I decided to wait until after the NHL Draft Lottery to write my post-mortem on what was the Toronto Maple Leafs season. I have stated before in previous blogs and on Twitter, I am a Leafs fan. I have been as long as I can remember. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. However, I don’t ever recall being this discouraged at the end of a season. At least not in recent memory. It makes this blog difficult for me because I want to be able to say something positive about the organization and its players. But I don’t know that I can. Or maybe I just don’t want to. I know there are some positives, but to me they are far, far outweighed by the negatives that are quickly drowning the fan base. I will rant a little more at the end of this piece, after I write a few words on some of the individuals involved in the debacle that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I’m going to start with the goaltending. The Leafs didn’t have much in the way of goaltending heading into this past season. James Reimer had a nice run down the stretch of the previous season, but he was a virtual nobody before that. I knew no one (outside of those real hockey guru types) who had heard of James Reimer prior to that season. Which meant Reimer was a question mark coming into this past season. When he began the season a little shakey, it was not an issue for me. He was unproven, Leafs fans had no clue what they were actually getting. I wasn’t concerned, he was after all a question mark. And if you are in the ‘he had a concussion, give him a chance’ camp, then you will be happy to see James Reimer between the pipes next season. Personally, if Reimer is the starting goalie next season, I believe the Leafs are in for much of the same problems the club had this season. Reimer is not the answer. Reimer is not a top 10 goaltender in the NHL. I don’t think he is even a top 15 goaltender in the NHL. He is a bottom 15 goaltender in the NHL and on a bad team, a bad defensive team Reimer is closer to the bottom of the league. Jonas Gustavsson is finished with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I would be very surprised to see him in a Leafs uniform next season. If he is, it means Burke signed him to come back. That would be a horrible thing. Gustavsson is not a good goaltender. Leafs fans were told he was the best goaltender not in the NHL when he wasn’t in the NHL. Hmm. I guess there were some pretty bad goaltenders out there. Neither of these two goaltenders are capable of carrying a bad team for an extended stretch of time. Good goaltenders can win games with bad teams. Curtis Joseph was one of those goaltenders. Cujo thrived when he was getting a ton of shots each and every night. Curtis Joseph stole games on those nights. I’m not saying Cujo is the best ever, but he was light years ahead of Reimer and Gustavsson. Outside of Reimer and Gustavsson the Leafs have Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas. These two goaltenders are the Marlies goaltenders. The Marlies at least are in the AHL playoffs, which is a good sign. However, neither of these two goaltenders made the jump this season to the NHL. Let’s face it, if one of those two goaltenders were ready to make the jump, this was the season to do it. The Maple Leafs were desperate for a goalie this season and couldn’t find one. I don’t buy the organizations line either about keeping Scrivens and Rynnas in the AHL to get them ‘experience’. That was a lie. A flat out lie. If either of those goaltenders were good enough they would have been the starter for the Leafs by Christmas. There is not an NHL ready goaltender in the immediate future of the Maple Leafs. Burke said in his season’s end speech that goaltending is a focus for his off-season pursuits. Duh. Goaltending has been a concern for years. Y-E-A-R-S. Tell us something we don’t know, instead of the same rhetoric again and again and again. The goaltending was a failure this past season. AHL calibre goaltending at the NHL level.
