Toronto Maple Leafs: On A Path To Success Or Failure?

MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, left to right, new Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan and Maple Leafs' General Manager Dave Nonis pose for a photo following a news conference in Toronto on Monday, April 14, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, left to right, new Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan and Maple Leafs’ General Manager Dave Nonis pose for a photo following a news conference in Toronto on Monday, April 14, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

In April, when Brendan Shanahan left his post in the NHL as the Director of Player Safety to become President & Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the fan base was super charged about the change. There was a sense of reinvigoration coming on the heels of a late season collapse that cost the Leafs a playoff spot. This was also on the heels of a historic 3rd period Game 7 meltdown the previous season to the Boston Bruins that eliminated Toronto.

At his introductory press conference Shanahan stated, “I have some ideas in my head about direction, but I think that at the same time those are subject to change. I think that it’s very important for people, especially in sports, to have the ability to evolve and to make changes.” Well here it is, 3 months in and already the fan base is growing restless with the Leafs. While big things were anticipated in Toronto, Shanahan & GM Dave Nonis have taken a relatively low key patient approach to rebuilding the team.

When free agency started on July 1st, Leafs fans were expecting big things. The signing of veteran defenseman Steve Robidas was not the splash they were hoping for. Neither was bringing back Matt Frattin or Leo Komarov. The signing of KHL veteran Petri Kontiola and fourth-line centre Mike Santorelli failed to set pulses racing. The trade with the St. Louis Blues of Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak did little to instill confidence that the Leafs had improved either.

Stephane Robidas (NHL)

Stephane Robidas (NHL)

 

Moves that may have excited the Leafs’ fan base never came to fruition. Shanahan did have his sights set on Dan Boyle – who rebuffed the Leafs and signed with the New York Rangers. There was a deal in place with the Montreal Canadiens for Josh Gorges but Gorges couldn’t find room in his heart to go to such a hated rival and nixed the trade. Instead, Gorges accepted a Habs deal to the Buffalo Sabres.

Shanahan & Nonis had also hoped to re-sign Dave Bolland but only at a price he was comfortable with. When the Florida Panthers came knocking on Bolland’s door with a 5 year $27.5M deal, Shanahan said goodbye & farewell as a deal of that sort was too rich & lengthy for the Leafs to come near.

Rumors also continued to fly at draft day that the Leafs were peddling Captain Dion Phaneuf. While a player of Phaneuf stature would surely net a generous bounty, Neither Nonis or Shanahan could find a suitor willing to pay that price.

Dion Phaneuf will be looked to lead more in Toronto. Phot credit: Chris Young - Canadian Press.

Dion Phaneuf will be looked to lead more in Toronto. Phot credit: Chris Young – Canadian Press.

 

You also keep hearing the names of Jake Gardiner & Nazem Kadri being used as bait to lure the San Jose Sharks into trading Captain Joe Thornton to Toronto. The stumbling block with that is that Thornton has a no movement clause (NMC) and has not been asked to waive it.

When you look at the possibility of Thornton suiting up for the Leafs, it just doesn’t seem like a fit. If the Leafs were a “win now” type of team it would, but they aren’t. Thornton is 35 and locked up at $6.75M per year for the next 3 seasons. Making a move like that would seem like a move out of desperation to appease a restless fan base.

Looking at the Leafs as presently constituted, it would be fair to say that they aren’t much better – possibly even worse – than they were when the season ended.

In goal they are in a good position. Jonathan Bernier, with a little help from an improved “D” – has the ability to be a star. James Reimer is a solid backup and could be a starter on several other teams in the league. Reimer has supposedly requested a trade and if that does happen, it could shore up some holes elsewhere in the lineup. Martin Brodeur could be an option if Reimer is traded or Bernier falters. That is if he hasn’t signed with anyone by the start of camp. Brodeur stated recently that he would be willing to sign with a team in mid-season if it was the right fit.

On defense, Phaneuf still has plenty to give and will continue to rack up major minutes. Gardiner seems to be the topic of every trade rumor involving the Leafs and has a lot of potential, as does Cody Franzen. The signing of Robidas – if he can stay healthy – upgrades the backend on defense and provides some physicality and character. The jury is out on Polak & Morgan Rielly. They could be a solid third pairing or could be busts. Time will tell.

Up front the Leafs boast a solid #1 line in Phil Kessel (80 pts – 37g, 43a), Tyler Bozak (49 pts – 19g, 30a) & James van Riemsdyk (61 pts – 30g, 31a). All 3 are expected to improve upon their 2013-14 results.

The rest of the players up front pose question marks. Can David Clarkson rebound and have the type of season that earned him his monster contract? Can Kadri – if he isn’t traded – add to his 50 pt total (20g, 30a) from last season? Can Joffrey Lupul rebound off a disappointing 44 point (22g, 22 a) season?

No matter what, Kadri will be key for Toronto (NHL)

No matter what, Kadri will be key for Toronto (NHL)

 

The questions don’t stop there. Can Matt Frattin regain the form he had in his previous stint with the Leafs? Did Komarov find his game in the KHL and can he bring that over here? What role – if any – will Colton Orr have with this team? Will Mike Santorelli continue to show improvement with his 4th the NHL team? These answer will come, but maybe to late.

The Leafs drafted 18 year old William Nylander with the 8th overall pick in the Draft. Nylander has outstanding offensive tools. He has the speed, hands and vision to be a real star in the NHL. Like most 18 year olds though he lacks the defensive polish to be counted on for a regular spot in the NHL. However, Shanahan & Nonis, along with Head Coach Randy Carlyle, are not ruling anything out. Several spots on the Leafs roster are up for grabs and unless a trade or free agent signing occurs, there will be some youngsters on the team next season.

Overall, the view on the Leafs at this point in the summer is neutral. They have neither improved nor taken a step back. Once training camp ends and the season commences, we’ll see what type of team and direction the Leafs are headed in.

Shanahan left a thankless job in the NHL front office for the fishbowl that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hopefully for him it won’t become a move he regrets.

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