Custom Search

Can the Maple Leafs turn things around the as Blackhawk franchise has done over the past decade?

Just the other day, I took a moment to check the final regular-season standings from the 2005-’06 NHL season. (You will recall that was the first season coming out of the lost-year lockout.) The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the first time with Pat Quinn as coach, as the outstanding veteran coach—having had to relinquish his GM duties in the summer of 2003—was left with a weak roster when the organization was seemingly unprepared for the post lockout world.

But what I was really double-checking was exactly where the Chicago Blackhawks finished.  In fact, the Hawks were pretty dismal that season, finishing in 14th place in the Western Conference standings.

These days, of course, the Hawks are considered something of a modern-day hockey dynasty. They have just earned their third Stanley Cup in six years. 

Interestingly, every summer we hear how the Hawks are up against the cap, and will have trouble adjusting the roster before next season without losing some key pieces. But every summer management makes it work, shedding salary through judicious trades while still holding on to the team’s true core. This happened after they won their first Cup under Joel Quenneville a few years ago, and the organization will move pieces around again this off-season.

Looking at the 2005-’06 roster, it’s interesting to look at who was on that team.  Corey Crawford played two games in goal, spending most of his 20-year old rookie pro season in the American Hockey League.  Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were young, emerging defensemen, just out of their teens. Patrick Sharp was adjusting to life in the NHL as a forward in his early 20s.

Much of the rest of the roster is long gone from the NHL, though names like netminder Craig Anderson, Mike Brown, Radem Vrbata, Tuomo Ruutu and Rene Bourque have remained contributors elsewhere over the years. Dustin Byfuglien is a star with the Winnipeg Jets.

The roster check did cause me to pause and reflect somewhat. 

In today’s cap and free agent world, it’s almost surprising when any team has more than a player or two on its roster for a decade. So the fact that the Hawks have largely built over the past near decade around a goalie (Crawford), two stud defensemen in Keith and Seabrook and forwards like Sharp maybe sheds a bit of light on the Hawks’ philosophy when it comes to building teams.

It’s about defense and strength down the middle, for sure—building around young, talented (and rugged) defensemen, and giving your goaltender a chance to develop.

Now, hitting near rock bottom in the standings has allowed them to also scoop up future game changers in Jonathan Toews (more stretch up the middle) and Patrick Kane via the draft. They picked the “right” guys, as recent history demonstrates.

They’ve lost good players over the years, too, but have added others like Marian Hossa (and more recently Vermette and Brad Richards), who was once thought by some to be a talented guy who played on teams that didn’t win. That certainly hasn’t been an issue for him in Chicago.

Of course, they’ve always found useful role players (and some like Brandon Saad who have become more than that), with the required character traits that make those players invaluable to a team-first philosophy.

This all leads me to where we are with the Leafs.  Some have suggested here that the Leafs, with a new coach in tow, are not really that far away from contending. Others see a major roster overhaul still ahead.

We’ve all recognized that there has been skill on the Leaf roster the last few years, but have also noticed that somehow the roster, as constituted, was not able to play with the consistent quality needed to win at this level.  Whatever confluence of events it was—coaching, the wrong system, rushing some players too soon, a lack of commitment to real team defense, poor player development, middlish drafting—the team fell short of expectations several years running under Wilson and Carlyle.

Now Shanahan is in charge.  His assistants are key decision-makers.  And Babcock will be a high expectations coach.

Is there enough of a core here to provide legitimate hope for the future?

Morgan Rielly certainly brings some of that.  Can he be a difference-maker like a Keith or Seabrook?

Can Kadri be our Patrick Sharp?

Is Bernier a keeper like Crawford has been in Chicago?

Will Nylander be a Kane-like talent?

Who else provides that hope?

I can throw out the usual “prospect” names, like Connor Brown, Frederik Gauthier, Tom Nilsson and Petter Granberg, but for me they are just that right now—names, prospects who may be Leafs soon.

We also have the fourth overall pick in the draft, so more help is on the way.  Will we also trade to grab another high first round pick?

There are already some good NHL players on the current roster. Trades will no doubt be made and of course there is free agency.

I’m not sure I want to say the Hawks are the model franchise that must be followed.  After all, there is no single way to get to the top.  Every good organization does it a bit differently and what is needed to win seems to shift every few years, though the essentials are the same.

It takes all the things we’ve talked about here at VLM for years: skill, coaching, proper player development, leadership, veteran experience, a roster full of determined players who hate to lose and a management team that stays true to its vision but can also adjust to a changing landscape. (Supportive ownership that won't get in the way doesn't hurt, either.)

The Hawks, like the Wings and Devils have been over the past two decades (and the Bruins perhaps more recently) are indeed a team to at least look at when it comes to asking yourself: how do you build a champion?

Shanahan and the new Leaf brass have the opportunity to work from a fairly fresh canvas.  They have lots of examples of recent success to analyze. 

Decades ago, Frank Sinatra wrote about doing it “his way”.  Great teams have a vision and, for the most part,  stay with it.  The Leafs just need to determine what “their way” is.


  1. The days of quick fixes and patchwork solutions seems to be over. We now have the opportunity to witness a rebuild done the right way by the right people. I, for one, am optimistic and excited for the future of the team that I have loved and supported over more than six decades.

    I am more than willing to endure losing seasons as they stock their talent base through the draft. It will be refreshing to see high impact talent in the pipeline, developed and coached up in the minors, and not prematurely thrust into the NHL.

    This process will take time and I believe that the fan base is now prepared for that. We have top notch talent in the upper levels of management and a first rate head coach who are on the same page with regard to the rebuild. We have draft choices and assets to gain more to begin the process.

    I am anticipating a couple of blockbuster trades where we acquire high draft choices and very young assets. I cannot see keeping Kessel or Phaneuf. They should bring back the type of returns that will get the rebuild well on its way.

    High draft choices, exciting prospects in the system and, thank God no more Clarksons and Bolands. Now that is something to get excited about.

    1. The next few days leading up to and including the draft should be interesting, for sure, Pete Cam. It wouldn't be shocking to see Shanahan look to acquire another high pick.

  2. Mostly, I just read...but I wanted to give props to Pete Cam for an excellent post. There seem to be two camps among Leafs fans right now. Those who were quick to sour on Carlyle's Leafs - pointing to metrics and 'The Swarm' and other ineptitudes - and who've been quicker to embrace the legitimacy of this rebuild. And those defended Randy, blamed the highly-paid players, and are struggling to perceive any sense of direction at this point (largely, because the blamed players are still on the roster, at least for the short term).

    My first memories of the Leafs come from the 1971-72 season, so I'm a long-suffering fan as well. But this leadership group is very, very different. Pete's post captures some the rationale for optimism. It will take others longer to trust the process, but there are a lot of good things happening as Shanahan rebuilds the organization from the ground up.

  3. There was a time when the Leafs were built from the ground up by capable hands. Draft picks - Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and Mike Palmateer were the core, developed by the Leafs with Jim Gregory as GM and Roger Neilsen as coach. It brought us to the final 4 in 1978. It took eight years to build and then we know the story. Pulled apart by Imlach and that wasted us for 15 years. There is only one way to build a winner - no one has patched one together since the 67 Leafs. Draft and develop patiently.

    1. I remember those mid and late '70s days well, Anon. And the unfortunate '80s after, as you mentioned, Punch returned. I have often commented here how much I liked Gregory as the Leaf GM in the '70s.

  4. I'm going to go off on a little bit of a tangent on the Hawks vs Leafs comparison and ignore the players and look at the organizations.

    The Hawks fortunes started to change when old school Bill Wirtz passed away and his son Rocky took over. The next season Hawks games were on local tv for the first in ...almost forever trying to win back fans. He invited back the alumni to be around the organization that his dad had shunned to show people mattered. And Rocky's smartest move out of everything he has done was in 2007 he hired John McDonough from baseball to be his president. My best friend is a massive Hawks fan so I know a bit about the situation. The hue and cry in Chicago was much hand wringing. How can a person who knows nothing about hockey be the president? Well, the person knew how to run a sports franchise. And he was smart enough to hire good smart people under him and let them do their jobs. It wasn't perfect and it wasn't without some bumps (Dale Tallon and some late RFA offers/Denis Savard as head coach as examples) but over the last 8-9 years they have become the model franchise of how to build an organization not just a team of players. And they did it through the draft and then filled out with trades and signings.. not build a team through trades and signings only.

    So, how does this compare with the Leafs. They hired someone who had not been a GM or a president before but from what I have read everyone that has had anything to do with Shanahan says he is very smart and is always looking for new ideas. He has started putting "his" organization together. It is not the same as the old model so no guarantees it will work.. but more importantly to me.. it does not mean it will is a certainty to fail either. There is too much hand wringing in the media about how there HAS to be a proper GM and you can never hire a coach before a GM etc etc. I say bullcrap. I have been in business long enough to learn there are always different ways to get to the result required. So we shall see how this so called different way works or not. Personally I like the way it heading. And another "similar plan" is that Shanahan et al have been very clear they intend to build the team and the depth through the draft.

    So there are some similarities between how the Hawks were built and how the Leafs are starting to build. That is a good thing in my opinion. The massive joker in the deck are the owners. Yes, right now MLSE is staying behind the scenes and when pressed saying the right things how they back Shanahan's plan and support him fully. But we know the Bell/Rogers 2 headed monster is going to blow up sometime. Too much greed and egos in those two companies not to. So what happens to the support and plan then?? No one knows but I guarantee it will be spectacular one way or another. Make your popcorn and stay tuned!! Life is never boring in Leafland.

    1. Yes, bringing in the right people has made a huge difference in Chicago, Pep. The ownership change (and the change in attitude and approach) was key, absolutely.

      Leaf fans seem more excited about Shanahan and now Babcock. Having a plan is important. Being able to make it work will be the challenge!

  5. Hi Michael

    I may be an optimist but I still believe the Leafs are a lot closer than most people think and I think they can duplicate the Hawks success. Hawks were rock bottom for several years and picked Toews and lucked out in the lottery to pick Kane. They won the lottery but also made the right decision to pick Kane as Turris was rated the #1 prospect by NHL Central scouting, and players like Voracek, McDonagh, Couture and of course Habs Subban and Max were rated lower than Turris. If Mark Hunter can make the right picks the Leafs will be a contender. If he makes the wrong picks then we are going to be in for a lot of pain and for a long of time just like Babcock warned.

    Management will determine how well the Leafs do and management means picking and then developing the right picks and not trading them away like they did with Rask, Stralman and countless other draft picks. Picks that ended up being players like Brendan Saad who was picked with a Leaf 2nd round pick the Hawks received for an over the hill 34 year old Primeau. The Leafs really made some stupid deals and just stopping the stupid deals will help. Now if they can make some smart deals like the Hawks have it will be even better.

    I still think the Leafs are better - or should I say - could be better than what we have seen the last few years. It really is hard to believe how they could totally collapse with the talent the team has. That being said the end result is they have players like Rielly and picks like Nylander that they should never have been in the running for and with the 4th overall pick this year you have to believe something will come out of all of this - like maybe a Stanley Cup contender.

    1. The Leafs have always faced the pressure of having to win now, it seems, Alton, so even when they were only a middle of the pack team, management has generally felt as though they had to go for it.

      Everyone believes Shanahan will be patient. Meanwhile, Babcock is a guy who can get a lot out of the roster while management rebuilds on the fly and young players are developed.

  6. Brian Burke won the Cup with Annaheim, built a Vancouver team that was a game away from winning the Cup, took a bottom-dwelling Calgary Flames to the playoffs in his first year there and built the Leafs team that we are currently talking about. Everyone knows that a rebuilt lasts at least 5 years. Burke was fired just a month into his 4th year. Nonis was a shrewd executive who knew how to sign his RFAs to good for the team contracts and made some low-risk gambles that didn't work out partly due to circumstance (Bolland injury, Clarkson suspension) but mainly due to the fact that he and his coach were handcuffed by the newly hired management and prevented from executing their plan.

    Now look at the new management group - a bunch of OHLers who never spoke on the phone with an NHL executive and a 'sports science' department manned by a bunch of basement bloggers who believe that the previous management, coaching staff, and players had no idea what they were doing and are now starting a 'long' 'painful' and 'patient' rebuild as if it hasn't already been done.

    The composition of the new management group is good for one thing - drafting OHL talent and I'm pretty excited about the upcoming prospects and their development curve. But they'll also want to acquire more picks and this is where I'm worried that they may get fleeced by the more experienced trading partners who I'm sure have a much better idea of of the value of our star players than our management which seems to have no respect for what they've got.

    I'm hoping that Babcock may put his foot down and stop the fire sale until at least we have a GM in place that can deal with the NHL trading partners and until the value of our assets is not at the all-time low.

    What all the successful teams, not only Blackhawks, have in common is stable and experienced management and ownership structure and a good development program as well as a few very high draft picks that can lead the charge (Towes, Kane on Chicago, Perry and Getzlaf in Annahem, Hedman and Stamkos in Tampa Bay).

    What we need, I think, is indeed patience to not trade away our core for the bag of pucks and to wait until the kids in the minors are ready. We also need a new, experienced GM who is able to navigate the NHL landscape.

    So, in addition to the earlier poster's two camps (one blaming the coach, the other blaming the players) I'd like to add another one that you could maybe call 'conservative' or cautious which revolves around blaming the failure on a) natural process of having to wait for the youth to develop and, more importantly, on b) the unstable and whimsical ownership and management structure that ruined Burke's, in my eyes, very good rebuild effort.

    So, in light of this, I'd like to offer two recent articles for everyone to consider - one about Tampa Bay's rebuild as an example of waiting a year (with much older players such as St. Louis and Lecavalier) and another about how it may be wise to bet on farther future picks as opposed to going all in on the current draft as was the practice of the Habs' famed GM Sam Pollock -
    Finally, it may be worth mentioning that Keith, Seabrook and Sharp were already in Chicago playing on a pretty bad team before Towes and Kane came in and turned things around.

    1. I had wondered why there was so much focus on one draft when 2016 is looking just as promising. I also thought the "Not norm ullman" article on PPP was excellent. There are several chances for every pick to become a top three so the more picks, the better.

  7. I would have to say that I like the way things are shaping up on the management side of the Leafs and am hopeful that we can create that 'identity' that we're always talking about, Michael.

    Of course, that means player personnel changes and I'm pleased to have read the link that leafdreamer provided above, where Not Norm Ullman's recommendations hearken back to the draft strategies of the elite Montreal GM, Sam Pollack. It's a worthwhile read and am thankful you posted it!

    That article got me thinking about how to best utilize, or tweak, the ideas laid out there (basically to avoid overpaying the other team or undervaluing the players who need to be moved) by finding the right options with teams who are willing to trade higher picks in a later draft (since we're already expecting some short/medium-term "pain").

    The specific trade problem that seems to come up with Kessel (and especially, Phaneuf) is the widespread expectation that we will have to retain salary for one or both. In my mind, trading for 2016/17 higher picks allows us to avoid some of the crisis-management that creates problems at the draft (while allowing us to lay the framework for a trade while teams are planning their budgets for next year.

    What I'm suggesting is that both Kessel and Phaneuf (for instance) have bonuses to be paid on July 1. If we delay the trade beyond that payment, then we're already 'retaining' some actual costs (without incurring long-term retention) and could obtain better picks that aren't as highly valued as those from the impending draft (since GM's hearts are already set on certain players into whom they have poured a lot of valuable time and energy to potentially select).

    It's almost like a trade deadline deal that allows the other team to 'work in' the new player for the whole season, while making a decision on their own pending UFAs a few months early. Perhaps a few Olli Jokinens are already on a team's radar as 'not fitting with the plan' and could be the 'retained salary' component for next season alone.

    The added benefit of picking up pending UFAs, is that we could retain half their salary in a trade deadline deal (perhaps even back to the team we trade with, if they have second thoughts about letting them go and really want a known quantity more than some other 'rental' player.

    I'm really hoping we see some more significant 'creativity' in the coming days/weeks and actually think it's more possible with the present group than most iterations of our beloved Leafs management teams during my lifetime. Time will tell!

  8. I wonder if the Leafs could use their financial clout and cap space to 'help out' the Hawks... it seems to me that Brad Richards earned a bit higher contract, but there's no way Chicago can keep him above $2m by the looks of it. What if the Leafs signed Brad for 1year at 3-3.5M, then retained 1/2 and traded him to Chicago for a higher 2016 pick (and/or prospect)?

    I think that sort of deal could help us accumulate the multiple picks we should be giving to our OHL brain trust!

  9. We're all chomping at the bit Michael, for your thoughts on that "Free Agent Frenzy" day, and the aftermath of the Kessel trade. I won't try to derail this post, and I look forward to your thoughts on an interesting week.