The defence, the defence, the defence. Depth, depth, depth. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a ton of depth on the blueline. That’s the line we were given again and again and again. Yep. They have a lot of defencemen. A lot of defencemen, too bad there aren’t too many that are worth watching on a night-in, night-out basis. Heading into this past season, most Leafs fans knew there was not a true #1 and probably not a #2 among this group. The organization was hoping for a current player to step-up and fill that role, or, the club was hoping that a young unproven player would evolve into a top-line defender. Let me re-phrase what I just wrote to emphasize my point. The Maple Leafs didn’t have a top two D-man heading into this past season, they were hoping, hoping that someone on the current roster would have a career year. Didn’t happen. One thing we did see were the reasons why the Flames wanted to unload Dion Phaneuf. Leafs fans saw that Komisarek was over-valued and therefore overpaid by the Leafs. Leafs fans saw a bunch of 4-5-6-7 defencemen thrust into roles they shouldn’t be put in. Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and Carl Gunnarsson are decent defencemen. But they need to be at the back of the bus, they need to be those 5-6-7 defencemen. They can’t be relied upon to step-up and check Stamkos, Lucic and Crosby every night. They are not that good. I like Carl Gunnarsson, I think he can be a very reliable, steady d-man. As for Franson and Liles, I could care less, there are two of them on 29 other teams, they are inter-changeable. I would put Komisarek in that group as well, but his horrible contract puts him on an island all on his own. I like Luke Schenn. He has led the league in hits by a defenceman for two straight years. He is not a Paul Coffey, he is not going to score 30 goals in a season. I would be happy with 10 goals a season from Schenn, as long as he was ranked about 4th in scoring among defencemen on the team. He has been over-used on this team at too young an age. The Leafs may have severely stunted his growth as a good, serviceable NHL defenceman. My favourite player on this club this past season was Jake Gardiner. He was one of the few bright spots for me. I think he will be a great puck-moving defenceman, maybe he’ll even score 20 goals in a season. I think he might even be a #2 d-man in the making. I don’t believe I see a #1 defenceman. Maybe he is, but I don’t see that just yet. My concern though is with the organization’s view of Jake Gardiner. Without the addition of at least one top defenceman next season, this club will force a ton of minutes down Gardiner’s throat. Which is what the club did with Schenn, which is what a desperate club would do. Just watch, mark my words. The Leafs will push this kid like crazy, he will be the ‘gem’ of the defence. And based on who I see on the blue line, he is the ‘gem’ of the squad. But there is no reason to push Gardiner into a #1 role next season. Nick Lidstrom was not anointed the #1 defenceman in Detroit upon his arrival. His was sheltered and insulated behind others, allowing him to emerge when ready. I’m not saying Gardiner is Lidstrom, but he is by far, by far better than anything the Leafs have right now patrolling the blue line. Last but certainly not least is the captain, Dion Phaneuf. What happened to this guy? He was a highlight machine in his first couple of seasons. He was a Calder Trophy finalist and a Norris Trophy contender. How did Phaneuf regress this fast? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a good feeling about this guy at all, certainly not as the team captain. He doesn’t seem to me to be the leader on this team. I’m not in the dressing room, or on the planes or the buses, but I watch an awful lot of Leafs media throughout the year, and he just doesn’t have the ‘it’ factor that I see in most of the other captains across the league. Phaneuf certainly doesn’t have the same appeal as a captain that Sittler, Vaive, Clark, Gilmour or Sundin had. There was something about those guys, something that screamed ‘respect’ to a fan like me. Phaneuf isn’t anything close to that in my opinion. The organization made such a circus out of his anointment as team captain, it would be an embarrassment to strip him of the ‘C’ now. Then again, this team can’t get much more embarrassed over how they have handled themselves the last decade. Phaneuf is not a horrible defenceman, don’t get me wrong, he can play in the 4-5-6 slots on a good team. The better the team, the deeper down the depth chart he would slide though in my opinion.
