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Maple Leafs willing to take the long road to success…

The more we see how Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoniello and company have gone about their work, it seems clear that they are genuinely committed to a kind of “build” that will actually be sustainable over time.

In short, once this team becomes competitive they want it to remain so, in the way that, say, the Red Wings and the Devils (organizations that Shanahan and Lamoriello know well) have been for the past twenty plus seasons.

They seem to be achieving this by being patient and taking the small steps required to create a winning environment. Their work this summer is yet another example of their thought process.

The Auston Matthews selection last weekend was obvious. Any NHL team would likely have made that decision, given the opportunity to draft first overall. After that, they seemed to go off the board a bit in some of their entry draft selections.  But they had built up enough draft picks that they could feel the freedom to think long-term.

When it comes to free agency, I’m sure they were indeed interested in Stamkos. Who wouldn’t want a game-changer still in the prime of his career? But you get the sense that whether they got him or not, they knew they had a ton of work ahead.

They have quietly chipped away at shoring up their weak areas. Frederik Andersen (hopefully) provides stability and quality in goal for the next few years. Matthews becomes the clubhouse leader among the rising crop of kids (Nylander, Marner, etc.) that the Leafs and their fans are hanging their hats on for the future.  A Matt Martin (more in a moment) becomes a bit of a glue piece for the club, bringing experience and character, having been part of a successful rebuild on Long Island over the past few seasons.

As we would expect for a franchise that finished at the bottom of a thirty-team league, there are still holes aplenty.  If you look at their blueline compared with most good NHL teams, I’m not sure we can say with any real conviction that the Leafs are competitive. Rielly and Gardiner provide offensive upside, but the club needs a lot more on the back end.

Up front we have the kids and a lot of replaceable guys, but again, I don’t know see a lot of big-time difference-makers among our forwards.  We have individuals who have flashed at times like Kadri and van Riemsdyk, sure, but the club will need a lot more than a couple of promising kids and one or two guys who can be effective at times.

Martin is certainly a nice signing. He’s the kind of player that would be an especially welcome addition on a team that is already very competitive. But as the Leafs strive to get to that level, he should be a very valuable third/fourth-line player with grit and experience. Quite likely he will fill part of a still gaping leadership void. He’s young enough at 27 for fans to feel comfortable that he can still be a contributor down the road when the club is a legitimate playoff team. I like the fact that he has spent his entire career with the Islanders and has helped them grow into a very competitive squad. While he didn’t play a lot of minutes as a fourth-line player on the Island, he was widely seen as a solid winger for them.

Reality suggests there is still a long road ahead for the Leafs.  But the very patience that many observers have called for—and that the Leafs hadn’t demonstrated over the past decade—seems to be in evidence with this management group. There are still a lot of boxes to checked off, for sure. But the canvas is not completely blank anymore.


  1. I think the ever-present media/fan speculation regarding the enticing potential availability of Steven Stamkos may have 'skewed' our hopes for realizing our potential sooner, yet I don't think that Shanny/Lou (and team)were ever so 'rose-coloured' in their view of the situation. Indeed, I think Lou indicated that moves were coming that many may view as a step backward by some observers (there have been many perspectives on that) and I believe the draft/recent signings (Martin and Polak) are an indication that we are not as close to a competitive team as we would like.

    I agree that we are now moving in the right direction and would encourage a similar level of patience to that required last season, yet I hope we can find enjoyment in the development of our burgeoning youth movement as they dip their toes into the professional ranks more fully this season.

    I anticipate more enthusiastic youth early season success, but beyond your regularly cautioned/noted 20-game marker, I would begin to expect a diminished return on points as the season progresses and other teams get their own systems and player mix settled in.

    Now that the hope of a premier UFA has faded away, I think I'm happy that we will 'slow bake' this cake for a more delicious party over a longer timeframe - to extend the metaphor beyond the norm :)

    I feel like the excitement of seeing our prospects (like at the end of last season) will buoy our enjoyment of the season if we temper our expectations (which are really just 'pre-meditated disappointments'). Thanks for contributing to a reasoned and reasonable reality check, Michael - good article, my friend!

    1. I sense a lot of Leaf followers are in a similar mood as we are, InTimeFor62. We've had moments in recent years where it looked (and felt) like a corner had been turned, but alas, it wasn't to be.

