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Sensing the increased optimism around the Maple Leafs: should there be?

Finishing 30th in a thirty-team league should not, it would seem, create a level of undue optimism about the future. Yet I sense many Maple Leaf fans are indeed hopeful and of the view that this organization is in fact headed in the right direction—despite finishing in the cellar in the NHL this season.

Do we know for sure that the team is headed in the right direction? No, we don’t.

But hey, maybe our expectations have been hammered for so long, we simply want to believe that better days are ahead. But I believe it’s also more than that.

Leaf supporters see a steady hand in Shanahan, who provides more than simply being a former player.  They believe Shanahan has established a clear direction for the franchise.

There is Lou Lamoriello, who has the pedigree Leaf fans covet as a Hall-of-Fame General Manager in New Jersey.  Mark Hunter knows the junior hockey world like few others and Kyle Dubas is the youthful, the number-crunching GM-in-waiting who rounds out an impressive brain trust.

Those supporters also now look at this year’s decision to essentially let this season go (though Mike Babcock, to his credit, had the players working right to the bitter end) as having worked out perfectly.  We weren’t going to make the playoffs anyway, so now we are looking—lottery willing—at possibly having the very first pick in this coming June’s draft. That will only help. 

Beyond that, we have more second round picks than probably anyone else in the league over the next three years because of deals the Leafs have made for players that are largely not missed on the roster.

Just this season, upwards of fifteen players made their way onto the big club’s roster for at least one NHL game.  So whether Leaf fans are pondering the future of Nylander, Brown, Marner or any one of a number of other impressive youngsters in the system, there is also belief that the Leafs now finally have some legitimate star potential among the group of players they have drafted in recent years.

Then late Wednesday, we hear Lamouriello has signed two pending restricted free-agents, Rielly and Kadri, to lengthy six-year deals.  While I will never be fond of long- term deals in sports, they are what they are.  And though I have mixed feelings about how much I believe the Leafs had to keep Kadri, I’m shocked at the deal he signed.  After earlier contract battles, this all occurred quietly, without fanfare.  And if what I’m seeing is accurate, Kadri has signed for what is (in modern day terms) a reasonable amount for a “second-line” center in today’s NHL.

Rielly, for me, is more of a necessary cornerstone piece. And he too, signed away some of his future UFA years to ink a long-term deal right now.  In theory, both players may be leaving potential future money on the table, so perhaps it speaks to their belief that what Shanahan and Lamoriello have created is worth being part of.

I’ve said here before that, for me, this past season just didn’t generate any real enthusiasm.  But I “get” what management felt they had to do: build a modest roster with plug and play veterans and downplay expectations. They could (and it worked out) hope for a top pick in the draft, and at the same time turn around and trade some of the older players for future draft picks to further replenish the cupboard.

Acquire assets—lots and lots of assets. And accept short term pain for long-term gain.

So far so good.

Again, there are no guarantees, and still a lot of work to do.  There is still no elite netminder under contract, still no front-line center. As much as I like Rielly, it’s hard to suggest we have a strong blueline corps. The Leafs will still need to add individuals with playoff experience, leadership and toughness to support the young, emerging skill guys.  All these things are needed before we can really talk about a team that will scare anyone when it comes to the playoffs.

Yet there is optimism in Leafland.

Should there be?


  1. Hi Michael,

    Well we all discussed our thoughts at the beginning of the season, and I can recall a lot of lowered expectations, and any enthusiasm among us was with the hopes that the team, while not expecting to be competitive this season, would stay on course with their master plan.

    Looking back now, I do not see any surprises in how everything has played out. One year rentals kept roster spots warm until the team could do their best to trade them in for more draft picks. The prospects were kept sheltered for most of the season. The tank rolled on through the end of the year as every front line players seemed to struggle with injuries (I won't guess which were legitimate and which were just convenient). The team ultimately played as well as their talent level would allow, finishing with the most points ever for a last place team. Just bad enough, indeed.

    All this is why I remain optimistic moving forward. Shanahan and company are now showing their hand. Kadri is in fact part of the long term plan, Phaneuf obviously was not. They let Nylander burn a year on his entry level deal so that his future contract negotiations line up better with other expiring contracts that they hope to extend.

