Despite Saturday night’s win over the struggling Oilers, my sense is most Leaf fans have long since begun to look past the 2014-’15 NHL season—at least when it comes to the fortunes of the blue and white. Whatever hopes, dreams, aspirations, expectations, etc. fans had came to a halt sometime in the middle of the just lapsed losing streak—if not long before.
But rather than lay blame on “why” we are where we are (goodness, there’s plenty of blame to go around—from ownership, management, the coaches…and lets not forget the players who may indeed not be entirely ‘coachable’) it’s likely time to look forward and determine where the Leafs go from here.
We can surmise that Shanahan will want to build through the draft (what option does he have—what free agents would come here unless they were ridiculously overpaid?), with a focus on effective player development.
That said, my idea of the right way to develop young players may be different than his, or at least different from his predecessors. And that’s fine. But given the state of the roster along with the lack of ‘will’ and leadership on the team, it seems clear that, as close as some of us thought the Leafs were only two short seasons ago to being a player in the East, there is likely yet another massive roster overhaul just ahead.
Hoping to win the lottery and get a generational player is a nice thought, but it’s not a plan. So Shanahan will obviously be patient in an effort to do this right. Whether he has the experience to do it right is quite another thing, but he’s been put in charge, and fans have little recourse but to hope he can make sound decisions.
The first thing I would note is that it would have made sense to make a management change at the same time as Carlyle was let go- last summer would have made even more sense. I have nothing against Nonis. He has been in the hockey game a long time and no doubt is a well regarded hockey guy. But in light of what has happened to this franchise over the past two seasons—and the history of the team falling apart at crucial times during the regular season (save for the lockout-shortened year when they made the playoffs), it would have made sense for the next GM to be in charge of the trade deadline decisions.
Had such a move been made weeks/months ago, the new person would also have had extra time to evaluate the roster, as it prepares for the off season draft and free agency.
As it appears that won’t happen now, I’ll focus on player movement.
There has been much talk about trying to deal the Leaf core (at least some of them) but I don’t know what the market is for, say, Kessel and Phaneuf. Both are talented players, but also expensive given what they aren’t.
There are many reasons why I’m a fan (albeit a longtime hockey observer) and not a GM. But as an “outsider”, I would suggest that the guys on the roster Shanahan should keep should fit into the category of 1) young, inexpensive and really talented 2) players with a big heart who don’t cost a lot and would be nice pieces of an improved team in the next year or two and 3) guys who have demonstrated through this rough patch that they have pride and passion and deserve to wear the Maple Leaf crest.
It’s not a long list, unfortunately.
My list includes:
- Bernier -goalie
- Rielly -young, very skilled, still on his entry level contract
- van Riemsdyk -lousy year, but in a better situation, should be a very solid producer with a real knack around the net on a good team
- Polak -grit, bit heart
- Komarov-edgy player who could be very effective on a better team that needs a third line agitator
Now, there may be kids in the system that should be kept (Gauthier, Brown, Nylander, etc.) but others know about the prospect pipeline much better than I do.
There’s only one guy on my “bubble” list: Kadri, who is a cagey pivot, though I have my concerns about whether his seeming sense of entitlement is the right fit here.
Of course there are plenty of players who may well be here next year who are not on my list, and that would be fine. Everyone likes what Santorelli has done in a “prove it” year for him to extend his NHL career. I certainly don’t want to give Kessel away. Lupul usually gives an effort but injuries seem to take an awfully big toll on him.
Some will disagree, I understand, but I do believe it could be time to move Jake Gardiner. I know I have long been an advocate of keeping young defensemen in the fold (I still remember when we traded Jim Dorey back during the 10971-’72 NHL season…that's a great old Dan Baliotti photo of Dorey in action on the right) and Gardiner seems to have so many of the gifts you want to see in a young, emerging defenseman. And goodness knows it’s usually a mistake to give up on players too soon, especially defensemen. It takes time to develop in this league.
But we’ve also talked ad nauseum here about the importance of being coachable. And several years into his time here, I just don’t see the kind of progress I was expecting to see from Gardiner. I know a lot of VLM readers like him, and I understand that.
Recently, I read an article by an advanced stats expert, a very well respected individual. The claim in the article was that, based on whatever metrics matter in that world, Gardiner is the best Leaf defenseman. (And I acknowledge that I said, only a couple of years ago, I could see Gardiner getting 50+ points a season.)
That assessment from an advanced stats perspective, while perhaps technically “correct”, just didn’t sway me. I’ve just seen too many times when Gardiner is not strong enough on the puck in the corners and around his own net. Yes, he can skate and move the puck out of his zone with dispatch. But he seems to have hit an offensive ceiling and I don’t feel his defensive play has improved they way it needs to. Sometimes he seems to do what he wants, not what he is coached to do.
You can get away with that if you’re an established star. But he isn’t.
So there’s my list.
I want a group of players that has skill, but a core that exudes leadership. I want a leadership group that others will follow. Throw in some grit along with players who are coachable (and will put the interests of the team at least slightly ahead of their own) and that would be great, too.
I don’t think we should be swayed any longer by players we “like”, or who looked good for a while (everyone does), or because they have “potential”.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts…