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Hope in Leafland

It’s been a while since I posted here and it’s been helpful to take some time to reflect on the state of the Maple Leafs.

The spring and summer of 2015 has seen a dramatic sea change in these parts.  If any of us doubted that Brendan Shanahan had/has full authority to follow his instincts, those doubts have been dissipated.

The Leafs have a new head coach. There is no more talking about, “What if we could just get our hands on a really good coach…?”.  Regardless about what one felt about his predecessors, few would question that Mike Babcock can still coach in today’s NHL. He has a Cup on his resume, yes, but more than that, he also brings a well-earned reputation. It’s a reputation that ensures his voice will be heard loud and clear by any player wearing the blue and white in the years ahead.

He will be demanding and have high expectations, to be sure. 

The arrival of Lou Lamoriello as General Manager is intriguing, to say the least.  While I’ve never liked his coaching carousel approach in New Jersey, it’s hard to argue with his track record.  Out of rubble he created a franchise that has been, like the Red Wings (see Babcock and Shanahan) a model of consistency and success for more than twenty years.

Shanahan will handle some of the public stuff, though his assistants will help in that regard. Babcock will coach, and Lamoriello will put his head down and work quietly to help turn the Leafs into perennial contenders. (Heck, even Jacques Lemaire is here now. I well remember him as one of the finest two-way centers in hockey back in the 1970s, and as we all know he became a very successful coach as well…)

Can an organization have too many smart people at the top? I guess we’ll find out.

I remember saying years ago, when Brian Burke was fired, that the Leafs should be an organization looking to hire the best GM and/or coach available.  While they have had some “good” hockey people in place over the last decade or so, it feels as though Shanahan has been allowed to do precisely what I was talking about: find the best people he could get his hands on to be General Manager and head coach.

Shanahan still has Hunter and Dubas to round out (with the addition of the former New Jersey GM) a suddenly very experienced but also versatile front office, as well as a coach widely recognized as one of the best in the business.

Now, all this is very nice.  The Leafs still need to field a team for the 2015-’16 season.  And in perusing the current roster and depth chart, I’m slightly more excited about the prospect pipeline (Brown, Gauthier, Nylander, Marner, Granberg, et al) than what would seem to be our starting lineup on opening night in October. But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

From my perspective, things are at least hopeful as we head into training camp (now not that far off) because, very simply, the “right” people are now in charge. I didn’t think the Leafs would even hire a new GM, or at least one that would have an independent voice. Shanahan is in charge, but in Lamoriello we have someone who will lead, listen, consult and make tough decisions.  Babcock will change the attitude in the dressing room.

The bar going forward will be set much higher, I suspect.

Will we win much in the early going?  I have no idea. I’m guessing that a new coach will drive the players to play over their heads in the short term.  But determination is a good thing. Who knows what’s possible with some skill, better team defense and a roster full of guys on the same page?

Regardless of the team or the sport, as a fan, there is always “hope".  Hope that if things fall a certain way, your team has a chance, even if deep down you don’t really believe it. That’s the allure of sports and being a fan.  You always get to feel that sense of optimism going into a new season.

Mostly, though, the hope around this Maple Leaf franchise is about the longer term—knowing there is a management team in place that will ensure that the Leafs will once again become a team that fans can feel good about.


  1. My question Michael is, what do you see as the difference between the Burke era and now? He surrounded himself with 'good hockey men' who proceeded to create a disaster. Is it the difference in ownershi- the Pension fund then whose mandate then was to maximize profits above all and push for a winner ASAP, whereas now Bell and Rogers has a mandate to maximize profits also,but with high ratings for their content which a consistently winning team would in theory the patience to build a long term competitive team now is crucial? Time will tell, I suppose...

  2. Fair question, Sean. As you say, Burke also arrived with a successful history and surrounded himself with "good hockey" people but my sense is this regime will be less bombastic- and won't become the face of the franchise (at least when the team starts to have success).

    Ownership, as you well know, has been a thorny issue for decades in Toronto. We haven't been close enough to success in recent years to know if ownership would have/may still get in the way, but it appears they have entrusted Shanahan with the power he needs to build the organization and the roster the way he wants to.

  3. Good morning and welcome back Michael! This is surely the most unique season as a fan I've entered in to in quite some time. Every year I want to have optimism, even in those years that all predictions are of failure. Maybe false hope, but that's being a fan, crossing your fingers and maybe those off-season moves (or lack thereof) will pan out.

    This might be the first year that I will have little interest in wins and losses. I think Babcock will edge the team to victories in more games than they are truly capable of, and that will be great. I do not want to see a season long tank job, I want to see a developing team getting better and showing who is part of the core for the future, and what other parts need trimming.

    I don't know what to make of Lamoriello's arrival, my first instinct is that he is not a natural fit for the front office that has been built. He will surely need to buy in to Shanahan's philosophy, and I do not believe Shanahan when he says that Lamoriello has the full authority of a GM. Lamoriello was King of New Jersey for a long time and he will have to accept knights at a round table now.

