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Shanahan, patience and the Maple Leaf conundrum…

It’s way too early to know what a Brendan Shanahan team will look like. Will it emphasize skill and speed, or will it also include doses of old-fashioned grit and intestinal fortitude? Most really good teams have all of that, and in a season when they get some bounces, they have success if they also have enough goaltending to go along with everything else.

Right now, what we ‘know’ about Shanahan as the President of the hockey Club is that he is preaching (and demonstrating) patience. He clearly did not want Dave Nonis to over-spend on July 1, and Nonis stayed on course.  Nonis’ moves were seemingly prudent, though it will be well into the season (and beyond) before we know how impactful they might turn out to be.

Are the Leafs a lot better than two months ago?  I suppose they might be.  They’ve made moves on the blueline (Robidas and Polak) that suggest they want more sandpaper in their own zone.  If Gardiner and Rielly take steps forward, then who knows, the Leaf blueline corps might be fine.

The Leafs do look better in terms of their bottom six forwards, though as I mentioned in a recent post I can’t say with certainty that some of the new guys are surefire difference-makers.  Komarov (a bit more of a known quantity) should help, but more from the perspective that he is annoying to play against. He’s a guy who agitates and finishes his checks, which is certainly as useful trait to have on any team.

And, if Carlyle simply utilizes what he largely ignored last season, youngsters like Holland and Ashton  and other Marlie hopefuls, that should add some energy to the lineup.

I guess one of the problems I see is that Toronto’s best player, Phil Kessel, is in his prime right now.  Are we one year or three years away from the Leafs being a really good team?  It’s not that Kessel won’t be a threat in a few years, but it sometimes feels as though we have spent the most prolific years of his NHL career talking about improvement but never quite seeing results where it matters—on the ice.

I’m not suggesting the window of opportunity is only the next couple of years.  Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Gardiner, Rielly and Bernier have not even reached their prime playing years yet. And there do seem to be some solid youngsters on the way. But it would be nice to have a strong supporting cast for Kessel, for example, when he is at his zenith as a player.

For his part, Phaneuf is a player that may not get better with age.  Though still a relatively young guy, he has a lot of wear on his hockey tires and while he has given everything he has to the blue and white, I’m not sure we will be an elite team when he is still operating at peak efficiency.

Shanahan, though, seems to have the right approach:  keep building, stay the course and don’t go for home runs with a team that is not near serious contention (unless something shifts suddenly).

I know a lot of Leaf fans will be looking to see if Carlyle will last the season. There is a strong sentiment out there that Shanahan should have started fresh, at least behind the bench. But this, too, seems to be part of his stated operating philosophy: that the organization can get more out of the players than some of them showed last season.  Maybe he feels the same way about the coach.  Whether new assistant coaches will make a difference, I have no idea.  But Shanahan seems to be saying that the core players from least season, along with the Head coach, are better than the results indicated.

So, he and Nonis have brought in roster reinforcements to support the go-to guys.  New coaches are here to work with Carlyle. The message seems to be: we believe in the players and will support this coaching staff.

Honestly, I don't have a great feeling going into a new season.  I mean, the team will be fine and they have made some tweaks and some possible roster (and coaching?) improvements.  I'm sure there will be times during the season ahead when we think they've turned a corner again. It's just that we've seen that movie before. Re-build, re-tool, win now, look pretty good at times, but always we end up back where we stared: talking about building for tomorrow. The bar here is not that high, it seems.

The new boss believes in patience.  Will that be enough?


  1. One thing we've finally seen corroborated is that there was a schism in the dressing room last year - something that was obvious to anyone who watched the Winter Classic 24/7 shows. So it appears Carlyle gets a chance to reboot with a couple of new assistants - one of whom (Spott) has shown he can communicate with younger players. To my eyes, that's the only (possibly) significant change we've made.
    I'm expecting a trade that will involve Franson. From what I've read, he's no longer considered one of the top 6 D-men. Perhaps that will be the route management will take to address the roster problems we've had for, oh, the last three years.
    I just read that we lost Drew McIntyre to the Hurricanes, so I suppose that means Reimer will be with us a little while longer. There's a fence that needs some serious mending! If the new coaching staff can pull that off, maybe there'll be a glimmer of hope for next year.
    But so far, I'm with you, Michael. I don't see any real improvement in the team, and time is ticking away on our core. I can't remember a season when I've had lower expectations for the Leafs.

