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Maple Leaf fans will need to see something next season, and it is…

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.


  1. I stand by my own belief that, talent-wise, the Leafs are not all that far behind the league's elite teams. Upgrades could certainly be found in spots, and that is not unusual in the NHL. I don't expect, nor do I want, a huge splash on July 1st made by the Leafs, especially considering the talent pool available and the asking prices.
    Your mention of Brendan Shanahan at the beginning of this post got me to thinking. His name honestly hasn't crossed my mind in weeks. He apparently was not brought in to fire Carlyle or be a hatchet man of any other sort, at least not this off-season. So what will his role be, and how can it benefit the Leafs moving forward?
    What I want to see this season is Shanahan having an active role within the organization, putting pressure on Nonis, Carlyle, and the players. I want to see him holding all facets accountable, and be willing to make a change if any level of the organization is failing to do their part. We have all discussed at great length whether/why Carlyle should be gone, so if he continues to fail to put his best assets in the best place to succeed, his time should be up. If individual players either do not fit within the concept of a winning team here, or show an unwillingness to play the way successful teams play, they need to be sent packing too.
    The Leafs clearly have some dynamic top six players, as good as anywhere in the league. I refuse to believe that the role players, the type that are most often described as typical and interchangeable throughout the NHL, are so much less talented than in Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. They need to show up and play a 200 foot game for 60 minutes. That, to me, is Shanahan's job to ensure it happens.

    1. Shanahan has, wisely I think, taken his time to assess the entire organization, Pete. His impact may take a while to see, but he should be a positive influence, for sure.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I enjoyed this article. If the Leafs stay with the current group, I agree with your assessment and would love to see the Leafs win a playoff round. However if they move someone like Phaneuf for younger players then all bets are off.

  3. I too wonder what the Leafs are thinking about Phaneuf's future here, Anon.

  4. Hi Michael,

    it is crucial that they; Shannahan and Nonis, deceide in which direction they want to go and stick to that plan. And then they will develop an identity.
    The corner stones are good enough to lead this team into the playoffs.
    If all corner stones will be on board in a few weeks remains to be seen.

    The culture change can only be developed over time and has to be maintained.

    If the Leafs can win a playoff round depends completely on how Shanahan and Nonis asses the team and the corner stones they have. If they deceide to take a step back, for the good of the organisation, it is possible we do not make the playoffs again.

    I don't know about the goaltender. He still has something to proof. Not so fast with the goaltender.
    And the rest depends on what the decission is. Perhaps some of the proofen forwards and D-men are not here anymore.

    The "current roster" is 12 men under contract.: 7 Forwards incl. Colton Orr; 4 D-men, and 1 goalie.

    There are lots of decisions to be made.

    1. Hi Marcus- an identity for this team going forward, whatever it is, will be crucial, agreed. I hear you on Bernier. He has talent, for sure, but we still need to see him take us through the playoffs.

  5. Glass half-empty O'Malley chiming in!
    What do I need to see next year? I start by comparing us to the current champs.
    First things first - the Kings' fourth line was better than our second line. So that's where I start. Before we can talk about playoff wins, I think we need to talk about being able to ice four lines that can play significant minutes in a game.
    We need a serious upgrade on defence, both in size and speed. There's no way we could've handled the kind of forechecking we saw in the finals.
    We need to talk about team "compete" level, or even being a "team". The Leafs were low in the former, and the latter wasn't in evidence much this past year. Many of the Kings attributed their championship this year to the fact that they're a "team" - they've developed that chemistry so important to the success of any group endeavour. So I'd lie to see an improvement there.
    And we need to talk about coaching. We're not at the top level with Carlyle, so evident in watching how Sutter, Vigneault, Hitchcock, Julien etc deployed their players. So I'd like to see an improvement there as well.
    And if we see those improvements, then maybe we'll get to see what we all really want - a team that can legitimately contend for the Cup.

    1. All fair observations, Gerund. I think Leaf fans all want the same thing: a team that is built to have a chance every year.

