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The draft behind them, the Maple Leafs still have a missing link…

The NHL draft is inevitably an exciting and hopeful time for fans. (It was even better in the “old days” when it was a draft involving 20 year-old players, because they were that much closer to being ready to contribute right away at the NHL level.) I sense that most Leaf fans had tempered their expectations going into the draft this past weekend, recognizing that General Manager Dave Nonis did not want to part with any of his young players (e.g. Kadri and Gardiner) to move up and make a splash.

The selection of William Nylander in the 8th slot assures the Leafs of an opportunity to develop a highly skilled player who, by all accounts, oozes confidence and loves to score goals.  Acquiring skill is always a good thing—at the end of the day, teams don’t win without it.

But looking ahead to the 2014-’15 NHL season from a Leaf perspective, while I see a number of players who should provide us with some excitement (Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Rielly, Lupul, if he is still here, Gardiner, etc.) it’s hard not to see some of the gaps in the lineup that remain troubling.

What area concerns me most? Well, we have goaltending, though yes, it would be nice to see Jonathan Bernier as the undisputed number-one guy over a full season—and a playoff run—to better know exactly what we have.  Most observers see the defense as needing an upgrade, though when you look at the Leaf defenseman on an individual basis, the picture seems better than when we look at the actual group dynamic.  Phaneuf is certainly a rugged, dependable player who can log lots of ice time. The now departed Gunnarsson generally did no harm.  Incoming Roman Polak (from the Blues) should provide some much needed sandpaper on the blueline. Franson has shown on his best days that he can be a very effective NHL defenseman, and the aforementioned Rielly and Gardiner already provide the skating and puck moving skills that are not easy to find in young defensemen.

We also know that Toronto has a number of other young defensemen who are very near to being Leaf-ready, including Granberg and Percy. Now, just listing all those names does not mean it is a high-end NHL defense corps, but for me, this is not the biggest roster challenge right now.

Maybe my assessment of the what the Maple Leafs need is skewed by looking at the Western Conference and seeing how important strength up the middle is.  There, really good teams need centers with skill, size, heart and grit.  On the weekend, we saw the Flames and the Oilers draft centers with those attributes early in the first round.  They know what’s needed to compete in the West.

So when I look at the Leaf roster, I see a team that has some nice players at the pivot position, but I’m not sure we have the ammunition to challenge the best NHL teams in terms of strength up the middle.

When I look at our center ice lineup, I see Bozak, Kadri—and question marks. 

Jay McClement had a solid first season with the Leafs but he was not that noticeable this past season as the penalty-killing units struggled mightily.  Dave Bolland brought leadership ability and a history of winning experience but it’s tough to see the Leafs paying him what he wants on a long-term contract this summer. A serious injury also creates doubt as to whether he can be the same player he was before.

Peter Holland is only 23, and may well be a fit as a third-line center because he brings some size and skill to the table.  But even if Bolland returns, which seems doubtful, the Leafs are still not an imposing presence up the middle.  Bozak is better than what his critics suggest, and he is a nice fit with Kessel.  Kadri is still developing and has vision and an edge to his game that certainly makes him valuable.  

But the question needs to be asked:  while free agency may change the picture, is this group of centers good enough to make the Leafs contenders for more than simply a possible playoff berth?

Of course there is more to a team’s success than who plays center.  We still lack the elite, shutdown defenseman that most teams need to be successful.  The Leafs clearly need a lot more from their third and fourth lines next season, and their overall approach to team defense has to be better—which in turn should help their defensemen be better. Penalty killing has to get back to where it was two seasons ago, and the right players have to be utilized by the coach.

I said most of last season that I believed the Leafs could compete in the Eastern Conference, and I still tend to feel that way.  I can’t make the argument that they are an elite team, but in the East, there are a lot of teams that could advance or fall back in any given year.  There is still a lot of parity in the Conference.

The Leafs are a speed team but one that, last season, was not hard to play against.  If Clarkson begins to deliver on what management was looking for, that will help.  If Bernier continues to play well that’s key, obviously.  If some of the youngsters we keep hearing about make an impact at training camp, maybe that will push the veterans to be better, too. And if Gardiner and Rielly continue to improve that can make a difference, too. 

That said, that’s a lot of “ifs”. 

Shanahan strikes me as a realist.  He’s looked at this roster, sees the talent that is there, and believes the Leaf coaching staff can get more out of the players who will be on the roster come September. He has said leadership can be developed from within.  And in the selection of Nylander, management has made a statement about the importance of skill.