    All of what they are doing, of course, can only give us hope, and no guarantees. There is the possibility that what we envision the lineup to be in one or two years can flop completely and send the organization back to square one. I honestly do not think there will be such a dramatic drop however. They may not be Stanley Cup contenders in two or three years, but I do think the Leafs will be an above average organization, not saddled by several bizarre long term contracts. They will be leaving themselves enough wiggle room to continue re-tooling as they go.

    1. Well said, as always, Pete. As you mentioned, there were no real surprises this season. They have a clear direction. At some point the fan base will expect results, but for now, there is belief in what we see happening. Thanks for posting.

  2. They are saying pretty much everything worked out perfectly for the Leafs this season and I would definitely agree. In past years with a 30th overall finish within reach they would always win meaningless games at the end of season and waste their chance at drafting an elite player. Other teams were always making moves the last few months of the season to position themselves for a better draft pick while the Leafs were still trying to win games and move up the standings. The few times the Leafs could have drafted high they had already traded away the pick. Even this year Leaf management almost did it again with all the Marlie call ups but at least they had the sense to send Hyman, Soshnikov and Carrick back down when they started winning games and they also had the sense to keep starting Sparks when it was pretty obvious he was not ready for the NHL. What should have been a relaxing coast into 30th overall still was pretty nerve wracking when they beat the Flyers. Anyway they did all that they could and now it is up to the luck in the lottery.

    It really has been almost fifty years of total disappointment and frustration for me. Going back to the years when Ballard let half the team jump to the WHA and Imlach trading away McDonald and Sittler. Or giving up a 1st round pick Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer for Tom Kurvers, or Russ Courtanll for Kordic or Rask for Raycroft. Then you have Burke giving up two first round picks for Kessel with proclamation that he wasn't interested in a five year rebuild. I have to admit Leafs management did do a few good things over the years like Gilmour and Sundin trades but they really were few and far between.

    This year it seems to me everything they are doing makes sense and seems to be working. They have management that actually has a plan and knows what they are doing and are not trying to rush things. I heard an interview with then LA King assistant manager Luc Robitaille where he was asked what the most important thing was in the LA rebuild and he said patience as the Kings took ten years to make it from the cellar to th Cup. It looks like the Leafs are finally ready to be patient.

    Hopefully it will not take ten years as the Leafs already have some pretty good players and have been rebuilding forever. The main thing is they are trading for young prospects and draft picks and the priority is long term sustainable results. They have twelve draft picks this year and with the nine last year it makes 21 picks. That is essentially one extra complete draft. Thay also look to be picking up a few good free agents like Russina Zaitsov and who knows? Stamkos? They also have the Sens and Sharks 2017 2nd round picks. Obviously they will need to make smart draft picks but Hunter knows what he is doing and they have enough picks that they are bound to have a few winners.

    I really believe in today's salary cap NHL long term success is impossible without good drafting. Leafs signing UFA's on one year deals and moving them at the deadline for draft picks is going to pay dividends down the line. I remember a few years ago Yanic Perrault was a UFA at the Leaf training camp. Leafs cut him and he went to the Coyotes. Then at the trade deadline the Leafs gave the Coyotes a 2nd round pick for Perrault. The Leafs still missed the playoffs and the Coyotes picked Roman Josi with the the Leaf pick. Now the situation is totally reversed. It really comes down to management that have a vision and know what they are doing.

    1. There is certainly a clear direction in place, Alton. As you mentioned, there have been some good memories over the years- the Leafs in the mid to late 1970s had some nice playoff moments. The two years with Burns/Gilmour in the early/mid '90s was certainly exciting. And the Quinn years gave us great playoff hockey, some big wins in the spring and legitimate Cup aspirations. Hopefully the organization is now poised to be good for a long time to come.

  3. I heard Ferraro and Dreger on the radio this week both say they expected the Leafs to be younger next year but only slightly better as the kids start to bed in over a long 82 game grind. They both predicted the Leafs would challenge but not necessarily make the playoffs the year after.

    I agree with both assessments and I suspect the Leafs are of the same mindset. Babcock in his year end presser kind of alluded to it when he said they will be better next year but there will still be some pain to get through. I suspect there will be less 1 year warm bodies, as Pete aptly called them, but the ones they do get will be important. You still need good vets to help show and teach the kids how to be true pros.

    Should their be optimism in Leafland. Guarded, and not rushed, but the answer for me is Yes.