    1. The Leafs could surprise us, Gerund O', but the expectations are certainly modest right now.

    2. What 'schism' are you talking about Gerund? I watched the series and didn't notice any schism.

  2. I almost hate to say it, but it seems as though we're in 'wait and see' mode from Shanahan and company. I was willing to be there 2 years ago, but it seems as though we took some sideways steps last year (with a healthy dose of regression/underachieving/injury in the mix). So, while keeping some cap space this year (with the recent signings) we are really in the final year to 'look at what we have' with a number of players - though I'm at a loss to know ALL of the guys that management is going to be watching.

    I'll take a stab at it, with guys like Lupul, Kadri and Gardiner (in that order) being on a bit of a hotseat for production (though the latter two would probably make it into next season, but with Kadri potentially moving into a long term contract, he'll have to gain some consistency, whereas Gardiner has more time in my estimation).

    Clarkson will have to find his game, though it would be hard to move that contract if he doesn't. The remaining players are really on the one-year 'show me' contracts and if they do 'mix in' well, then we may have reason to hope that Kessel will still be in his prime as the younger guys mature over the next season and into the next. If we 'implode' - then all bets are off and we may just see a blockbuster transition to the younger core, if it is identified as the most likely to produce consistent playoff possibilities.

    Not even gonna' mention Franson and Reimer because they're already 'on the block' - even if both are on the roster to start the season, I'd be very surprised to see them end it...

    We may be pleasantly surprised by the mixture resulting from the new recipe, but I'll be waiting a good half season before I get my hopes too high... been there, done that :(

    1. That's precisely it, InTimeFor62- we've seen some good starts from the Leafs off and on the past few years, so we may have to be from Missouri this season!

  3. I think we could be more positive, just based on who is gone and the ending of some problems

    Jerred Smithson and his zero points in 18 Leaf games is not even part of the Marlies for a call up.

    Jay McClement is gone. Carlyle can't play him 17 minutes a game anymore. Over 81 games, he had just 10 points. His shooting percetage was just 6%. In contrast, Santorelli probably gets over 30 points this year.

    The additions of Santorelli, Komorov and Kontiola means the bottom six is filled and we will probably never see Colton Orr and zero points in 54 games again.

    Slow Tim Gleason is gone and in comes a faster, meaner Roman Polak. That seems a clear upgrade.

    No Tyler Biggs style draft choice. They took the most skilled guy in the draft in William Nylander. Again that seems like progress and maybe like Morgan Reilly, Nylander arrives ahead of schedule in a year. As a non CHL player they can play Nylander on the Marlies and bring him up to the Leafs when it seems appropriate, which may accelerate his progress. You can't do that with a CHL player.

    Dave Farish, Randy Carlyle's best friend is gone and replaced by Steve Spott, the player friendly Marlie coach. On they same day, Shanahan talks about places for Marlies. That has to be positive for player development and it means Carlyle is on a tight leash with Spott, his heir apparent as part of the staff. Carlyle can't endlessly play ineffective veterans anymore. Those Marlie kids are going to get a chance.

    Plus, they didn't do anything stupid, like signing Bolland, a mistake that might prohibit signing a more significant player.

    But Phil is 26, so their best chance is in the next 4 years.

    In three years when Phil is 29, Morgan Reilly will 23; Kadri will be 26; Gardiner will be 27, JVR will be 28, Koomorov will be 30; Bozak will be 31; Phaneuf will be 32; Clarkson and Lupul will be 33. At that time, prospects like Nylander will be 21. Granberg, Percy and Leivo will be 24.

    They have to make the push to contend in the next 2 to 4 years. The window for that time when the core is still not too old, but the prospects are old enough will be quite short.

    1. That sounds like a realistic time frame if the Leafs hope to contend when their current best players are still at their best, DP.

  4. I'm not as pessimistic as some. I think if Clarkson has a bounce back season they have a competitive top 6 for the East. They strengthened in areas they needed to in defence and bottom 6 forwards as you stated. They even seem to have a little more depth in case of injuries. If they are smart between now and the start of the season they should have some cap room, an area that severely handicapped them last year.

    I think your criticism of Carlyle's use of veterans over youth at times is valid but I remember either reading or hearing that Carlyle has a philosophy of trying to win every minute of every game, and doing whatever he feels is necessary to accomplish that. I can see where he would tend to depend more on guys that have experience as well as depending more on 3 lines. It will be interesting to see if he uses the 4th line more this season.

    Regardless of any of the changes the leafs have made, or are going to make. I think the biggest key to this season rests on one person's shoulders, Jonathon Bernier. The leafs were in 3rd place in the East when he was injured. I still say if that didn't happen the leafs would have made the playoffs, possibly won a round or two and the whole theme of this offseason changes. If Bernier stays healthy this season the leafs make the playoffs. If he doesn't, they don't. Plain and Simple.