    2. If you're going to compare the Kings to the Leafs, lets not leave out the following very important facts.

      1 - The Kings' entire roster is already signed (or can be done very easily) for next season.
      2 - The Kings still have both their compliance buy-outs should they choose to use them (but there's no real need for them to anytime soon).
      3 - The Kings are one of the top possession teams in the league and have been for a few years.
      4 - The Kings have a legit #1 centre, something no playoff cup-contending team can do without.
      5 - The Kings have a management team that knows how to accurately spot talent through metrics and not through some intangible quality and they have a coaching staff that knows how to properly utilize that talent.

      The Leafs on the other hand, are completely opposite in those regards.

      -The Leafs have a number of guys they're going to need to sign, or they're going to have to find replacements for (never an easy thing).

      -They had a #1 center (admittedly not a top ten #1C but still) and refused to play him on the first line, instead they continually tried (and still try) to hammer a square Bozak into a round role.

      -They stupidly bought out their #1 center so they could trade down by turning his cap space into a 3rd line winger who is chained to the organization for 6 MORE YEARS. To make matters worse, they also stupidly bought out Komisarek when he only had 1 year left on his ugly contract despite the fact that they were quite capable of keeping him buried in the minors for that year (like they'd done the previous year).

      - They're one of the worst possession teams in the league (having bought out one of their best possession players and allowing another one to walk didn't help, either).

      - They're also very poorly coached by a man who constantly dresses two or more goons in the lineup and then plays the goon line for 3 minutes a game. This same man was the influence behind buying out Grabbo, forcing MacA to walk, throwing Reimer under the bus after the game 7 collapse (despite his heroics in getting them to game 7) and insisting that what we really needed was more guys on our roster who can't play actual hockey.

      Really, there's no comparing the two teams. One team is much more efficiently managed and coached than the other. Oh... and they also happen to be the best team in the league and will likely continue to be a cup-contender for then next 3-5 years, while the other one will be lucky to be a bubble team for the next 3-5 years. Seriously, if the Kings aren't in the top-four for the next 3-5 years, I'll be surprised.

      In my opinion, the ONLY chance the Leafs had of turning things around this off-season was if Shanny were to have come in and cut the cancers from the team (namely, Carlyle, Nonis and whoever else in management thought like they did) but instead, Shanny didn't do that. He gave them a pass with a stamp of approval.

      I love the Leafs with all my heart and have since I was a kid, but I honestly can't take this crap anymore. They're forcing me to dislike hockey.

      It's too bad that we have such a couple of great young acts on the team (Kessel, Rielly, Gardiner, Reimer, JVR) cause frankly, their talent is going to waste and by the time this organization can dig itself out from the mess Nonis and Carlyle turned this team into (after all the good work Burke did to rebuild the team and restock the cupboards), they'll have passed their prime and it'll be too late for them.

      This team wants an "identity"? How about "awfully managed and coached"?

    3. Who are the guys you think we need to sign?

    4. I don't really care who we sign at this stage. I mean, obviously I do, but who we fire is much more important to me. Carlyle and Nonis need to go if this team is to have any hope of turning things around anytime in the next 2-3 years.

      The things those two have done have made a non-cup contending team worse. Make no mistake about it. Even last year, our first playoff appearing year in a decade, we really were not a contending team. Had management made moves in the correct direction (like shoring up our D so Pha9 wasn't needed 30 minutes a night) we might have inched closer to being able to compete with the league's elite teams (which, other than Boston, all seem to be out west). Instead, they blew our two buy-outs stupidly, went after the media-hyped UFA reincarnation of Ville Leno, let one of our best possession wingers walk for nothing (MacA), traded away a puck-moving D for one who can't skate (Liles for whatshisnuts) and traded away assets and talent to invite a goalie controversy we didn't need (Bernier for Frattin/Scrivens and picks).

    5. But you wrote the following yesterday: "-The Leafs have a number of guys they're going to need to sign, or they're going to have to find replacements for (never an easy thing)."

      And my simple question was: Who are the palyers they need to sign? I really want to know and it was the first Point on your list.

      And here is another question: How do you measure puck posession? By real posession or by Corsi and Fenwick?

  6. I don't have the list of who hasn't signed yet. Do you have it?

  7. UFA: Bolland, McClement, Kulemin, Raymond, Bodie, Ranger
    RFA: Franson, Gardiner, Reimer

    RFA (currently on Marlies): Holland, D'amigo, Ashton, Ryan, Abott, Brennan, Devane, Abney, Kozun,
    Smith (UFA)

    1. I'd be pleased to sign Bolland to a very short-term deal, but I'm guessing he wants one last big free-agent contract. I think most of the other guys are somewhat replaceable, though Ranger may have more to give. Reimer may need to get a chance somewhere else. Gardiner for sure should be signed, Franson has been very good at times, less so at other times.