    To chime in on Sean's question above, I think the difference from Burke is that the current vision will not leave room for quick fixes, will not fall to media or public pressure to make irresponsible free agent signings, and will not push developing players too quickly. They will stay with the blueprint they created. Burke's plan became a mess when he suddenly made a left or right turn.

    So I will begin this season with an eye on whether the grand plan is actually taking root. Is it too early to say "wait till next year?"

  4. Hi Pete- good to hear from you as well! (And no, it's too early to say, "wait 'till next year..."!)

    I have no doubt that the Leafs will win more games than they should this coming season, because of Babcock. But as you say, the final results really won't matter compared with what is being achieved in terms of building toward long-term success.

    The Lamoriello thing is an interesting matter: he ran the show for more than 20 years in Jersey. Here, will he really be "the guy" who makes the decisions, or will he be one of many who will discuss and debate, as you suggest?

    I agree, Shanahan seems determined to follow his plan. How long will t take? We'll see. Thanks Pete.

  5. Hi Michael! I'm glad you've taken some time off as it's shaping up to be a very busy season of writing for you.

    Have you ever seen anything like this before? It's not just the front office, the analytics dept., new coaching staffs at every level (including the Solar Bears) and new scouts to cover the AHL, WHL, QMJL, NCAA and Europe but also medical staff, training staff, development staff, special cameras and tracking equipment....and Hey! A new scoreboard. My gosh! Are they done yet?

    So looking forward to a "Hangout" episode soon, where you and your guests sort through all of this for us.

    1. Hi Colleen- it's been a summer of change for the Leafs, indeed. There will be lots to discuss as the season moves ahead.

  6. Nice to hear from you, Michael. A smart time to take a break from posting, as opposed to monitoring the fishing trips of various Leafs. So, some front office changes, huh? Many people are joking that the Leafs are a lock to win the Management Stanley Cup, based on all the high level brass they've acquired, but unfortunately, that Cup doesn't involve players skating around holding it while we cheer.

    My hope with Lamoriello coming on board, is that he's there to offer a template to Dubas and Hunter, in terms of navigating the myriad of ins and outs that present themselves in the backroom dealings that us fans may not be aware of. Lou is well respected with the league office, and has a contact list that's most likely endless, so I think he'd be a great guy for Dubas to follow around, and at the very least build some relationships with other teams' top tier management that he can run with on his own later. I would rather have Lamoriello in that role Nonis, just based on his resume.

    I sense that we've probably got some friction coming though, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but there's a pile of strong minds in the mix now. Lamoriello changed coaches like some people change their underwear as the Devils GM, and based on the term and cash committed to Babcock, it almost seems like that particular element of Lou's power might have been neutered. I don't see Babcock welcoming nightly roster suggestions with open arms, so we had better get set for a few "Mind your own business!" conversations happening with Leafs' brass.

    I'm almost indifferent in terms of the lineup we ice this year, as we've hit ground zero for expectations, and we've obviously been grabbing up draft picks, not ready-made NHL roster players. I think the goal this year is for Babcock to maximize the trade value of Bozak and Phaneuf as the season progresses, and add to our stockpile of talented youth.

    I'm still slightly bitter about the package we received in the Kessel trade, as I think a good start from Phil under a very talented coach could have rewarded us with a much better trade at the deadline, and it seems like our (previously) inexperienced management group may have panicked a little bit.

    On the plus side, the NHL is definitely trending towards being a youth driven league, and we're gathering a healthy pile of assets that may be able to make a charge in a few years. Let's keep that cup (not Cup) half full, Leafs fans!

    1. Nice to chat with you again Russ.

      No question Babcock is here for the duration, so Lamoriello won't have to think about coaching changes. He brings decades of insight, which should only help the internal discussions- and occasional debates.

      I'm with you on the roster. It's not about this year as much as what is planted for the future, under a very good coach who is already here and ready for the challenge.

  7. Happy to agree with your assessment, Michael - I, too, am actually more enthused about the prospects than much of the NHL roster where longer term hopes rest. Though I would be remiss to lack interest in the development of Rielly in his 3rd year. It's also time to see Kadri making a statement.

    It will be hard to commit much to all the 1 year contract players or believe that more of the core won't be traded when appropriate, but my interest lies in the 'template development' that the coaching staff will be putting in place. We may not have all the pieces available to succeed, but I'm looking forward to watching the new 'style' of play that will be in place by the time the prospects filter into the lineup!

    Perhaps a few select short-termers will find offers for 2 - 3 yr contracts, if they mesh well with the vision going forward (I think I'm presently most interested in Shawn Matthias and wondering how Panik and Holland will progress in this new environment). I may feel 'distanced' to some degree, but there is still plenty to garner my interest in the coming season... I just don't expect much success, whereas I do expect to see a level of effort that will satisfy.