    1. Goaltending cures a lot of ills, for sure, Stan. And I recognize that Carlyle is not the only coach who is more comfortable relying on veterans he knows- and sometimes that works out very well. It just seemed as though last season there was a need for roster adjustments which did not happen soon enough.

    2. I can't argue with you there. I don't know what it was but there just seemed like there was something off the whole season last year. I thought the team really came together at the end of the shortened season that was highlighted by the comeback against Boston until the last half of the 3rd period when the team reverted to what I saw as the Ron Wilson style of defence. Up until then in their own end they took the body along the boards and kept the front of the net clear. All of a sudden they stopped doing both of those things and started fishing for the puck and ignoring the body, and everyone started trying to block shots and ignored the front of the net.

      During the pre-season they started to play like they did at the end of last season (not counting those 10 minutes) but then they had the Buffalo incident and the Montreal incident and that seemed to shake them. That was followed by suspensions to Lupul and Kadri and all of a sudden they were no longer playing with that "edge". They showed it at times during the season especially in games against the Bruins but not on a regular basis.

      Then when Bernier got hurt it looked to me if the lost confidence that Carlyle had in Reimer extended to the rest of the team. They were playing like a team that had no confidence in their goaltending.

      I like Carlyle as a coach. I think he does have to use his 4th line more and needs to let the young players play in pressure situations more. It might not be pretty at times but things weren't very pretty at time last season either.

    3. Despite being outshot a lot (even when they were winning) there's no question the team had moments this past season when most fans would acknowledge they felt OK about the team. Bernier (and early on, Reimer) generally kept them in games, and they were winning more often than not.

      The Eastern Conference generally provides teams with an opportunity to rebound quickly. The Leafs have skill and if they become a harder team to play against, that will help. Thanks Stan.

  5. As each season ends we pontificate on what's coming and as each season goes our expectations tend to reflect its outcome. Just as we were optimistic after the shortened season in which we achieved some success we are now pessimistic after a season in which the results were not as good.

    The exit in game 7 of the first round against Boston gave us optimism but also worry about not being able to close the deal so to say - changes to address that - changes that were meant to prevent that breakdown (seasoned veterans still in their 'good years' in a gritty winger in Clarkson and a proper shut-down center in Bolland along with a more talented young goalie to 'complement' the hard-battling young Reimer) were made.

    A series of fluky incidents (injuries and suspensions and Reimer's discontent with having to share the net) prevented the plan from being carried out and we missed the postseason by losing a number of one-goal games late and it now looks like the sky is falling and we have a horrible team that needs a miracle to contend. The offseason comes and the management decides to not go for a home-run - there is no 'miracle' cure - and we are sitting here wondering if this team is just not good enough. The few 'tweaks' that were made don't look like enough and we're bracing for another season of struggle just to make the playoffs while our core pieces are getting older and the prospect pool doesn't look like it includes players that have the talent and skill to replace them. We're caught in a limbo, in a permanent purgatory, too good to win the McDavid sweepstakes and far from having a shot at the Cup.

    The failure this past season resulted in the blogosphere calling for the heads of the head coach, the number one center (who had his best season so far and should have once and for all with his point production shut up his critics) and the Captain who again has not been able to do it all himself. The goons are being blamed for not scoring and not playing and the advanced-statistics obsessed young bloggers are again saying 'we told you so'.

    But nobody seems to have a solution given the options available. Stamkos is locked up in Tampa, Lucic remains with Boston, Quenville and Babcock are remaining with their respective organisations, and the pool of UFA's this season is simply not worth the money they are asking for, let alone good enough to really count at whatever price. Reimer and Franson don't seem to command the kind of return that we'd like to see.

  6. There's only so much you can do - so the management decides to tweak the coaching staff corps while giving Randy another year to do his thing, bet on the recovery of Bolland and him taking a hometown discount (and loses the bet), replaces the outgoing forwards with comparable 'talent' (Kulemin, Raymond, Bolland, McClement for Kontinola, Santorelli, Komarov, Frattin and the Marlies) and swaps Gleason and Gunnarson for Robidas and Polak on the defense. The core remains intact, the youngsters get a chance, some cheap UFAs get to try and revive their careers in blue and white and the goons are signed for cheap in case we need them (you never know these days whether you’ll need them or not – we went from Burke’s lament when sending Orr down to a season filled with fights to, again, talking about the end of goonery and a largely wasted year of keeping McClement and Orr in games in which they neither saw ice-time or got to throw punches).