      I'd certainly like to see an energy line of Holland, D'Amigo and Ashton.

    2. I think Bolland wants more money and a longer term than the Leafs want to pay, although I would like to have him back. And I agree with the rest you say but the RFA's aren't a problem. Most if not all of the Marlies guys will be back. But there is no problem in resigning them. As well as the RFA's on the Leafs. We agree on Gardiner as you know, but you also know that I think Franson (and he of all RFA's is the only one who can file for arbitration) is one part of our D that has to be moved to make it better. Yeah I would like an energy line like that too.
      And you know I think the Leafs should use the open spots on the 3rd and 4th line to improve the Club.

      But know we have established that, I wanted to know from Anonymus who he think's who should be signed because he wrote "The Leafs have a number of guys they're going to need to sign". The RFA's are no problem to sign, so why hurry? And they operated that way every year. Franson should be dealt. And the UFA's are replaceable or should not return because of various reasons.

      I thank you very much for your answear Michael..


  8. Most of Anonymous's comments comparing the Leafs and Kings are tough but fair. But the idea that Grabovski is even remotely comparable to Kopitar is ridiculous.

    I know, I know, it's agreed that Nonis and Carlyle make decisions with franchise-destroying consequences. But let's get real about Grabovski. He had health concerns (a mysterious stomach problem) and was already past his prime at 30. He just put up 35 points in 58 games in a non-Carlyle environment, and isn't getting any younger. Even in his prime, he was never close to the consistent 70 points Kopitar gives you, who also adds elite defensive skills, youth and health to the equation.

    Bozak is not a #1, but neither is Grabovski, as fond as I was of him. None of the other 29 organizations traded for Grabovski with his Burke contract, and none of them picked him up for free on waivers. If he was so obviously a #1 centreman, surely someone would've picked him up on his existing contract (which frankly paid him as a solid #2C for five years).

    Also, the idea that Morgan Rielly (age 20!!!) will be past his prime by the time the Leafs are competitive is just frustration talking. As Michael pointed out, some smart moves by the Habs vaulted them ahead in a matter of a couple of years. Nonis and Carlyle might be fired in December. Or they may improve.

    Either way, in the age of year-round multiple-times-a-day Leafs coverage, there's a sense of visceral, permanent hopelessness that misses the forest for the trees. By this time next year, there's about an 85% chance that we are either (a) welcoming a new management team or (b) rehashing a Leafs playoff season.

    And Morgan Rielly will be 21.

    1. Hi Mike- Leaf fans often see the same picture differently- that's why I enjoy this forum. Reading lots of different views is something I appreciate here.

    2. I never compared Grabbo to Kopitar. Kopitar is miles better and there isn't anyone on the current roster who I wouldn't trade one-for-one for Kopitar. He's an elite #1 center.

      What I did say was that Grabbo was actually a #1 center and let me clarify that.

      If one were to examine Grabbo's advanced stats, we'd see that even in the year when Carlyle blatantly misused him, he was one of our best possession players. Now I know lots of fans think advanced stats are for basement dwellers, but even his basic stats showed that while on the Leaf's second line he was a valuable asset. In 2010-2011 he scored 29 goals in 81 games and ranked 30th overall of all NHL centers in terms of total points. No other Leaf's center ranked as highly as he did. There's only 30 teams in the NHL, so using basic stats alone, one could easily argue that that year, he was most definitely a #1C despite the fact that he played all his minutes on the Leafs' second line. Couple in the fact that his advanced stats were some of the best on the team and I think it only strengthens my claim that Grabbo was and is of #1C caliber.

      Now, saying you're the 30th best center in the league might not be the best claim to fame, but for a team that has longed for a #1C for nearly a decade, to waste a compliance buy-out on one that you actually do have is mind-boggling. To then turn around and pay a guy who's a 2nd line winger (at best) even more money is criminal. Nonis should have been fired immediately.