But a lot of us remember Shanahan as a player.  He had skill as well as heart and toughness.  He knows the Leafs will need plenty of all that—including at the center position—to be a serious contender in the years ahead. Yes, the draft brings hope, but there is clearly a lot more work to do.


  1. Hi Michael,

    the Leafs won't be a serious contender for the next few years. They should make the playoffs consistenly in the future (should be possible in the east), that would be a lot better than the last ten years. And if you take a look at our friends in Montreal, nearly everything is possible if you do so ( they reached the conference final twice in the last 5 years).

    I fear I have a lot more concernes than you.

    Bernier has to proof himself, we talked about it before.
    Nonis suggested a possible return of Reimer. I would really like that because I really like him, he is a good goalie and a fantastic guy. But if they can not convince him that he has their full confidence ( and how could they sell that to him), I fear it would be very bad for the chemestry in the dressing room. And that could strongly harm our goaltending. We need a backup who can really play when Bernier has a bad stretch or gets injured.

    There is still one day left before Phaneuf's new contract kicks in.
    They need in any case a partner for him who is able to back him up, can play heavy minutes and take some pressure of him. If they trade him tomorrow, we will have a whole new discussion.
    The Polak for Gunnarson trade will balance our D a bit more but there is still work to do.
    Inconsistancy is a big problem here!

    We have only six forwards under contract next season. I have not counted Colton Orr although he has a contract. Bolland and McClement will not be with the Club next season.
    So there are 6 open roster spots plus additional players.
    Although Holland will stay with the Leafs, they will have to add two centers.
    And they will need at least two wingers.
    If Holland, Ashton and D'Amigo can really make a contribution remains to be seen.
    I think there will be some late signings out of training camp.

    But there are some other concerns left. Will they be able to play 60 minutes a game? Can the coaching staff provide the team with a "system" that they can and will execute? Are they willing to compete game in and game out and play complete games? Will Carlyle use four lines? Will he be provided with players to form four lines that he will trust? Will there be more depth than last season? Can our young guys contribute?

    What really concerns me is the whole style of play and what Carlyle really wants.
    You said they are a skating hockey club. But I am sorry, they are not. They can skate and they score a lot goals of the rush by getting behind the opponents D but they are not a skating team. And they are not a passing team. The cycle has to be one part of their game but they are really not a team that can use the cycle as their only offensive weapon. They receive the game to much. They have to be much more in control.
    The day he got his contract extention Carlyle said the Wester Conference Teams all play a passing and skating game. Was he really suprised? I sometimes don't know.

    No one of the two teams in the eastern conference finals had the ideal center situation. So a deep playoff run does not only depend on that. Not in the east. We can not solve that problem short term anyway. But you are completely right, to be a real contender like the Kings for example, we to solve that issue. Let's hope there are some great centers that we can pick in the drafts ahead.

    1. Hi Marcus- yes, it's so difficult to trade for or sign a big-time centre. The draft is still where most teams have to get their future superstars.

  2. You are absolutely right about the center position being a significant area of concern, Michael. Yet, I wonder if Holland and Carrick might just enter the mix and provide us with some reasonable size and enthusiasm moving forward...

    We haven't heard about McClement having any 'talks' yet, and it is true, his effectiveness seemed less evident during the second year of his contract, though I would not impugn his work ethic by any means, I do feel he was used above his skill level, so have to wonder if Carrick might not have a bit higher ceiling.

    Of course, it would appear that Bolland is pricing himself out of our plans, however, it may be a bit like Bozak's negotiation last year, especially given that the cap ceiling has caught a few managers 'off guard' (by a million or so). This will affect the market for ceiling teams (but not Florida, who seems to have significant interest, if reports of that ilk have any merit). The question will come down to how much Bolland wants to make over the value of playing in this market (where his endorsement options may be significantly higher) and being 'at home' over a less enthusiastic market.

    I do think that the buyouts and lower cap ceiling may provide another Mason Raymond/Clarke MacArthur kind of opportunity later in the summer, so hope we leave a little room for that kind of contract.

    1. For me the bottom line is that we can find other guys to play the centre position, but we still lack high-end talent there, InTimeFor62. We may get by in the East, but beyond that, it will be a challenge!

    2. Hi Michael,

      I know what you mean and you are right. But there is one problem that you should not forget. You can not control what happens at the draft. You can do your homework and pick the player you belive in and develop him the best you can but you can not control what happens in the end. Will he be the top center eventually? You'll never know. And than you have to be able to build a winning team around him.
      The Penguins have Crosby and Malkin but they only have won one cup. And they weren't really a threat the years afterwards. By the way they picked Jordan Staal in 2006 at number two. Chicago picked Toews at number three the same year!

