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Is the bar in Leafland set high enough?

One of the things that I’ve contemplated lately, as a long time Maple Leaf follower, is this: the expectations of Leaf supporters are, well, not that high, it seems.

Oh, I’m not saying Leaf fans don’t want the team to win—they most certainly do.  And everyone wants to see a championship here before long.  But as year after year passes since the last time the blue and white have won even a single, solitary playoff round (2004), it almost feels as though fans will be satisfied if the Leafs simply make the playoffs. In fact, winning a round would be cause for celebration.

While that, on the one hand, is OK and quite understandable, I’m not sure the level of expectation is high enough.  Back in the Quinn era, I recall fans complaining about the Leafs trading away all these great young prospects —usually after the fact—when the club made moves at the deadline to acquire players (e.g. Owen Nolen).

But I supported those moves at the time and still do.  I’d trade a “possible” future star any day for a legitimate chance to win a Stanley Cup now.  (As I recall, the Dallas Stars traded away future superstar Jarome Iginla for Joe Nieuwendyk. Long-term, Calgary obviously "won" the trade. But Dallas won a Stanley Cup with Nieuwendyk.) And in the Quinn era, the Maple Leafs were serious contenders almost every single season.  Twice they made the “final four”, and there were a couple of years when I thought the team looked like they had the capability of going even further than that, including 2004. Besides, while we can all look back and bemoan the fact that the Leafs did not win anything, I still ask: when all was said and done, who were all these great young draft picks and prospects that we traded away back then? And would the hard-working players on those Leaf teams have been satisfied had Quinn did nothing to try and give them a real chance to win? They did not win a championship in the end, but management surely tried.

So here we sit, more than a decade later, and what would have been absolutely unacceptable a decade ago—the "bar" being the hope of just making the playoffs—is now cause for rejoicing. We hope our uneven defense has improved with a trade and a UFA signing. We hope our third and fourth lines will be better next season.  We hope some youngsters from the Marlies will be as good as billed. And we hope that some recent signings will be better than the guys we similarly signed a year ago, though in truth, my guess is most Leaf fans, myself included, could not have named these individuals (Santorelli, Kontiola) two weeks ago.

I’m not suggesting these guys can’t play. I have no doubt every player the Leafs have recently traded for or signed can play.  But has this team really moved the needle beyond maybe being a bit better on the blueline, and maybe bit a bit better in terms of their “bottom-six”? And even if the Leafs are indeed better than they were, how do they compare with really good teams?

And this all ties back to my point above: what is our expectation for next season and beyond?  Is it about “making the playoffs”? Winning a round or two? Because it feels as though what was supposed to be a non-five year plan (“no patience for a five-year rebuild”) several years ago has now turned into an even longer project—with no discernable end point in sight. And we also seem to be having the same conversation every year.

So while I will concede the roster on paper does feel and look better (and hey, I know, I was one of the people saying all last season, and the year before for that matter, that the Leafs could contend with just about anyone in the East, even with the roster they had) is that really enough?

I know this isn't like the old days when I was a kid back in the early '60s.  Back then, the Leafs had access to a Junior A "farm system", basically, that provided them with stars like Bob Pulford, Dickie Duff, Billy Harris, Bob Nevin, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, Bobby Baun (right)  and Carl Brewer on an ongoing basis.  Those guys were, in hockey terms, true warriors who bled blue and white and wore the Leaf crest with immense pride. They also happened to win (most of them, at least) four Stanley Cups in the old six-team NHL.

This is a much more complicated, challenging NHL, for sure. But some teams, like the Devils and the Red Wings for the past two decades (we could throw the Avalanche in as well, and in more recent years the Hawks, Sharks, Bruins and Kings) seem to get it right more often than not.

Like most Leaf observers, I agree that General Manager Dave Nonis was wise not to throw money around last week.  And I realize these things take time. Rome was not built in a day.

But to me, we have seemed caught between a rebuild and “win now” for years in Toronto.  And I see no certainty that much has changed.  We all recognize there are some nice top-end players here,  two very promising young defensemen and some prospects.  But we can say that for almost half the league, eh?

Where is the clear plan?  We have some skill, sure, and that’s important.  But where is the feeling that we have the stud defense, or the strength up the middle, or the proven playoff experience or the team leaders required to make this roster what the best hockey market the world deserves?

Mainly, my question today is: has the bar been so low for so long, that even the tiniest bit of hope makes Leaf fans believe brighter days are ahead, when we are actually watching the same middlish movie every season—simply with a few different actors?