      35 points in 58 games is about a 50 point pace over a full season... Which is sorta his average (except the year Carlyle misused him). That's really not bad considering that he has NEVER played on a 1st line with elite talent. Imagine if Grabbo had actually been given the chance to play with Kessel and Lupul (or later, Kessel and JVR). His 60 points a season could easily have been 70-80.

      Also, this claim that he was injury prone because he had a stomach issue is suspect. Does that mean that Kessel is injury prone because he had cancer and beat it? Lupul.. now that's a guy who's injury prone.. not because he's had infections or treatable diseases but because he's seriously injured his back, bones, muscles, tendons and the like over the years. Don't get me wrong, I love Lupul, but I'll be the first to admit that he's a player who I'd be surprised to see play a complete season.

      Grabbo's probably had a concussion or two (and ironically didn't miss a game from them). Other than that, I can't think of a time I actually saw him miss time due to injury. Yeah, he missed a couple of games due to the stomach thing and he once missed a game when his daughter was born.

      As long as the Leafs continue to insist that Tyler Bozak is a #1C, this team is NEVER going to be a contender. Not because Bozak is worthless, but the management of the team is completely incompetent.

      You're right that Rielly likely won't be past his prime 5 years down the road, but my point still stands that Nonis and Carlyle have gone and set the Leafs back significantly and that most of our other gems will be past their prime, and that's a shame. You suggest that some smart moves might be all it takes to get this team into contention, but I'd suggest that first, the Habs might have gotten lucky this season (do you really think they could have taken on any of the western teams?) and second, Nonis and Carlyle (and now Shanny) have not shown me that they are capable of making any smart moves. In the slightest.

    3. Hey Anonymous, please tell me who the Players are you think the Leafs need to sign .

    4. A response may have been mistakenly deleted here, Marcus.

  9. I'm with Gerund and I agree with most, not all of the anon comments to Gerund's post. I am not in the camp that says the Leafs are not all that far behind the league's elite teams.I saw about 5 different series in the west that the Leafs would have been lucky to just get a win in.

    Your question Michael is "Maple Leaf fans will need to see something next season, and it is… " For me it is how well/smartly, or not, they handle the off season after the chatter from Tim Lewacky about needing culture change and then hiring Shanahan and them keeping Carlyle. That is going to tell me a lot about what to expect for the coming season. Real positive move forward changes or just a different colour lipstick on the same pig.

  10. " A different colour lipstick on the same pig." (I needed that! ) If that doesn't give us our laugh for the day, we must be depressed beyond all hope.

    I was surprised to see Cronin hired so quickly by the Islanders. They couldn't have read any of his MLHS interviews--or maybe they wanted an extreme optimist...or we're all wrong and the Leafs don't have a problem with possession and Orr should be playing on the 1st line.

    Most agree that Carlyle will only be in place for the coming year. I'm surprised that Sutter has not been in the conversation as the "experts" discuss possible future Leaf coaches. It's reported that this is likely his last season with his assistant Stevens moving up. If Sutter is the target, we'll wish we had Grabo and MacArthur back. It would be entertaining to see how Sutter handles Toronto's media.

  11. I don't miss Grabo and MacArthur at all - they were inconsistent 2nd line players at best , kind of on the small side and aging. MacArthur has nothing on JVR, Lupul, Kulemin or Raymond.

    Clarkson appears as an inexcusable mistake after this season but perhaps he'll rediscover his game - we'll definitely need his fists and tenacity (as well as Ranger's and Gleason's) if we are to go ahead without a proper goon on the 4th line.

    The team is young and will be better next year - Franson, Gardiner, Reilley, Kadri and Holland all have more to give.

    Phaneuf is one of the best defencemen in the league and Kessel and JVR are elite forwards. I like Bozak and Kadri and I think Bolland can be very effective if he recovers from his injury.

    Our goaltending is amazing and I again think that Reimer and Bernier should remain Leafs and play that 1a -1b thing out again but I am willing to live with a veteran backup or Mackintyre if we can get something for Reimer.

    If we get Komarov back, promote a few Marlies and sign the remaining UFAs that we have on the team I think we'll see improvement next year. Most importantly, it's important to keep some cap-space I think. If things are going well we can make a gamble at the trade deadline - that's how Kings got Richards, Carter and Gaborik and won their Cups.

