The Toronto Maple Leafs look like they are on to something after decades of losing and endless promises. The 18-wheeler went off the cliff and crashed and burned last season to the point where less people were coming to games and jerseys were tossed onto the ice. Team President Brendan Shanahan had seen enough and the Leafs brain trust has finally done the inevitable by ripping the team apart and instilling a badly needed culture change. The Toronto Maple Leafs finally have some direction and leadership in the front office after years of quick fixes and very questionable moves.
Are the Toronto Maple Leafs Back on Track?
The hiring of former long time New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello as the new GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs came as a surprise as there were questions of whether his old school ways would clash with what the team is trying to do now. Lamoriello signed a three year contract and brings decades of hockey knowledge. Assistant GM Kyle Dubas is known as an up and comer who specializes in analytics, which fits well in the stats-based NHL. He is expected to be next Leafs GM after Lamoriello.
Director of player personnel Mark Hunter has brought an immense knowledge of players to the organization. After years of running the London Knights, one of the most successful CHL franchises in the past decade, Hunter moved on to the Toronto Maple Leafs and no doubt he had influence in the Leafs picking London Knights ultra skilled forward Mitch Marner with the fourth overall pick.
Getting head coach Mike Babcock was another shrewd move. Babcock signed a record eight year $60 million dollar deal to be in Toronto and as one of the best coaches in the business, the Toronto Maple Leafs badly needed a leader behind the bench who would instill a new attitude and standard to abide by. Lack of effort and a losing attitude will not go far with Babcock who had a lot of success in Detroit and with Team Canada, and commands respect. Babcock will have to find a way to get the Leafs to play a solid defensive hockey and compete on a nightly basis, two things the team has struggled with for years.
The biggest move the Toronto Maple Leafs made this summer was trading Phil Kessel. It wasn’t absolutely necessary to move Kessel but if the Leafs were to undergo a proper attitude change in the organization, he had to go. Kessel is a talented goal scorer, but not the kind of guy who should be considered a leader. Fans can tell in the back half of last season a lot of the players seemed to give up and Kessel’s production fell off to match. The media was unfair to Kessel at times but he wasn’t a shining example of what you are looking for in a leader when times get tough. Kessel’s offensive production will be missed but his disappearing acts at crucial times and inconsistency won’t be.
Management’s biggest challenge will be evaluating the roster and deciding who stays and who goes. Most of the core that has failed to deliver in crucial times for the Toronto Maple Leafs remain with the team on long term contracts. Captain Dion Phaneuf has been in the trade rumour mill for months, Joffrey Lupul can’t stay healthy long enough to justify his contract and Tyler Bozak is not a top centre on any other NHL team.
James van Riemsdyk is a tougher case to evaluate. He is younger than the others mentioned above and is capable of putting up between 50-60 points a season which makes a valuable trade asset for a team looking for a scoring winger with some size. But he can be inconsistent and disappear for stretches. Management must decide if he is a piece worth building around.
Nazem Kadri was given a one-year “show me” deal to prove he is worth keeping for the new era Toronto Maple Leafs. Kadri has a ton of talent but he too can disappear for stretches and not always live up to his potential. He has an excellent opportunity to establish himself as top six centre going forward.
Morgan Rielly was one of the best Leafs by the end of the season and is expected to have a much bigger role this year. He is probably the only current Leaf who could assume the captaincy but it is too pressure for him to assume that role right now with the team rebuilding. For the Toronto Maple Leafs to succeed, he must continue to develop into that top pairing defenceman the team needs. As for fellow defenceman Jake Gardiner, you don’t know what you’ll get from him. Some nights he looks a star; other games he looks like a deer in the headlights rookie playing in his first NHL game.
In goal, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer will battle it out for starts. Bernier is talented but lacks focus at times which leads to bad goals. As for Reimer, stats show the team seems to play better in front of Bernier. Reimer was the one who backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs in 2013 but has never been given full trust from management. Bernier just signed a new two year deal to stay while Reimer has one year left. With a new goalie coach in town as well as the presence of Babcock behind the bench, neither one is the favourite to be the starter.
The new management group is preaching patience which is a refreshing change. They understand that rebuilds aren’t easy and they are willing to give prospects the time they need to develop properly as players will no longer be pushed into the NHL out of necessity. However, there will be prospects pushing for spots. William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Sam Carrick, Zach Hyman, Casey Bailey, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo and Brendan Leipsic will all be pushing for forward spots.
Defenceman Scott Harrington, who came over in the Kessel deal will be trying to crack the defence corps alongside Stuart Percy. Despite being a top four pick, Marner needs more time in junior and will very likely not see NHL ice for awhile. The team went heavy on skill in the 2015 NHL draft as evidenced by the selection of Marner and players like Jeremy Bracco and Dmytro Timashov in later rounds.
There is still a lot of work to do to make the Toronto Maple Leafs a contender but it looks as promising as ever in Leaf land. The organization is not making big promises that have fans expecting playoffs and championships right off the bat. They seem to realize that this will be a painful process at times but with Babcock, this team will compete on the ice. Effort level and character has been questioned before but this management group won’t let those things slide. Toronto Maple Leafs fans are loyal almost to a fault and they will continue to support this team through thick and thin. But this time, it looks like the team is on track to be something good one day.