    We essentially have the same team that we had over the last two seasons and we're counting on our core of young talent to continue to improve, supported by a group of some seasoned veterans and under the continuing tutelage of Randy Carlyle. The way I see it our only other option is to, on the one hand, replace the 'has-been' (as he's referred to a statistics-obsessed commenter on one of the statistics-obsessed blogs) traditional coach Randy Carlyle with a 'forward-thinking' younger one and, on the other hand, trade youth for proven talent (i.e. see whether we can get a Crosby or a Towes or a Weber for some combination of a bunch of first-round picks and Gardiner, Reilly, Kadri, Bernier etc.) – a mismatch if there ever was one. The value of our young core is very low right now even if we were to try and trade them for proven talent – a bad season of missing playoffs will do that to ya.

    Time will tell but from here and now I think the management is doing the right thing - letting our young core grow into what they could become and keeping some cap-room available in case they start playing well and we are in a position to make that signing/trade that may take us to the promised land either later in the summer or at the trade deadline or a year or two down the road.

    Along with many others, I expect a further 'tweak' to come with Franson and Reimer being shipped out for (hopefully) a good pick or picks or a good player, and a veteran goalie to be signed up (I'm really hoping for Brodeur as I think he'd be a great mentor for Bernier and may be able to teach him the offensive side of play that he is famous for).

    All in all - I'm again optimistic - I think the patience will pay off and I think our young core is worth investing time in - I think this is the year in which Reilly, Gardiner and Kadri break out, I believe in Bernier and I'm not worried about the still young Captain, Kessel, Bozak and JVR falling off anytime soon. I think we now have a good Carlyle third line that can cycle and own the boards and that we may be pleasantly surprised by some of the talent coming along from Spott's Marlies.

    We won't win the Cup this year but hopefully we'll be in a position to contend the year after as the value of our assets increases with some exciting and good hockey and as the options open up for us. Good things come, they say, to those who wait. If we can make the playoffs two years in a row hopefully Steven Stamkos or John Tavares will want to come home and we'll have cap room to pay them whatever they ask for and parts to spare and go for the big prize.

    1. You present a case for why fans may be hopeful, leafdreamer, and make good points. There can be a tendency to be over-optimistic when a team has some good end of season results, and similarly, there is usually a "here we go again" feeling when a season ends poorly. The Leafs are like a lot of teams- they have some good players, but need an identity. The Eastern Conference provides a chance for a lot of teams to improve quickly.

    2. Indeed - the Leafs had two very similar seasons (late playoff spot in 2013 and a close miss in 2014) - with lots of one-goal games tipping the iceberg. I don't think they played that much better in 2012/13 than 2013/14 but it seems to make all the difference with fans.

      The big difference is in that elusive 'identity' component - in a shortened season we had an identity - we were tough to play against with Komarov and Orr playing under optimal conditions for them while the offense was fast and punishing. Last season that 'hard to play against' component went missing as the pests and goons went missing. Hopefully, and I think this is what management is going for with the current changes, we can regain that hard-working, hard-hitting and overall hard to play against identity and repeat or better the 'success' of the shortened season.

  7. I forgot to mention that I'm very pleased with the coaching changes - Spott is a young-player coach who did amazingly well with a very limited pool of prospects in the Marlies and has coached Kitchener Rangers who were perennial contenders in the OHL for years and Horachek is a defensive specialist having worked with Barry Trotz in Nashville for a number of years. I think this is exactly what we need.

  8. Hi Michael,

    Shanahan has a clear plan and the Leafs did well with their signings.
    You wrote you don't know if their are diffrence makers under the new guys, we will see. But we have not lost any diffrence makers either.

    There are some of the new players that could really suprise us.

    We had so much bad luck with a lot of FA signings/trades in the past five years that I really hope we hit a homerun with some of the guys.
    And I am very pleased that Bolland signed elsewhere and the Gorges thing did not work out.

    Changing the assistants will have a huge impact.

    They did some things particularly well. Keeping Carlyle was smart, because there is no excuse and a bit more pressure on the players. We have two assistat coaches that can take over if necessarry.
    No long term FA signings that can harm us in any way. Signing a lot of FA's that can only suprise us positively. But nobody comes with a burden here- That is good.

    I think Shanahan thinks far beyond Kessel's prime in terms of having a copetitive Club.
    This is long term, there is no quick fix.

    1. Hi Marcus- Leaf fans are hoping Shanny can make things happen, for sure.