      L.A. has won two cups in three years and they will be a contender the next few years.
      Three of their four centers were brought in by trade. If Richards, Carter and Stoll would play for us I would breathe a lot easier.

      Kopitar the only Center of that group drafted by the Kings was pick at number eleven (!!!) in the first round 2005. Look who was drafted before him.

    3. Very true about the Kings, Marcus. It's usually pretty tough to find those guys, though the Kings sure did.

    4. Yes it is really tough especially in the cap era.
      The point is: there is no recipe!
      We haven't drafted the center we need jet. Perhaps it will happen down the road and there is the center we need at the point we have our pick.
      But therefore we can not stop palying. There is no recipe how to build a succesful team.
      You have to find your own way.

  3. Hi Michael,

    I certainly agree with your assessment of the Leafs centre situation although l believe that their greatest need at that position is for a player who can consistently win faceoffs. Their possession stats have suffered because they gave up the puck on faceoffs well over 50% of the time. Bozak, who was Carlyle's go to faceoff guy had an off year and the other centres, with exception of McClement, were subpar.

    I believe that talent-wise the Leafs defensemen stack up well against most other eastern teams. I think the major problem was overall team defense and a non-aggressive defensive zone system that collapsed on the goal and gave up the corners. Gunnersson was obviously playing hurt last season and I think it was a good move to replace him with a gritty right shot in Polak. Their minor league defensemen are a team strength. Granberg is ready and Percy, MacWilliams and Finn are on their way. Defense pairings of Phaneuf-Gardiner, Polak-Rielly, and Franson-Granberg with Ranger and Gleason in the wings. Of course trades could change all that.

    I fervently hope that Carlyle develops and utilizes a viable fourth line and that Nonis stays away from pricey long term free agent deals. I am sure there will be some trades. I would like to see them pick up a power forward. If Reimer is traded I would love to see McIntyre at least get a shot at the back-up goalie position.

    I agree with you Michael that the Leafs have the talent to be a playoff team. The system and the compete level need adjusting.

    1. The Leafs do need to be better on face-offs, Pete Cam. Utilization of the right players on the fourth line is a must as well. I think Reimer will be moved which may mean McIntyre gets a shot. Thanks Pete.

  4. I'm not at all happy with the Gunnar trade. Polak plays right hand (good) is big and can hit (good) but, according to some St.Louis fans, is not very consistent about it, he's a 6/7, has no offense, does not play against top lines and has never had the huge amount of Dzone starts that Gunnar has had to deal with ( 2nd in the league behind Dion). Gunnar is not physical enough but has a good stick and an impressive plus/minus, under the circumstances. I was hoping for a better defense-man to play with Phaneuf. Ranger can hit and costs almost nothing, as well as some Marlies.. The pick and salary retained was unnecessary, I think, could have been spent on a far better player. This is a move down, not up. (IMO, of course)

    Love the draft pick, not happy with the trade and the guy who can't make toast still firmly believes "compete" was the only problem. CN

    1. I think everyone will be waiting to see how Polak works out with the Leafs, Colleen. Not sure who plays with Phaneuf now.

  5. Michael,

    I feel like I need to both thank you, and apologize to you. I am a lifelong Leafs fan, who has never been this uninspired by both the players on the roster and the management of the organization. So thank you for putting up with my mostly negative rants, and I'm sorry that I have infrequently been able to find a silver lining. Sadly, todays comment shall continue the trend instead of changing it.

    I can't be the only one who feels like the Leafs continue to see their problems as ones that can only be solved by looking outside the organization. From the game seven collapse against the Bruins, and Carlyle saying that it won't happen again because 'now we have Dave Bolland'. To the constant need to acquire grit, heart, and compete from elsewhere. Whether it is Polack, Ryan O'Byrne, Gleason or Komisarek, they are all the exact same player. They never work out, yet our managers and coaches continue to hope for the ever elusive round peg to fit in the square hole. Carl Gunnarson played tougher minutes on the top pair here, it is nuts to expect a guy playing 5/6 in St. Louis to be able to play up in the lineup of the Leafs. Why not just move Gunner down our internal depth chart, if one of the young guys is proving to be more adept at the game? Why did Nonis have to give up cash, and a pick to get this clearly less talented player? Mind boggling.

    There never seems to be an ability in Toronto to look inward for solutions. The guys running this ship are constantly able to deflect the blame somewhere else. The media who fawn over the decisions sure does help perpetuate the myth that these guys know what they are doing. Looking at you Dreger, Simmons, Cox, etc. For too long it has been, if our goalie can't stop them from there, we'll get one who can. Eventually, if you give the opposition chances, they will score. No goalie stops them all, but that is the mentality this team has.

