Tank Nation: Leafs Edition

With the season coming down to the end for both the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs, the fans of these teams and the city the live in or around are left to ponder strategies of how to become relevant again.

Let’s start with case number one, the cities favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Two games remain in Toronto’s schedule, including tonight’s test again the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning, (lowly?) well the Lightning sits three points above Toronto in the overall standings. The Maple Leafs currently sit 26th overall with a record of 34-36-10, a goal difference of -31, and a home record of 17-16-7. For those of you counting at home, that means the Leafs have lost more at home than they have won.

I should also mention that since the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 2005, the Leafs haven’t made the playoffs in that period of time.  That’s right, the city which bleeds blue and white, hasn’t had a NHL playoff game in over seven seasons of hockey.

While the team has made many changes including moving on from former GM John Ferguson Jr. on January 22, 2008, replaced by Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis for the rest of that season. Though that move was expected, some thought that the Leafs that season could make the playoffs, but ended up missing again. That season was the first time that the Leafs had missed the playoffs three years in a row since before even the days of the Maple Leaf Gardens. On May 7, the Leafs fired head coach Paul Maurice and replaced them with Ron Wilson.

In 2007-08 was Mats Sundin’s last year with the Leafs, many urged him to accept a trade to further along the franchise but he declined, pushing the Leaf franchise further back, by not getting any type of return for the eventual Sundin loss.

On November 29, 2008, the Maple Leafs hired Stanley Cup winning GM Brian Burke as their 13th General Manager and first American in team history. The acquisition of Burke had ended the second Cliff Fletcher era and settled rumors that Brian was coming to Toronto. On March 2, 2012, Burke fired Ron Wilson and named Randy Carlyle the Head Coach.

Even ownership of the team has changed hands, in September 2011; Ontario Teachers Pension Plan increased its stake in MLSE to 79.5 per cent with the purchase of TD Capital Group’s 13.5 per cent stake. At that time, it was thought the move was a step to streamline the sale of the pension fund’s stake in the team. Which on December 9, 2011 became reality, when the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan announced the sale of its majority stake in MLSE to Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, the deal was valued at around $1.32 billion. Additionally, Larry Tanenbaum would increase his stake in the company to 25%.

So in other words, the Maple Leafs has looked busy, but hasn’t really produced much on the ice to show for it. Instead of playing revisionist history with the team, let me just look at what this team currently has in terms of talent, and go from there.

First, I should mention, I’m not a fan of the team. Does that mean, I wish them doom, no not at all. Ideally I would like for them to win, I think it would be good for the city, and good for hockey. I have a lot of friends and family members who are big time fans, and of course I would love to see them happy, hell I’d even attend the parade.

The Leafs back-end was supposed to be the strength moving forward into the 2011-12 season. Unfortunately, for Leafs fans, the goalie tandem of Jonas Gustavsson, and James Reimer haven’t produced the way, I’m sure management had hoped they would. Collectively they won 31 games while losing 31 games at the same time, they have also combined for a goal against average hovering around three. Not the type of goaltending playoff teams require.

The defense was touted as one of the best in the league, spoke quite highly of by Leafs management and coaching staffs alike, but clearly these players have fell flat on their faces. In my opinion, they lack a true number one defenseman, while fans would suggest that Dion Phaneuf is. While Dion is strong player, he isn’t a number one D man, although he is paid as such, taking home a cool 6.5 million dollars this season. For a league, that has a salary cap, you have to expect more from a player taking home that type of cake. While other defenseman such as 2009 fan favourite, Luke Schenn, woops I’m injured again, John-Michael Liles, am I really in the lineup coach, Mike Komisarek, and steady defenseman Carl Gunnarson have all under perform this season. Hell, maybe this is just they way they play, I think it might be, which doesn’t bold well for the Leafs future.

The one bright spot might be Jake Gardiner, but listening to sports radio the last few months, he might be the only guy you can trade to further your team along.

