but I don’t think there was one particular way any of those (or other successful franchises, like the Red Wings) organizations built winning teams. The draft helped the Hawks with the likes of Toews and Kane, but they’ve never really had what most observers felt was the best goaltending in the league. Yet they won. The Bruins had talent, for sure, including Chara and Bergeron. And they won a Cup with Tim Thomas playing remarkably well. But for the most part, they, like the Kings, had nice balance throughout their lineup, relied on strong goaltending, followed their system—and worked extremely hard all over the ice.
It looks as though management in Toronto will stay the course and be patient. They will continue to build with their present core, and keep adding pieces, whether that is a veteran like Clarkson a year ago or some of the younger players sprinkled throughout their system. I sense that’s fine with most Leaf fans, who aren’t looking so much for a home run in the off-season as much as an indication that the club has a philosophy and a direction, and will develop some kind of identity in the season ahead.
Whether the decision to retain Carlyle was the right one or the roster is “good enough” to win consistently as it is presently constituted; whether major trades are indeed made or we see some surprise free-agent signings, Leaf supporters will want to see signs of actual progress by a year from now.
The Canadiens—a team I saw as a kind of pesky but harmless younger brother for the past few years—flew past Toronto this past season, and won two playoff rounds, including an upset of the mighty Bruins (something the Leafs themselves almost accomplished a year ago). So we know it can be done.
The bottom line? I think Leaf fans need to see the Leafs win a playoff round next spring. I don’t believe it will be enough for fans to hear about plans the future. Yes, the future is important, and building a much-discussed “culture” within the organization may well be necessary—but that will be a long-term project before we see if it is all just talk.
But the Leafs do need to show us something next season, even if it is only some early playoff success. They have a goaltender, they have some proven forwards and some young defensemen with legitimate potential who have already been in the league. Now they need to implement the right system, plug holes on the third and fourth lines and use the assets they have (speed, skill, etc.) while becoming harder to play against.
Tweaking a roster to develop the right mix is a never-ending challenge for any organization. Teams never go anywhere without skill. And they need experience to go with young legs and leadership to keep everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction.
Ultimately, a team needs players who hate to lose as much as they want to win—and guys who will do what is needed to win battles throughout a long and exhausting NHL season.