Perhaps this is all just a way to avoid reality, or simply to stay sane (in hockey terms) around what has been happening in recent years in Leafworld. But today, with "trade deadline day" hours away, I have determined that the healthiest approach is to adopt some of the current thinking of a few of the outstanding regular contributors here at VLM. (You should all take a bow…)
I’ve decided that, since the Leafs cannot win anything of value this season (not a new revelation, I realize), and likely not for the next year or two, I will adopt the same philosophy that I did as a much younger Leaf fan at the end of the woeful 1972-’73 season. Some of you may recall (most won’t) that, in the early ‘70s, the Leafs under General Manager Jim Gregory had build an exciting club, mixing speed and youth with veteran experience and grit. Some of the names from that roster are pretty famous: Jacques Plante, Bernie Parent, Dave Keon, Normie Ullman, Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson along with an aging but resurgent Bobby Baun in his second stint with the blue and white.
There were also the “kids”—future superstar Darryl Sittler, hard-working Brian Spencer, rugged Jim Harrison, tough winger Billy Macmillan and speedy Garry Monahan along all with those promising young defensemen: Jim Dorey, Rick Ley, Brad Selwood, Jim McKenny, Mike Pelyk and Brian Glennie.
Things looked awfully promising.
But lo and behold, along came the World Hockey Association. Then Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard didn’t like the new league, or convinced himself it wouldn’t survive. Whatever the case at the time, suddenly gone after the 1971-’72 season were future Hall of Fame netminder Parent, along with a number of others including Harrison, Ley and Selwood. (As I recall, Dorey had been traded for a forward, Pierre Jarry, the season prior.)
Baun suffered a severe neck injury and his career ended abruptly. Where once we had great goaltending for the future, we had almost none. The kiddie corps defense was in shambles and had no leadership with Baun gone.
But then the fun started. It was time for Gregory to re-boot the roster, and boy, did he ever. Plante was traded for a first round pick. Before you knew it, the Leafs actually had three first-round picks in the NHL draft in the summer of 1973. They selected future Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald, along with talented defensemen Ian Turnbull and Bob Neely, all within the first fifteen selections. The Leafs then signed unknown Europeans Inge Hammarstrom and Borje Salming. (Salming, of course, also went on to become an all time Leaf great, and Hall of Famer…)
Before we knew it, the organization added players like Errol Thompson, Tiger Williams and others who supported ably Sittler and McDonald. We were competitive against two of the best teams of that generation, the hated Broad Street Bullies of Philadelphia and the Montreal Canadiens. Before you knew it, we were in the semi finals by the late ‘70s. (Until Punch Imlach returned and tore it all apart…)
All this to say: this is where I’m at with the Leafs right now. We looked promising a couple of years ago—youth, speed and a bit of toughness and grit. The combination of speed and being hard to play against made me think better days were ahead.
Suddenly, however, we kept slipping backwards, unable to win consistently enough. So Nonis and Shanahan are embarking on another major makeover, which naturally reminds me of that early ‘70s revival.
Re-making something can be fun. Some Leafers are hoping for a draft lottery win, but regardless, the trades of the past week or so (Franson, Winnik and Clarkson) remind us that the Leaf brass is still awake, that the wheels are in motion. There just may be, as some of you have suggested, a plan.
It’s a bit like a fresh new, thousand piece puzzle. Some parts of the “build” will be easier than others. But it’s a project. It won’t all get done in a day.
In the case of the Maple Leafs, it will be about a lot of different things that make the puzzle fit together. The world (including the hockey world) is vastly different than what I referenced earlier with regard to the early 1970s. Back then there were far fewer teams, no cap, no real free agency (except for being able to grab Europeans like Salming before someone else scouted them). It’s a different game now, and things are much more complicated when it comes to building a roster.
It will require not only shrewd drafting, but much better actual player development. Wise trading will have to be part of it, as well as avoiding free agency flights of fancy and a better understanding of the do’s and dont’s of the cap world. And yes, a reliance on analytics as well.
But at the end of the day, it’s still about building a team, meshing the right pieces so they fit and work together. It’s about players who will follow a plan, “buy in”, and, as best million dollar athletes can nowadays, set their personal agendas at least slightly to the side while working for the team.
We need stars and pluggers, role players and replaceable parts. We need goaltending for sure, though we may have that, I don’t really know. (There’s goaltending and then there is championship goaltending…) We need a much, much better defense. (I thought Holzer looked pretty darn good against Montreal on Saturday night...) Forwards that can play in their own zone. And we will need better leadership across the board, along with some kind of an identity.
And there’s that over-used word: culture. Whatever it means, as long a new culture leads to establishing a sense that every guy on the team plays with passion, understands the Leaf legacy and has pride in the jersey, that would be good with me.
So for today, I’ll think positive thoughts.
It will take a while. We might as well sit back and enjoy the process.