    1. We're on the same page, InTimeFor62- modest expectations, but looking forward to a new season!

  8. I have to agree that I'm excited to see all our prospects this year, especially the Marlies.
    I think, assuming the Marlies will be playing a Babcock possession type game, it will be interesting to see how some of the prospects do who are talented but whose skating isn't top notch. (Brown, Gauthier, maybe Verhaeghi...) Detroit used a lot of short passes to move the puck up the ice quickly. It didn't depend so much on speed, one player doing most of the work or long, risky passes. They didn't have a team of speedsters but they got the job done. For those who can get the games, the Marlies should be fun to watch this year.

  9. There's a slight chill in the morning air, the days are getting shorter - and VLM reappears! Yes, it's that time when our hopes and hearts pick up a bit as we look forward to another year of the Leafs - despite significant misgivings here at O'Malley Manor. Last year took a lot out of us, and we're not quite as eager as usual to once again hop on the Blue and White bandwagon!
    And yet... the changes that have been made are exactly those preached, posited, and even prayed for over the past few seasons. Mike Babcock is exactly the kind of coach we've been lacking - a supreme motivator who seems to get his players on the same page. The management brains trust combines a remarkable track record of success with a contemporary approach. All that's missing, well, are the players that will take us to the Promised Playoff Land. But who can tell how our current roster will perform under Babcock's tutelage? Will the defence tighten up and will Dion find his mojo again? Will the forwards all play a defensively sound game first, and let the scoring take care of itself? Honestly, I haven't a clue. I like our young players but have to assume that, realistically, they're going to grow together over the next couple of years into some kind of contenders. It seems a bit much to expect that this year but again - who knows? Will our goalies, or one of them, at least, return to form once the defence tightens up? I haven't a clue.
    But if hope ever burned eternal, it does so in a Leaf fan's chest. I can't help myself - I'm looking forward to the new season!

    1. Well said, Gerund O'- and good to connect here again.

      All fair questions on your part. No answers yet, of course. But a new season always brings possibilities!

  10. I hope everyone had a good summer!! Glad you were able to take a bit of a break Michael and good to see you and everyone back. I am going to echo the previous posters pretty much. Management changes are overall positive. I believe Lou is there as a stop gap and to bring nhl experience to the group as a mentor moreso than be the benevolent (and at times not so much) dictator he was in NJ. Will he be making the final calls as he said in his press conference? Perhaps but I don't see Shanny being far removed from any of them either.

    The Marlies are going to be more fun overall to watch than the Leafs this year and that is a good thing. They definitely will have some youthful talent there as they have been stocking up a bit for a few years really and much more so lately of course.

    I am looking for Bernier and Reilly to take big steps this year. Not just on the ice but starting to take on a leadership role learning from Winnik, Robidas and Polak about what that really takes.

    As for the on ice product with the big club? I think it should be better than last year as Babcock will not put up with the lazy don't attitude we saw last year. So I suspect the "try and work ethic" will be there but not much else. A bottom 5 isn't out of the question at all but they might steal a few more points and I wouldn't be surprised if they only finished bottom 8-10 either.

    Either way there can be no doubt this year is about the process and not the it should be.

    1. Glad you chimed in, Pep. It certainly won't hurt to have an experienced voice like Lamoriello in the house. And I agree, there is an opportunity for some guys to put on their leadership hat and help lead the way for the emerging young players.

      I think most of us agree results are not first and foremost this season.

    2. Hello Michael,

      Glad to see you and everyone else back after a hopefully relaxing summer.

      It seems everyone is back in "mid-season" form with their postings already so I'll try
      to keep up as best as I can - but I only posted about 10 times or so this summer...sorry Phil.

      Overall, I am extremely positive on all the changes which have taken place this summer,
      though I would have liked to see more of the old core moved along to get as fresh a start in the rebuild as possible.

      I must say I like Kyle Dubas' idea of using the ECHL level as an entry-level introduction for some of the prospects to the professional game. Hopefully in a few years time, other organizations will see the success the Leafs have had with this approach and will emulate the Leafs and use their ECHL affiliates the same way.

      Regarding the up-coming NHL season. I see it as nothing more than:

      1. An opportunity to "shine-up" some of the stock in the window (to hopefully move it along at a better price).

      2. An extended evaluation period for some of the existing players who might fit into the new Babcock system moving forward.

      It will be interesting to see what kind of system Babcock implements at the NHL level and how much luck the Leafs have in implementing the same or very similar system at both the Marlie and Solar Bear levels.

      I think with the new no nonsense approach Babcock is going to implement and quite a few players playing for bigger and better contracts with other organizations, I think I might have to retire my screen name. I think the Leafs might surprise and even though it wouldn't be the best result for the rebuild, they could finish out of the bottom five and back into that middling middle of the pack place.

      Even still, I'm counting down the days until training camp opens and we can get our first look at the new product on the ice.


    3. Hi Wayne- it's always enjoyable at this time of year to be able to look forward to training camp, for sure. There are usually some pleasant surprises.

      As Leaf supporters, people have modest expectations this season (at best) and so anything better than that will feel good!

  11. I hope "Jew Jersey" was an unintentional typo, Michael.

    1. I mistake for sure, Anon- I edit myself and miss things. Thank you for catching that. I'll correct that immediately.