The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t the worst franchise in Toronto—Toronto FC, the Argonauts, the Raptors all deserve parts of the title. I would suggest though that neither sports franchise represents the worst overall product in the city. That would be the streetcars, a totally inefficient use of city space. Streetcars confine themselves to one lane and it’s in the middle of the street. During rush hour periods, the streets in downtown Toronto are an awful mess due to the city’s reluctance to introduce revolutionary technology such as buses.
And, hey, poll many Torontonians, and if you asked them whether they’d keep the streetcars or the Maple Leafs, most would say the Maple Leafs.
What do you do in the offseason when your team has a single scoring line, a single capable centreman, a single quality defenceman, and two question marks in goal? As it turns out, the answer is nothing. Pay lip service to the problems the team faces and blame the economic reality of the NHL.
As it goes, the Maple Leafs have been behaving like a streetcar. Brian Burke opened his tenure with the team making a variety of bold moves. He shipped three picks to Boston for Phil Kessel. He dealt for Dion Phaneuf. He began a foray into the NCAA ranks to find undrafted talent. Then he sat on his hands, with every move he makes so carefully scrutinized by so many uninformed personalities in the world’s most NHL-crazed city.
Has he been defeated? It’s an easy narrative to sell, that the pressure has just been too much for Burke, and all the expectations has led him to hardly even try to fix the Maple Leafs’ problems. The offseason was tame. After a good draft where he came away with two strong defencemen in Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn, he made an excellent trade, dealing the troubled Luke Schenn to Philadelphia for James van Riemsdyk, another young player who faced similar problems to Schenn.
And then nothing. He signed Jay McClement on July 1, and passed on every other free agent. Not that that’s the wrong move. A lot of general managers, Burke would tell you, overpay for talent on July 1. He’s not wrong. But there was limited creative thinking in the Leafs front office. Through July, the Leafs didn’t acquire anybody who might come in and fix some of the problems the team faces.
In the last four seasons, the Leafs have finished 30th, 29th, 25th and 29th in the NHL in goals allowed, which starts with a porous defence that gives up a lot of shots, and is compounded by the fact that the team has not had a starting goalie for three consecutive seasons in a decade.
If there is a glass half full of water rather than half empty, it lies with the team’s forward group. 14 players—or just nine, if you ignore players who missed half the season—were a point-a-game last season. Two of those belong to the Leafs, Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
While wingers aren’t as valuable as centremen in this NHL, Kessel has done everything that could be asked of a forward in his position at the NHL-level since his arrival in Toronto. In three seasons in Toronto, he has scored 30, 32 and 37 goals, and probably has one more chance to crack 40 goals as he draws near the end of his offensive prime.
Like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, albeit for much less time, the great failing of the organization has been that they’ve never been able to find Kessel a centreman to play with. Matt Stajan and Tyler Bozak just aren’t NHL first-line players, and Tim Connolly, acquired last off-season, spent last season either underwhelming his coaching staff or on the injured reserve with a recurring upper-body injury in the first two months of the season.
Still, this team’s best player may ironically be a centreman. Mikhail Grabovski combines old-world stick handling and skating skill with the vision and awareness that completes the modern hockey player. No Toronto Maple Leaf skater spent more time in the opposition’s end than their own without Grabovski also on the ice, while 15 of of 26 skaters (Bozak excluded, as they never played more than two shifts together) were plus-possession players with the Belaroussian Rocket. [Hockey Analysis]
He’s the cornerstone of the forward group, who has kept Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur useful wingers on his flank, and the amount of dominance him and Kessel would exhibit alongside one another is palatable. The problem is that, with a one-line team, you are severely restricting your ability to be a complete team.
The Leafs first line sees more time against the Zdeno Charas, PK Subbans and Ryan McDonaghs of the world than any other line in hockey, I’d suggest:
With only one unit to cover, opposing coaches get a night off. Stick the big man on Kessel, and don’t worry about covering the rest of the team. Despite the lack of depth and a large number of injuries, Toronto was 10th in the NHL in goal scoring last season. If anything, the acquisition of James van Riemsdyk opens up some possibilities. They’ve been openly musing about using him at centre, but either way, there could be at least two good two-way lines.
This could be a relatively short section, because there is nothing there. Phaneuf is a strong two-way player given his role and responsibilities. He anchors a defensive corps that has no clear No. 2, and several No. 5s. In the first full season of Burke’s tenure, the three defencemen leading in ice-time were François Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, and Ian White. All are now gone.
The team has attempted to turn Carl Gunnarsson into a top-pairing guy, but him and Phaneuf last season were together just a 49.2% possession pairing, the puck spending slightly more time in their own end. The best pairings spend more time on the other side of centre, and while that’s partially due to the forwards, Phaneuf is a guy who needs somebody good enough to help him carry the play.
Jake Gardiner is a wild-card. While he played with Schenn last season, a young defenceman who never got it all together at the NHL-level, Gardiner combines offensive zone brilliance with defensive zone miscues. The numbers reflect a few lapses of judgment in the neutral zone, but young defencemen who carry the play are rare. Gardiner is still young, and the near future of the Leafs fortunes at this position depend whether or not he puts it together.
That said, the list of rookie comparables that have Gardiner’s offensive upside is quite strong:
They’ve all evolved into different type of defencemen. Doughty, Hamonic, Seabrook and Vlasic have become good defencemen who can play in tough situations, while Campoli, Johnson, Karlsson and Niskanen still need tailored minutes.
Finally, the team re-signed John-Michael Liles this season and continue to hold onto the contract of Mike Komisarek. Both are serviceable stop-gaps on the second pairing, but it’s likely neither will live up to what their team is paying them.
James Reimer, even with a concussion-shortened season, has been a good goaltender at even strength, but the team still has troubles on the penalty kill. While there’s significant pressure in Toronto to make a pitch for Roberto Luongo, it’s clear that Reimer provides the most upside at the cheapest price in the long term. Without a locked in contract after regressing in his second season (from a .921 save percentage to a .900) Reimer is probably a goaltender capable of putting in a .910-.915 percentage over 40-50 games.
But who is the other guy? Right now it is minor-league sensation Ben Scrivens, one of the AHL’s top goalies in the last two seasons. He’s either the backup, or not in Toronto, since he probably won’t survive waivers if he signs an NHL deal. He had a .903 save percentage in 12 games but a below league average .910 at even strength (compared to Reimer’s .918).
Leafs fans are getting familiar with the possibility that it will be these two tending goal for the team. Since they’re young and talented, yet inexperienced, this could be a boon for a cheap price, or a total disaster. At least it won’t be an expensive disaster like Vesa Toskala.
Overall, not good. Without adding to this roster, the team can probably contend for just half a season. Keep in mind that on February 7th, the Leafs were 28-19-6 and in 7th spot in the Conference. They were riding high shooting percentages that eventually crashed the team and cost coach Ron Wilson his job. His replacement is Randy Carlyle, a guy that Burke has won a Stanley Cup with, but with much, much better players.
In a lockout-shortened season, this team would have a chance. Until then, I don’t see this team being playoff worthy.