  12. Just reading the posts and I totally agree with the first one where Pete Davies believes the Leafs are not that far behind the elite teams. There were some posts that are really based on looking at what happened this season and reasoning the end result this year was bad and that is all that matters and therefore they must suck because the results suck. But I think some people are always looking at the dark side and some bad luck made the Leafs season a lot worse than it should have been.

    So I have to agree with Mr. Davies. The Leafs have some elite players in Kessel, JVR and Rielly and Bernier is as good as Quick according to Lombardi who also seemed to be a little annoyed that the Leafs picked up Bernier for only a 2nd round pick and said Bernier is a #1 goalie.

    I think picking up Clakson and Bolland last year shows that Nonis is trying to get character players so he knows what they need but you can't blame him for Bolland being injured and Clarkson disappearing. I still think they are on the right track and already have some elite players. With the players in the system it has to get better or maybe I am missing something?

    1. I've appreciated all the different perspectives I've read on this question, Alton. I sure don't have the answers but you raise some very good points. At the same time, I can understand why some Leaf supporters may feel the team is still a long ways away.

  13. I would like to see Kulemin back. The 2nd line was much better when he was on it. He has an amazing and accurate shot but he never gets PP minutes. He's the strongest Leaf on the boards and our best defensive forward. Randy has him in a completely defensive role and on the PK (first pairing) so he doesn't have much opportunity to contribute offensively though we've seen in the past he's very capable but he works hard every game and is easy on the cap. Ashton and D'Amigo can do some of what Kulemin does, I'm not sure they can do it all. If Kulemin isn't re-signed the Leafs will need Komorov and, from what I've read, Nonis doesn't seem inclined to sign him. CN

    1. Kulemin is a guy I really liked years ago, Colleen, and I can see why many Leaf fans still like him. I'm not as sold on him as I used to be, and maybe I'm being unfair.

  14. What are thoughts on an offer sheet for one of Stastny or O'Reilly? The Leafs would first have to recoup a 2nd pick through a trade. I think Stastny is worth a try though I can't see the Aves giving him up, not sure about O'Reilly. Is it worth a gamble--1st, 2nd and 3rd for a top young center and a 6.5 + cap hit--to add to the core or better to draft and hope for that piece. Defense would have to wait but I'd like to see what they are like playing a better system. CN

    1. Hey Colleen,

      Stastny will be an UFA so there is no offer sheet possible. He is making 6.6 Million now. But he is the poster boy of a 2nd line centre. You can trade for him or get him via free agency. But is he the guy we need and are willing to pay? Figure it out.
      We can make an offer sheet for O'Rielly. Rumors are he wants around 6.6 Million from Colorado and they want Duchene to be their highest paid Forward ( 6 mil.). This is why they got him to arbitraition. If the Leafs make an offer sheet and they really want a chance that they don't get matched they have perhaps to offer more than 6,73 mil. and that would mean they have to pay two 1st rd. + one 2nd and 3rd round pick. There is the possibility of trading for his rights too. Is giving up on the 1st rd pick in the strong 2015 draft the right decission? Is giving up so much picks for an organisation in the Leafs situation a clever idea?

  15. Hey Colleen,

    Stastny is an UFA so there is no offer sheet possible. He is getting 6.6 mil. now and he is the poster boy of a 2nd line center.You can either trade for him or get him in free agency. Do you think he is the real guy?

    O'Rielly wants 6.6 mil from Colorado at least, that's why they take him to arbitraition. They want Duchene to be the highest paid forward on their team (6 mil).
    If you make an offer sheet for him (that he signs, and Col. will not match) you have perhaps to give him more than 6.73 mil. and that would mean two 1st round picks + one 2nd and one 3rd round pick.
    There is also the opportunity to trade for him.

    What do you think?

    1. Hi Colleen,

      I do not think Stastny is a good fit in the current constellation. Price and term will be very steep in free agency.

      O'Rielly would be great, but a trade will at least cost us Phaneuf or Gardiner. If that is enough.
      I think under no circumstances can we pass on two 1st round and the other two picks.
      The leafs are only building a foundation for about 5 years. When Burke took over there was nearly nothing there. Our prospect pool is far not deep enough now.

    2. Thanks for answering, Marcus. I was curious.