The forwards are basically the same group the Leafs have had for the last several seasons – a bunch of 3rd and 4th line players who the club has no choice but to play on the 1st and 2nd lines. Seriously…Tyler Bozak is the #1 centre on this team? Tyler Bozak would be lucky to be a #2 centre on the top 10-15 clubs in the league. He’s a solid 3rd line centre, and in a career year he would probably be a great 3rd line centre on the better teams. Before the trade deadline Cody Hodgson was the #3 centre in Vancouver, Bozak is not Cody Hodgson. Jordan Staal is the #3 centre in Pittsburgh, Bozak is not Jordan Staal. Staal would be the top centre in Toronto, hands down, not even a debate. Joffrey Lupul had a great season, and I like his style of play. He generally seemed to play better with the increased attention he was getting. That is a trademark of the good Toronto players of the past. Players either thrive on the media and fan attention in this market or they shrivel up and get traded to Tampa Bay. Lupul, to me, seems to be one of those players who likes to play in this market. Is he a top line winger though? Again, on the top teams in the league, he probably would not be. If he puts up numbers like he did this past season, he might crack some top lines on the top teams in the league. But that remains to be seen, he has yet to put up the numbers on a consistent basis. In my opinion he is a solid second line winger who could play on a top line during a hot streak. We’ll see what his numbers look like under Carlyle. I’m leaving Phil Kessel until the end of my bit here on the forwards, so don’t think for one second (left…get it??? I’m hilariously clever sometimes) that I’ve forgotten old Phil Kessel. Mikhail Grabovsky is fun to watch. There are times during a game when every other player on the ice looks like they are standing still next to Grabovsky. Grabovsky might be a legit 2nd line player in the NHL. All last summer I kept hearing questions about ‘who was going to play with Kessel’, well, this summer I will be wondering who the Leafs can get to play with Grabovsky. If he isn’t a good 2nd line player, he is a great 3rd line player on the top 15 clubs in the league. Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin had down seasons compared to their previous season. This was the top line two seasons ago, but MacArthur and Kulemin could easily have played on the 3rd line this past season. Which season do we judge them on? Leafs fans need to adopt the ‘What have you done for me lately’ mentality instead of the overly patient, loyal mentality they have exhibited in years past. It’s been too long between good Leafs’ teams to be patient anymore. Joe Colborne showed some real potential this past season. Potential for a top line forward though I’m not sure. Much like Jake Gardiner, Colborne needs to be insulated in the middle of the line-up so that he can mature and learn his game properly and not be thrust in the limelight before he is ready. I saw some really good things from Matt Frattin this past season. I think he might be a solid 2nd line player down the road, keep in mind I used ‘might’ in that sentence. Frattin certainly didn’t ‘claim’ a 2nd line spot this season, maybe he is just a really good 3rd line player. Who knows for sure, but I hope he gets a chance to mature properly and isn’t forced into someone he has no business being just because of a lack of depth on the top two lines. I liked what I saw in Carter Ashton this season, but it is still way too early to tell what kind of player he could be. I am convinced Nazem Kadri is a bust. The Leafs are dying for a top line player and are primarily made up of 3rd and 4th liners, if Kadri cannot crack this line-up there is something wrong. He has been given multiple chances and has failed each time. Admit defeat and trade him, just don’t expect much in return. Kadri hasn’t shown enough NHL talent yet to be worth much in return. Time to cut bait I’m afraid. The rest of the forwards, Colby Armstrong, Jay Rosehill, Joey Crabb, Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly…..they are a dime a dozen in the NHL. The only one of these guys I would hesitate to move would be David Steckel and my hesitation would be because of his face-off ability. Steckel would be indispensable if either his defensive game or offensive game was a bit better. Face-offs can be a crucial part of a game, and it is not easy to find someone that good on the face-off. Alrighty then, time to talk Phil Kessel. I cannot stand this guy. He scores a lot of goals, fantastic. His goal production is the only reason I would have him on my team if I was to somehow have a team. In just about every interview I have seen with this guy he is constantly saying things like, “I don’t care about that…that doesn’t matter to me…..I’m not worried about that’. Get this guy out of Toronto. This guy does not give a damn about the team, the city or the fans. Kessel is only concerned about one thing…Phil Kessel. I want players who care, I want players who give a damn. If a player is picked dead last by his peers at the All-Star game, I want to hear him say, ‘That’s embarrassing, that’s not what I wanted, it would have been nice to go second last even’….instead what do we get from Kessel?? ‘I don’t care.’ Shut-up. Just shut-up. If I am Leafs management, especially after this season, this guy never gets close to a microphone from here on in. Leafs fans have gone through one of the worst stretches in team history, and the #1 player on the team is a like a broken record saying he doesn’t care. Is it me or is something wrong there? I would love to say that Wendel Clark or Doug Gilmour or Mats Sundin would not say they ‘don’t care’ after being drafted last at the All-Star game, but I can’t because I am not them. Like most sports, I just like to think I know what the athletes would do or say! Here is my thinking though on Clark, Gilmour and Sundin at the All-Star game, none of those guys would have been drafted last! This guy Kessel sucks. I have no time for him as a Leafs fan, I want my players to give a damn, I want them to care, I want them to bleed the Blue and White. Hello Gary Roberts………the guy who stepped up in the playoffs and carried Mats Sundin’s team when Sundin was hurt, on two bad shoulders! Both shoulders were surgically repaired in the off-season…both shoulders! Tell me Gary Roberts didn’t care. Both shoulders were shot Phil, and he almost single-handedly eliminated the Senators that year! Phil Kessel is an embarrassment. I would take Bill Berg over Phil Kessel in Toronto. I would take a 5-Year rebuild right now if the team was full of Bill Berg’s because Bill Berg cared. The team might finish dead last every year in a five year rebuild, but at least I wouldn’t have to look at that face for another second saying, ‘I don’t care’. I can barely afford to take my family to a game, but every year I try, you know why Phil? Because I care about the damn team Phil. Just quit if you don’t care. Let someone who cares get your money.
I was quite happy when Brian Burke was named general manager, let’s face it, anything would have been an upgrade from John Ferguson Jr. My shoe would have been an upgrade from that guy. However, here we are…..well into Brian Burke’s tenure as Leafs GM and I’m getting tired of him. I’m tired of his act. I’m tired of his smugness. I hope he’s embarrassed by this season. I felt some real joy watching him sit on set during the Draft Lottery, knowing he hated, absolutely hated being there. It meant his team sucked, it meant his team sucked. The Leafs are one of the most dysfunctional organizations in sports. Not just the NHL, but in sports. This team should be the New York Yankees of the hockey world and instead they are not. The Leafs are a laughing stock. The Leafs are horrible. I see no quick solution to this mess the club is in. And all season long I listened to Brian Burke blame everyone else – the media, the fans – because we didn’t understand what the ‘process’ was, or we weren’t ‘in’ the locker room to see and hear what was actually going on. I like Brian Burke, or at least I did….I think I still do, but my opinion is dropping fast. The Brian Burke ego is becoming bigger than the team, and that shouldn’t happen. Hello Ken Holland. Hello Lou Lamoriello. Both of these men have large egos, however, both of these men are winners and have been for quite some time. The Devils and Red Wings are known throughout the hockey world for being good teams, consistently. Holland and Lamoriello are not the face of these franchises. The Leafs are brutal and Brian Burke is the most associated face with the club.
What a crappy season to sit through. The Maple Leafs didn’t just lose, they lost bad. The organization tried to make Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf the ‘faces’ of the franchise and it backfired horribly. The organization tried to sell the fan base on depth and young, up-and-coming talent, but it didn’t help. The Leafs finished with a worse record this year than the year before. The Maple Leafs’ farm club, the Marlies, won their division and are in the AHL playoffs. That’s a good sign for the farm club, but if there were good quality players in the system, players who were available to help improve the big club, should they not have been on the big club by now? I hate how negative this all sounds, because there has been enough negativity around this club the last several years, but I don’t see any answers on the Marlies to the Leafs glaring problems. And they are glaring, don’t fall for Burke’s ‘glass is half-full’ shenanigans. It’s a lie. And that folks, is my open letter to the Leafs. No apologies needed in my opinion, I’m tired of the apologies and excuses. Just start freakin’ winning.