    The saving grace for me personally, the team has some talent, and some more coming in Nylander. That is great news for me. If they had drafted another huge forward, who can't actually play, yes Biggs, I mean you, I might have given up on them entirely.

    I still have some optimism that Nonis won't catastrophically alter the team tomorrow. It appears as the saviour Bolland really thinks he should get PAID, and therefore moves on. As long as there is no motivation to continue the Clarkson trend, huge overpay, term and dollars, the team should come out of tomorrows frenzy ok. There are lots of rumours out there, Brodeur to Toronto would signal the apocalypse, yes he really has been that bad recently. Two years of Dan Boyle might work out, not sure we need another old/older d'man but I can't say he's worse than the inconstancy that Franson has shown.

    Lastly, I'm sad that Reimer has requested a trade. He deserved better here, it could have worked, and to be fair, he could have played better as well. The two concussion injuries were the tipping point that he never seemed to rebound from.

  6. I'm sad Reimer is leaving and the media really pushed that idea but I never expected him to stay with Carlyle still here. Gunnarson said on TSN that he thought for sure Randy would leave when they fired Ferrence. I've heard there is now a reasonable offer for James. Hope it's out west.

    Shanahan is still after Gorges, even though he has stated he won't go to T.O and there are rumours the Leafs are close to a 25 for 5 years deal for Bolland. I really like Bolland but I don't like him THAT much! If they can do that then why can't they offer 6+mil.and actually get a quality center or Dman?

    I suppose if Shanny goes crazy at his first UFA sale he'll have no choice but to fill in with a few Marlies. CN

  7. Jim, you are so right. I saw a tweet somewhere today that summed up the whole philosophy of the Leafs. Mon sees a 30 year old defensive dman (Gorges) with 3 years at 3.9 million per as a declining asset. Leafs see a gritty, leadership heart and soul guy. One team made conference finals the other missed playoffs for 9th time in 10 years.

    I despair for this team. On one hand they draft a high skill high upside guy, then the next day trade Gunnarsson for Polak. The whole way to get better is to get more skilled. The Leafs are constantly on the search for a type of player who doesn't exist. They want this supposed great leader who will lead them to the promised land. When they traded for Bernier, it was said by Nonis he is a guy who is always in the gym, other players will follow. We heard Clarkson was the great leader who would show that grit and sandpaper were the magic ingredient. The same about Bolland (who in his defense did get hurt) while ignoring that by the end of his tenure in Chicago was a 3rd liner at best more a 4th liner. In the meantime to get this mythical "leadership, toughness" they got rid of players who actually had skill. There is no team that would look at a Bolland, Clarkson pair as better than a MacArthur, Grabovski pair except the Leafs. The latter two are simply better more skilled players. The only thing that people say about the former is that they have these great talents that can't be measured. Leafs made playoffs with one pair, the other not so much. Stop going after more successful teams castoffs. There is a reason why Chicago got rid of Bolland, there is a reason why St Louis got rid of Polak. They are replaceable bottom of the lineup type players. You can get 3rd,4th line players and bottom pairing dmen at any time and for a lot cheaper. The Leafs have to stop overpaying for these type of players. They are a dime a dozen in the NHL and good teams don't pay these types of guys premium money.

    The Leafs were bad again last year so it must be Phanuef's fault. if only he were a better leader and cared more the Leafs would get better. Hogwash, the only way the Leafs will get better is to add more skill to play with Phanuef not trade him. In what universe can you point to a 28 year old 50 point center and say he is a legit number one player? In what universe do you think you are going to get better by trading a highly skilled 23 year old 50 point center? BTW in Kadri's short time in the NHL, which includes only one full 82 game schedule his career best season in points is higher than any other Leaf center has reached. Bolland, Maclement and Bozak (despite playing with Kessel and JVR) have never had as good a season as Kadri and this is the guy they want to trade? Its mind boggling. Keep the skilled young guy, let the over payed third line center (Bolland) walk and try to add more skill.

    Sorry for the rant but so far this season has not impressed me. To me they got worse last summer and are in the process of getting worse again. As of right now I really think the Leafs are heading for draft lottery territory this upcoming year.

  8. Willbur,

    Thank you so much, for your kind words. As you seem to be, I am very frustrated by this organizations lack of willingness to stick to a course of action. They constantly seem to say one thing, then immediately do another. Drafting a highly skilled young player, then immediately trading for a less skilled d'man, then capping it all off today. Buying out Gleason, who just a few months ago, had every quality that Liles lacked, hence why we got him, and said numerous great things about how he was the kind of player the Leafs need.