    1. Yes, I think most Leaf followers are on the same page, Pep. Guarded optimism, but optimism none the less.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Well, that was a long season for me, I figure that it was the same for most of us fans. Watching the games, felt for the most part like something I had to, or was at least supposed to do, so I did. They weren't always good as a team, but I think for the first time in a long time, the players were listening to the coach, and putting out a fair effort every night. You wouldn't ask a house painter to reproduce the Mona Lisa, and this team is no masterpiece of talent.

    I saw a lot of commitment to the way Babcock wants the team to play in the future, so even if lots of these guys aren't around, some of them will already be on board, and willing to be examples of what is expected going forward.

    You know that I love the management team in place, all of them proven winners. There is no questioning of their pedigree in the hockey world. No he inherited a team bs, no sarcastic I'm smarter than you with the media. There is no longer a carnival atmosphere surrounding this franchise. While the newspapers and websites may lament the lack of drama, and intrigue, I am overjoyed that it is gone. All hockey, all the time, no more what will he say today?

    I'm not sure what the team will be going forward. Can they convince Stamkos that it is in his best interest to come home? Can they pay him a reasonable amount to do so? I hope the answers to both are yes. I don't miss most of the players that they have traded. It seems as though Kessel won't score 60 playing with Sid the Kid. He doesn't even seem to be as good as the player he was here, let alone some superstar.

    The draft looks promising, lots of picks to make, and with that opportunity. To find a diamond, to make a huge trade, to stockpile promising young players. To build something, instead of doing what this franchise had tried to do for so long, take advantage.

    It is extremely hard to win in professional sports, every team but one fails to do so every season. Building a culture of respectability has me very excited for the future. We may never win the Stanley Cup again, but if we could just contend for a long time, I would be so happy.

    Apologies for the lack of comments this season, sometimes additions to your life mean subtracting, even temporarily things you enjoy.

    1. Good to hear from you, Jim. I recall some of your earlier posts regarding the previous regime, of course.

      This is a group that knows how it wants to build the organization- and the roster. I think at the end of the day, most Leaf fans want a team of players that will win, sure, but almost as much they want a team they can be proud of; players that will represent the crest well and will build on the team's heritage. If that happens, that will be success. Thanks Jim, take care.

  5. I think there's a case to be made for optimism going forward. Yes, management looks like they're all on the same page, and a step-by-step restructuring of the team seems to be the way to go. Some of the Marlies were promising, which is great. And most importantly, to my way of thinking, Babcock introduced structure to the team's systems. For the first time in a decade, players seemed to know where each other were going to be on the ice in any given situation. I probably got as much joy from our improved defensive zone breakouts as anything this year. So there's the glass half full!
    As others have commented above, no one in management is promising a quick turnaround. And that's a good thing, I suppose. Just watching a couple of the Hawks/Blues or Sharks/Kings games over the past few days shows me how far we have to go. And it's undeniable that at this point, we don't have a #1 center, defenceman or goalie. Or someone who's a bona fide scorer. A lot of the Marlies seem small - quick, sure and maybe even feisty - but I don't know how they'll fare over 82 games of the kind of pounding they're going to get in the NHL. In fact, I don't think anyone does! There's the glass half-empty!
    Trades and the draft may change our situation, and accelerate our improvement a bit, but my gut tells me we're three or four years away from seriously contending for a significant playoff run.
    Whether this is something fans should accept, (not to mention season's ticket holders who'll pay full price every year for a non-contending team), is another question. Maybe it will be enough to see a Leafs team that competes almost every game. That alone would be enough cause for optimism!
    So, yes - there is cause to be positive, I believe. But the O'Malley Cup parade outfit will mothballed for the foreseeable future!

    1. The reality check every year at this time, Gerund O', is exactly what you mentioned: watching the first round of the playoffs. This is the best hockey of the year in my mind, and we see just how skilled teams are, how hard they compete and how much they hate to lose. Until the Leafs have the things we have both referenced (a top centre, etc.) they won't be in that league. Positives, but yes, the parade may well have to wait!

  6. "And it's undeniable that at this point, we don't have a #1 center, defenceman or goalie. Or someone who's a bona fide scorer. "

    Mr. O: I think the future optimism went up +1 notch on Saturday in regards to the first missing link in your statement:))