      And as frustrating as it can be to be seemingly always in waiting mode, the best option may well be, as you suggest, to simply appreciate the development of the young players in the system- at least until things get serious (i.e. they are a contender)! Then everyone can fret over every play...

  2. Hi Michael. It's nice to see that you are seemingly more positive towards the 'Shanaplan'than last year. I find it interesting that Roman Polak was good enough to be traded before the 'trade deadline' last year to the San Jose Sharks. The Stanley Cup finalist San Jose Sharks thought he was valuable.
    Although he had a slow start with the Leafs last year, he turned out to be a useful defenseman for us. The hockey articles that I've read so far about Roman have been all negative and reactive. The writer's veer into the 'old ways' and 'here we go again' of Leaf management predecessors.
    I've been a Leaf fan for almost 50 years and perhaps it makes me more of an optimist than those fans that have suffered through the last 10 years or so. During my short rein, Leafs haven't always been so bad that it seems like the team has been cursed to failure.

    1. Hi drgreg- I think my reluctance to fully endorse Shanahan/Lou etc. is simply a function of having seen other "good hockey people" in place before them, who also had "plans". I will still wait to see actual results over a period of time before I call their work a success. But I also, as you note, would prefer not to fall into the somewhat typical Leaf critic role and just say this or that move is a "mistake" right off the bat. Let's see.

      It's easy to say, "The Leafs have always been bad". In fact, they haven't. They had some very good teams in the late 1970s, and there was of course the Gilmour-led Leaf resurgence in '93/'94. The Pat Quinn coach/GM years brought high end hockey season after season, twice getting to the final four. That playoff hockey was tremendous. But yes, the last decade has been tough, so we are all apt to return to cynical Leaf commentary. I do think good work is being done by management but we all recognize there is a long way to go. (I do like Polak- yes, he has issues against fast forwards, but he is a hockey warrior and the team needs his kind of player, along with skill guys.) Thanks drgreg.

  3. Hi Michael:

    I find the Steven Stamkos situation to be quite revealing. It would have been great to be a fly on the wall during negotiations. Since new Leaf Management plays close to the vest (which is good), I have my own theories.

    Since I believe that a true Stanley Cup contender requires a gunner, I was pro Stamkos at a non crippling cap.

    Many years ago, one of my B-school professors told one of my classmates, ""Stamkos", you need to think big". In my view, Stamkos missed out on a huge opportunity. With Howe and Beliveau passing, and Gretzky and Orr aging, there is room for the next transcendent star for Canadian hockey. The opportunities in endorsements for a Canadian from Ontario and the Toronto area has to be very large and can last into a player's 50's. While Sidney Crosby is a true superstar, his $4.5 million in endorsements is small compared to other athletes. With proper marketing, Stamkos gave up far more than an extra year's salary.

    That being said, Stamkos made his Tampa decision knowing the Toronto situation. It reveals Stamkos as not "thinking big" and would rather take the safe decision of playing in a "non-hockey crazy" market in state tax free Florida, than having to endure the fish bowl of playing in Toronto. Reminds me of when John Smoltz and Tom Glavine went to lunch here in Atlanta, how they would try to disguise themselves so fans wouldn't bother them. (Pulling a non-Braves hat down over face and scruffy clothes didn't really work). When things go bad, Toronto media and fans become super critical. When things go well, there is probably not a better place to play (according to Tie Domi).

    Leaf's Management
    While this is my subjective opinion, this decision reveals that management had a very specific idea of Stamkos's value and were not prepared to destroy cap structure (good decision). They were not going to lose any sleep over losing him.

    However, One thing we all want is a true Leader, and my suspicion is that Babcock and Lou may not have seen this in Stamkos during the negotiation. The fact that negotiations cut off so quickly and at reasonable level is suspicious. They may well feel it is better to develop their own leader, than attempting to acquire a mercenary later in a player's career.

    McDavid may still happen??

    1. Thanks for posting, Ralph (RLMcC). It's funny...I look back at the Leafs over the decades I've followed them and George Armstrong was a tremendous home-grown leader. Keon was here for a decade before he was a captain. Sittler was also home-grown, as was Wendel Clark. Sundin was acquired, but he earned his way to the "C". So I , too, like the idea of developing your own leaders.