  1. Hi Michael,

    do you know what really bugs me? Lots of people, including the so called experts use one particular word 1000 times a day. That word is rebuild! What is that rebuild? Everybody is saying it so often as if it is a real fool proof recipe for building a contender!

    Explain to me? What would you do rebuilding?

    The Myrtle and Siegel show Colleen mentioned in the other blog they said it too: They don't tear it down, they do not rebuild. What do you want to tear down? Kessel, Rielly , Kadri and Gardiner?

    What is that recipe? How much butter, how much sugar and how much flour do I need?

    Pittsburgh has two of the best centerman in the game. They did not contend in the last five years. They lose against teams in the playoffs that are much worse than them.

    Edmonton had an unbelivable lot of high draft picks but are further away from the playoffs than the Leafs.

    What about Washington?

    How many real high picks had the Kings?

    Stick the rebuild somewhere. Have Patience. And start winning. Make the playoffs and win a round or two and do it every year. There is enough talent to do so. And build in the comming years around that. Draft wisely, develop your players teach them how to win. Surround them with some veterans with reasonable contracts to teach them. Find your own way. There is no way that guarantees the making of a contender.

  2. Michael, the fact that many of us are celebrating the fact they didn't do anything incredibly stupid so far this off-season says it all. The only reason they didn't is that someone else beat them to it and they went with plan B. They were that close to being against the cap without Reimer or a backup even signed. How is it even possible that not one person in the Leafs management group understands math?

    We've seen that very smart, well managed organizations can win and build at the same time. It's also very clear why the Leafs can't. I like some of the moves, other than losing Gunnarson, and think the Leafs are better and more versatile than last year. It may be interesting but no high expectations. CN

    1. You're right, Colleen- you need to be able to build and win at the same time.

  3. Agreed, Marcus- there is no "one way" to build a winner.

  4. The Leafs will be a lot better in their bottom six. And they will change their approach in using them.
    Forget about comparing the Leafs with the really good teams for now. The top eight to ten teams are probably all in the western conference, they are a class for themselves. Boston has no cap room to improve so perhaps they can not really content next year and if Pittsburgh can close the ranks remains to be seen. There might be no serious contender from the east next year let alone the Leafs.

    My expectations for the next years are making the playoffs and win a round at least in two years. And if they do what I wrote a few minutes ago and build on their current foundation the can be a contender in five years. That's what I expect.
    What really is a concern, is the east being so weak that there is no fierce competition. Not a good condition to build a contender.

    The Leafs can contend with any team in the east.

    A lot has changed. There is a clear plan and a diffrent aypproach.

    And here is the thing and that is for all the "win for what?" guys: the proven playoff experience and the leaders required are forged in the fire of the playoffs!
    Not in the endless dream of a rebuild or a second Wayne Gretzky we can draft in twenty five years.
    So make the playoffs every year and let our own players grow to the leaders we need. Shanahan knows that and this is the direction he will take the Leafs to.

    1. Hi Marcus,
      I don't know enough about re-builds ( actually nothing) to say whether they went about it the right way or not-- if it's wrong, it's a bit late to change it. Besides, our best players are still young, not old veterans we need to move out. I thought Siegel meant ( and I could be wrong) winning some games but not really getting better or moving forward each year. They seem to be heading in the right direction for a while, like in 2012/13, but then end up where they started. Colleen

    2. Hi Colleen,

      did you reed my reply to your last comment on the blog before?

      Collen - that is exactly the point, there is no way to know if it is the right way. There is no such thing as the right way. You only know when they have won the cup.

      You are completely right that is the argument towards Myrtle our best players are young.
      There is nothing left to tear down.

      Siegel meant winning on the expense of signing mediocre UFA's to long term contracts, and not playing more young players.

      But he quasi said there is no point in winning if you are not a contender. and that is wrong.
      Detroit made the playoffs every year from 1990 on until they won the cup. There is a learning curve in winning. You can only learn if you make the playoffs until you are ready. That is the way to become a contender.

    3. Hi Marcus.
      Any playoff experience is definitely good no matter whether you win a few games or not. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to ask questions when we read an article or listen to a podcast? Most of the time, we can't. We have to try to interpret the meaning of what is said instead of being able to ask-- " Please explain that comment further." That's what I like so much, and what is so unique, about this site. C

    4. Yes it is and it is the only way to gain experience. Everybody seems to wait that some savior comes round the corner or they trade for Weber and Crosby but it is not working that way. And there is no chance these kind of deals happen in todays NHL.