Side note time, Toronto tank nation fans, here’s a FYI for you! You need to give up talent to get talent back. Rick Nash doesn’t come over to Toronto for your least favourite players, such as Schenn, Nazem Kadri, and a second round draft pick. Getting a player like Nash, means you probably need to look at giving up Gardiner to get Nash as a starting point. Remember, Toronto traded 2 first round draft picks and a second for all offense Phil Kessel. Nash is a better all around player than Kessel is, and therefore conceivably it would take more to obtain Nash’s contract.

The forwards on this team to be fair, have been near the top of the league in offensive stats (Kessel and Joffery Lupul), however, they have also been near the bottom in most other defensive categories. Without a true number one center the team has struggled to maintain consistent offense, and have been blown out of the barn more than a few times this season. Kadri has yet to crack the lineup, a troubling sign in my opinion. While showing some offensive upside with the big club, he hasn’t averaged even a point a game in the American Hockey League. In saying that, adding another offensive minded forward to a group that includes Kessel and Lupul doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. The team needs many responsible two way forwards to compete.

While other forwards on this team have preformed well given their talents, I’m speaking of Mikhail Grabovski (50 points), and Tyler Bozak (47 points). Paying the price of 5.5 million on a contract extension for Grabovski, is exactly why the Leafs don’t look to improve anytime soon. Remember the NHL is a salary capped league, and with a new collective bargaining agreement to be in place for next season, I’m not sure that was the right move to be made.

The next obvious need for this team has to be to bring in a strong TWO WAY centre men, and guess what again, those aren’t easy to come by. Not many teams are looking to unload those type of players, and for those teams that are, well for one, there is a reason they are looking to unload them, just look at Calgary and why they let go of Phaneuf.

These players don’t come without a cost, and for a team that already needs a top line goalie via trade, I’m not sure they have the assets to make a deal like this.

While fans will hope that the team loses its finally two games, giving the Leafs a chance at a higher draft pick, and in turn ideally a better player to include on the current roster. This draft doesn’t have the Stamkos, Crosby, Malkin, etc. Those type of players turn around franchises into contending, but not by themselves alone. While the NBA is different where one player on a 12 man roster can make a world of difference, adding one young talented player to a weak roster only adds to the frustration of the fan base.

If the Leafs maintain their low rankings in the standings for the next few seasons, that might be the only way to make an impact in the long term. Unfortunately for fans, GM Brian Burke, doesn’t believe in this strategy.

Finishing just below eighth in the standings every season has produced the roster you see before you today. With no top end talent that for instance Pittsburgh has, and certainly no solid building block base like the rival Canadians have in Carey Price, PK Subban and Max Pacioretty. The future isn’t bright for the Leafs without these types of building blocks.

Here’s the real kicker for Leaf fans, Montreal is currently lower in the standings, meaning a higher draft selection this season!

In a salary cap league, you need to be terrible to get good, and unfortunately for Leafs fans, the Leafs just aren’t that terrible this season or in previous seasons. So unless you include the one season where they did finish almost died last in the standings, they traded that pick away, and that player ended up being all-star Tyler Seguin, but that’s another story.

While getting the building blocks won’t be easy, and if they some how find a way to get them then this team will be on the rise.

To start the building block process off, the team should start by getting some solid goal tending. The player I would suggest to look at is Vancouver’s Cory Schneider as a starting point in this off season. That’s if you have the pieces to trade from him, which I’m not sure you do compared to other competing teams for his services.

The management group with the Maple Leafs, may feel as if they have produced a young, hard skating team to play in front of Toronto fans. However, the team just doesn’t have the top end talent to contend with the higher skilled teams that face them. Until fans stop their love affairs with the muckers, and grinders, and begin to expect more from their team management, only then you will see change.

If they don’t, they can continue to enjoy seasons like this one, where the team shows flashes, but doesn’t have the skill to maintain it. So I suggest that you stand up Leaf fans, and expect more from your team.

Until then, enjoy the World Hockey Championships in May, maybe a Leaf player could make that roster, maybe.



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