To state the obvious, the Maple Leafs are a very different organization than they were a year ago. A new management team is entrenched now. A well-regarded head coach is here. The centerpiece acquisition of the earlier regime, Phil Kessel, has been traded.
Most Leaf fans have been ready for real change, and the 2015-’16 team will not be the same old Leafs—far from it.
Shanahan is the de facto General Manager, and that’s no shock. He has been the GM since the day he was hired. They may still hire another management person, but it may not be necessary at this point, as Shanahan obviously has faith in Hunter and Dubas.
Some reflections on the past couple of weeks:
I’m not in a position to say a lot about who the Leafs selected in the recent entry draft, as my knowledge of those drafted is modest at best. And regardless of the opinions out there about who Leafs acquired, all that matters is if the players eventually develop as hoped. We’re likely years away from knowing if any of them will become significant contributors down the road. (There is plenty of enthusiasm around Marner’s selection and he may well prove to be a difference maker. But again, the jury is out.)
That said, what probably most impressed me about the recent draft is that the Leafs parlayed the 24th overall pick into (if I got this right) a number of other later picks in what was considered to be a strong draft. I’m not sure there is necessarily a lot to choose between the 24th choice and 34th or 44th. Sometimes first rounders don’t really make it. Later picks can become championship team cornerstones.
So potentially, the Leafs did very well. This “trading back” approach has worked wonders for the NFL’s New England Patriots over the years (albeit always trading from a position of strength and already being a tremendous team). But philosophically, I like what the Leafs did. They have more opportunities to hit a home run.
The Kessel deal
To me, Phil did almost exactly what then Leaf management expected of him from the time he was acquired in 2009. He played fast, scored goals in bunches and led the team offensively. He never became that all around player we all seemed to want, but I think it’s unfair to say he didn’t deliver in a lot of ways. He scored a lot of goals and became a better playmaker over his years in Toronto. He didn’t love the media demands but the biggest criticism we have is that he wasn’t committed to being a better defensive player. But he wasn’t alone in that regard.
He may thrive in Pittsburgh. Heck, he may well score 40 goals. But even if the Leafs didn’t get any guaranteed game changers in return (it will be some time before we know if the players we did get will develop as hoped), it was a deal the Leafs had to make.
The woes of the past half dozen years should by no means fall on Kessel. The organization never quite surrounded him with the players needed to provide support. They tried. He tried. But it didn’t fully work out. We all move on.
Unless I’ve missed something, the Leafs have (not unexpectedly) been relatively quiet in early free agency. Defenseman Matt Hunwick may help. They have re-signed Panik and added Parenteau. Winnik has returned after being traded to the Penguins. Role players matter, and we’ll see if these moves help.
The Leafs will no doubt re-sign Bernier at some point.
My sense is there may be some additional moves to bring in character guys in the weeks ahead. Teams like the Ducks, Hawks, Kings, Blues and other annual contenders are filled with those types of players, to supplement the star “core”. Shanahan has been clear that leadership was an issue in the dressing room, and he wants to address that.
Overall, my sense is most Leaf supporters are encouraged. Yes, we’ve been down the optimism road many times before over the past dozen years, but as the New York Mets faithful coined the phrase back in 1969 (or was it 1973) “Ya gotta believe”.
The Leafs aren’t breaking new ground here. Other teams have built through the draft and had success. It’s not just good drafting, however. (We still don’t know if this regime will be great at drafting.) It’s about actually developing the players you do draft. It's also about making trades when the time is right and developing a team with chemistry that plays for one another. You need skill and speed but also toughness and discipline. The game evolves, yes, but the ingredients for success rarely change all that much.
You need talent. You need a system that players buy into. But you need players who want to win awfully badly to make it all the way through to June. Winning the Stanley Cup may well be the toughest grind in professional sports- winning four playoff rounds when it would be much easier to be out on the golf course.
Right now, it feels as though the organization is prepared to take more lumps in the days ahead to achieve a greater goal a few years from now.
Is this a total re-build? Well, I guess it is, in broad terms. The intent was to change the leadership at all levels—in the management suite, behind the bench and in the dressing room. (We'll see if ownership can stay out of the way.) Good coaches do make a difference, so I do believe Babcock is poised to have an impact.
Players like Kadri and van Riemsdyk have more to give after last season, and should deliver under Babcock. I would imagine Rielly will continue to progress. Will Gardiner take a leap under a new coach?
Right now, though, when I look at the roster, it does not inspire a ton of confidence. If this group (with the anticipated additions) play with an edge most nights, like any team, they will be able to compete.
For what it’s worth, I’m not as excited as some, but do believe there is a plan in place. That in itself certainly doesn’t guarantee long term success (every GM has a vision and a plan, along with lots of promising “prospects”), but as we have discussed here many times before, Leaf fans, while sounding impatient on any given game night during the season, are nothing if not incredibly patient.
Until things are truly better in terms of on ice performance, I’ll just wait and see. I’ll be from Missouri for quite a while.
All this said, summer is a nice time to think about past glories—like that last Cup in May of ’67. Those names will always stand out for me and for a lot of fans who were around then. How could we forget Horton and Stanley, Walton, Ronnie Ellis and the "Big M". Keon, of course. And we wouldn’t have won without guys like Pronovost, Hillman, Stemkowski, Conacher and Pappin. Sawchuk and Bower, too. We could use a Bob Pulford (photo upper right) now, for sure.
What did those guys have? Talent, sure, but mostly character and “will”. They beat all odds and overcame adversity to win a championship. Of course, they had a recent history of success at the time. That breeds a certain kind of confidence that you can get it done.
We’re a ways from that, but again, summer is a good time to dream of what could be.