      It would be nice to be able to ask qustions when we read an article or listen/see something.Sometimes I only want to ask them what is going on in their minds.
      But that is what I like about this website too. It is a very good conversation and completely diffrent to most sides and I really like it.M

  5. Michael,

    The bar in Leafland is too low. Far too low, and it has been for a very long time. One playoff berth, in a lockout shortened season no less, in the last ten years, is an horrific level of incompetence. This level of achievement wouldn't be tolerated in Columbus, two playoff appearances, Nashville, seven playoff appearances, Tampa five playoff appearances, Islanders, three playoff appearances. These are the franchises that are outperforming our Maple Leafs in the last ten seasons of NHL play. The question is, how does anyone who isn't coming in fresh to this franchise still have a job here?

    I have no idea why it isn't clear to everyone that in order to win in the NHL the way to do so is through the draft. The Blackhawks have taken almost all of their best players in the draft. They stockpile draft picks when they are bad, the Leafs trade theirs away for middling players. We really needed to give away a draft pick to re-acquire Frattin? Short sighted lunacy by the guys in charge of this franchise. Duncan Keith 54th overall, Seabrook 14th, Crawford 52nd, Hjalmarsson 108th, Brouwer, Bickell, Byfuglien, all mediocre draft picks that the Hawks turned into players that were good, great or just useful. There are lots more quality hockey players in their history, look them up, it's stellar. You can't do these sorts of things if you trade picks away, year after year, after year.

    Sure Pittsburgh got Crosby in a lottery, and that was fortunate. Taking the other players in the drafts before and after, not so much. Besides, who would want their team to go to the finals one year, and then make it back the next and hoist the Cup? Not this Leafs fan, another cup of middling hockey for me please. Just because Edmonton can't seem to draft a contender doesn't mean that you should ignore the successes of other teams. The LA Kings have taken Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Bernier, Wayne Simmons, Alec Martinez, Slava Voynov, Kyle Clifford, and on and on. None of those players went higher than 11th overall. In the last two seasons the Kings have drafted 17 more players. Contrast this with the Leafs, seven total. That is correct folks, the Leafs have had seven picks in the last two years. Pretty sure I know why one team is a perennial contender, the other is the Leafs. One team drafts and develops talent, the other trades for Mike Santorelli.

    Barring a major trade, that I have no confidence in Nonis being able to pull off, there is no way the Leafs are even as good as they were last season. Bernier had his groin surgically repaired, no guarantee he will be as good as new. Thirty seven year old Robidas broke the same leg twice last season, ominous is one word to describe that. We traded a 23 yr old Jerry D'Amigo for 26 year old Frattin, a guy we gave up to get Bernier. He played 40 games for the Kings, putting up 6 points before being traded to Columbus.

    The bright side of all this is that I hope the management of the Leafs knows, truly knows that they are going to suck this year, and the one after, and maybe even the one after that, so that they can finally get some picks and acquire talent. Making the playoffs and getting their asses kicked just isn't good enough. The fact that Nonis offered Dave Bolland a five year deal at $4.75 million leaves me with more than a few doubts about the ability of the braintrust currently assembled.

  6. Hi Michael

    I have enjoyed VLM and your followers for over 3 years now and have made an effort during that time to become a Leaf fan despite a long lifetime of avoiding that direction. I can fairly state that I now understand how hard it is to be a Leaf fan starting with the Ballard years.

    The answer to your question is that the bar is set too low. However, I always have believed that you need to set attainable goals, but continually enhance them. It seems like reaching the playoffs on a regular basis is a hefty task for this organization.

    The Leafs are lucky they are not in European soccer where teams are promoted and demoted based on performance. Analysis of last year's standings indicates that the Leafs acquired more points than seven other teams. Thus, in a three division league, the Leafs would be in the third division. Perhaps demotion would be a catalyst for management to smarten up!!!!

    While many here have said that the Leafs can compete in the weak east conference, this seems to me to be a cop out versus recognizing reality.

    The history, the financial strength and a fantastic fan base suggests that Toronto should have (needs to have) Stanley Cup challengers on an annual basis. Having watched this team since the 1950's, time is likely running out for including this in my bucket list. To date, there seems to be little sign that things are going to rapidly improve. Hopefully, Nonis and Carlyle have short leashes.

    Question from the Draft?

    Here in Georgia, we have Dunwoody Housewife jokes - Like, how many Dunwoody Housewives does it take to replace a light bulb. I was thinking the same thing as Bettman and seven leaf execs welcomed the new saviour (Nylander - looks like good pick). How come Shanahan was not on the stage? Is he trying to avoid getting painted by the same brush?