      Stamkos must feel comfortable in Tampa- I agree, he would been awfully popular in the Toronto market.

      As for McDavid, I still find it hard to imagine Edmonton would ever let him go!

    2. Not if they can help it - but down the road as he gets opportunity to walk (e.g. Pronger)

  4. The off-season moves look awefully similar to last year's ones despite the difference in size of the players acquired and drafted, and the opening roster as well is looking like it will be very similar to last year's edition - a mix of upcoming prospects mentored by a bunch of seasoned but not overly skilled veterans on value deals many of whom will be gone at the trade deadline.

    Along with not signing Stamkos (I kind of feel that it's for the best - if he didn't want to come than we shouldn't want him) next year will most likely see us drafting high again (not 1st overall with Andersen in net and surely fewer injuries, more ice time for Nylander, Matthews etc. along with Kadri, JVR, Gardiner and Rilley getting better). The plan is probably to grab that missing stud right shooting defenceman and perhaps entice Tavares or some other 'unicorn' to join us in the next few years when we begin to look more competitive.

    Overall, as I said here many times before, I think the key to eventually being able to contend for the Cup is in allowing the 'good hockey people' to do their job without pressure to rush things or fear being fired over every move they make or intend to make. As long as the corporate suits upstairs are staying away from hockey we're good.

    It'll be nice to watch the kids grow and compete and not worry about them getting killed out there now that we have Martin and Polak back. I'm really glad Babcock delivered on his promise to address size issue in the offseason - the small-skilled kids experiment was not going too well with A. Johnson getting concussed in his 2nd AHL game and not-so-small Kapanen getting elbowed in the head shortly after. (The re-signing of Rich Clune to the AHL contract makes me feel better too.)

    My wild dream is that we'll make the playoffs but I'm not holding my breath. The Marlies will be fun to watch again as I'm pretty sure we'll see a few more than expected young players starting there rather than up with the big club as has been tradition in Detroit and New Jersey where Lou and Babcock come from.

    1. Good to hear from you, as always, leafdreamer. We definitely need some size and grit. Skill is vital, but the Leafs will still need people to take care of their teammates so individuals like Polak and Martin are a necessity.

      How long before fans become impatient? Who knows, but as you, InTimefor62 and others have noted here, we will all be able to see the team grow together in the years ahead. Sometimes the journey is almost as much fun as the end result...

  5. I seriously doubt they would have gotten Stamkos for less than 7 @10m a year. In the short term that looks great but in the long term a contract like that can be an albatross no matter how much Stamkos brings to the table. Management has to think long term. We are not used to that lately in Leafland as it seemed most decisions prior to the Shanny era were 3 year thinking max. If you cap hell yourself how do you sign your own good to great young players to proper contracts to keep them??.. and then how do you fill out your team with the proper role players when the team is ready for a run at something?

    I have no problem with Stamkos chosing the option he did. I think we as fans tend to forget that he is 26 years old and has lived in TB since he was 18. That is 8 years and almost a 1/3 of his life and all of his adult life. TB is home for him and it isn't like the team is a dud there either.

    I am of the mindset this was the right choice for Stamkos himself and will work out for the best for the Leafs long term as well.

    Ever since unrestricted free agency became a thing I have followed the mind set of Bobby Mac who has said frequently, "More often than not on July 1st the best signing is the one the team doesn't make."

    1. I think you're right, Pep- the Stamkos decision makes lots of sense. He's well paid, comfortable in Tampa, is already team captain and the team is very good. The Leafs did their job by exploring the possibility and it wasn't going to happen.

      I agree that too many teams in the major sports over-spend in free-agency. I understand the desire to improve, but history suggests a lot of decisions simply don't work out and before you know it, we're once again talking about teams trying to get rid of "bad contracts".

  6. I think the ever-evolving "Shanaplan" is pretty well right on track. We've added some good skilled youngsters, and some older character guys, like Polak, whose ultimate value is to instill that warrior mentality so necessary for Cup success. I don't expect much improvement this year, but it should be fun to see how our prospects mature, and which ones make it on the big team.
    It feels like most fans have accepted the likelihood of another year out of the playoffs, for the greater good. But I wouldn't count on that goodwill lasting much longer than that.

  7. Agreed, Gerund O'- there is more to do, for sure. The goodwill will last- but only for so long.