    The franchises unwillingness to acknowledge the things the vast majority of people outside of the organization see as areas of concern, is one of my biggest negatives going forward. It's nice to see other fans share some of the same thoughts about the direction going forward. Thanks again, sir.

  9. That's it exactly Jim. Komisarek, Schenn, Frasor, Gleason, and now Polak and Gorges. All the exact same kind of player. What we heard about all of them is the same thing, big tough hard nosed dman who are good in the room and a real leaders. They are going to add that missing toughness. They are going to make it hard to play against for other teams. The same could be said for Bolland and Clarkson. The one thing that can be said about every one of these guys is that they aren't very good skaters. None of them are overly good at the NHL level. The Leafs valued each and every one of these guys for their "intangibles" that aren't apparent on the ice and where has it got them? Out of the four conference finalists this year, which team had a so called stay at home, hard nosed dman playing regularly top five minutes? LA maybe, but their guy was interchangeable as the number 6 guy. Some nights they played, some they didn't. The Leafs are going to play Polak in a top four position and he will fail miserably and the search will go on. The end result of this trade is that the Leafs replaced Gleason with Polak ,maybe a slight upgrade but to do so they sacrificed a much more talented defenseman in Gunnarsson who actually was capable of playing top 4 minutes. Who is going to pick up those top line hard minutes that Gunnarsson played with Phanuef? In the end to get a slightly better 6/7 defenseman the Leafs got rid of their number two defenseman. How does this make them better?

    The game today is based entirely on speed and possession. Either you have the puck or your chasing guys around trying to get it. It seems to me the Leafs are trying to build a team out of chasers. Maybe the problem is that the things that Leaf management value in players isn't what actually wins hockey games. 9 years out of 10 missing the playoffs would suggest that is the cold hard truth.

  10. Willbur,

    Sometimes I am at a loss as to what to think about this organization. I too, cannot fathom how they can honestly believe that giving up their number 2 dman could possibly make them better. Castoffs and the like from good organizations is not the way to build a champion. The Leafs have always been fascinated by guys who would like to come home, as well as players who had their best years somewhere else. There have been so many of them, that elusive piece that you reference so well above. It never works out, they always get cheered, then discarded. The only player I can think of that it worked for was Gary Roberts. All the others, not so much.

    It seems more and more that the only way that management changes how they view the league, will be with new management. These guys clearly don't get it. It being the new skating, puck possession NHL. They say thats what they want, but every move they make tells me that it isn't. They really are stuck in the seventies, in my opinion.

    1. great banter back and forth there jim (with you and wilbur). i lovvvve reading your rants jim... you seem to hit the nail on the head, and complement michael's articles very well (which of course i also enjoy immensely). one anonymous poster a few articles ago also really did a great job summing up... i wish that anonymous sour-puss would comment more, because it seems to strike a chord (with me anyways). cheers!

    2. Thanks for saying so Alex, I appreciate the nice words.

  11. Buying out Gleason this year makes sense because they lose less this first year but I really would have liked to see what the team could do with a better system in place. We loved Gleason when he first came but not once he learned the system. I don't know how the organization can recognize and admit that the system is flawed and then turn around and place full blame on the players for the failure of that very same system. They DID try to make it work--for over two years.

    How can they blame compete level in a team that has played an compacted 82 game schedule running three lines? The team had nothing left to give in the final stretch with key players like Kessel, Phaneuf, JVR , injured and exhausted, Bernier out/injured , Reimer not himself/possibly injured and Bolland playing at what they now admit was closer to 50% than 90%. This was a very tired team and the fault belongs to Randy and staff. We saw it. How can they tell us it wasn't so?

    Whatever Carlyle did on the Olympic break to "fix" it resulted in chaos on the ice and the end of any hopes for a post-season. ( I spelled that Kaos at first--Freudian slip? We saw a form of slapstick comedy on the ice, it just wasn't very funny, at least for Leaf fans.) I watched a few practices where Randy skated over and adjusted the players defense positions. It made me wonder if Carlyle and Farrish were often telling the players two different things. It would explain the utter confusion on ice, the arguments between the two behind the bench, the firing of Farrish with Carlyle making the decision to stay on without him, which Gunnarson admits was very surprising. What went on during and after that break?

    I truly wish the organization was too capped out to make any moves today. The thought of money in the pockets of Nonis and Loiselle scares me. CN