    Reaching the playoffs is a realistic bar this year, but hopefully the plan is annual Stanley Cup contender. It would be nice to see encouraging signs soon.

    As Yogi says, it's deja vu all over again.

    1. I certainly concur, Ralph (RLMcC), setting attainable/realistic goals is the necessary first step. I think we have seen (at times) some encouraging signs, but until the team has a real identity and plays to it, success may be a ways off!

  7. I know there are many out there that won't agree with this but, as I see it, the Leafs will never be successful "re-building" with their current core player Dion Phnuff. Even Nonis has brought in couple of 'experienced' d-men to take some of the load off of Dion. Nonis & Shanny beleaf he has been over played. The point I'm trying to make is over playing has not made him a bad defender. He was a bad defender whether he plays 18 minutes a game or 26 minutes. Guys skate by him in the first few minutes of a game just as easily as they might near the end of the game. He tries to stick check all the time, not just when he's tired near the end. Watching 24/7 it's mind boggling (Thanks Randy) how Burke even thought to make this guy captain. Not that I had much to begin with but I lost all respect for Phnuff when Ranger was clocked, laying motionless on the ice and Dion rushed to the dressing room and only came back when, obviously, someone told him he should be out there. Captian? Could anyone envision Wendel doing that? I'm obviously setting the bar high here when I say I hope some team on Phnuff's wish list makes an offer Nonis can't refuse. They could do some serious re-building if they could remove Dion.....& Clarkson's(A story for another time) cap hits!

    1. I think we all have different ideas about what makes a good captain--a leader on and off the ice, a team spokesman for the media, as well as a willing target for criticism, a liaison between players and coaches/ management. It would be an interesting discussion.

      There seemed to be a lot of confusion on the bench at that point, especially with Carlyle appearing not to give Ranger a second thought but heading straight to the dressingroom. The players were hesitant to just leave. You're right, I think, that some captains would have stayed, regardless of what the coach or anyone else wanted them to do. I believe Dion wanted to stay, but did not want to displease Randy. You want your captain to make the right decision, without having to think about it. C

  8. The choices made by the Leafs prior to the year-long lockout made sense because there was no salary cap and the opportunity always existed for the team to spend a way out of their problems. Of course, the cap implementation left management with a paucity of options to exploit 'drafting and development' that had been cast aside for the 'trade young assets & spend on Free agents' mode prior to the cap.

    The cap brought with it a wasteland of options for the Leafs and our sense of expectancy finally appropriated the change that had been imposed as we began to hope that Brian Burke could 'lead us out of that wilderness'. And, not unlike others who transition us to greener pastures, Burke was not deemed to be the man who would see the fruit of his labours while still working with the Leafs.

    For all his bluster, we have seen a marked increase in young talent on this team... even if it hasn't brought us to the promised land. Experience and wisdom has shown us not to expect more than is 'realistic' because we all know we're 'not there yet'. However, we do seem to content ourselves with incremental improvements.

    Despite the departure of a significant and experienced portion of this roster over the last few days, we are growing in some assets (like cap choices, that the better teams seem to have learned). We may see Clarkson becoming what was hoped (even if at too high a price) when players more of his ilk are his line-mates this coming season, yet his contract is likely too fresh for the Leafs to risk another such contract on Bolland (or Kulemin, Raymond, etc). There may be some arguable 'drop off' in talent, but I anticipate an increase in work ethic and overall defensive awareness (not because Bolland or Kulemin were lacking in that regard, just that Bolland played so few games and Kulemin would cost too much for what he provides). Being younger, newer to the league and hungrier on the 3rd & 4th lines may provide an 'intangible' that impacts all the lines (and our 'identity').

    Slow and steady may not win the sprints, but it is a better strategy for the marathon (and it does seem more like the latter). The bar has been set low, Michael, though I think we all can see many of the reasons for that, I just plan to reach new heights (like during the high jump - my event in school) - even if I'm mixing my track and field metaphors :)

    By NO means am I saying that I expect us to challenge for a cup, but I do believe these current transitional choices are more 'right-minded' than many we have seen for some time. Cap flexibility may just bring some other late options when players are concerned about just having a contract next year (Raymond/MacArthur) so I think we will see the roster filled with some cap space left over later in the season (not to mention 1 year contracts available at the trade deadline). Perhaps this more 'mercenary' attitude will fill the cupboards faster than previous iterations :)

    1. Thanks for that perspective, InTimeFor62. And I do think that having younger, hungry players on the third and fourth lines could pay dividends. We'll see if patience, a better pipeline and cap space can help!