Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SPORTS
Since the exodus of Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis a little over a year ago, Brendan Shanahan’s “Shanaplan” has had sky-high approval ratings. Many shrewd and cautious moves that immediately followed gave a lot of reason to continue that, but after a stretch of moves that are hard to strongly identify as good or bad, you can’t help but wonder if it’s time to start shedding away the justifications and benefits of the doubts, and start approaching their process with more intrigue.
That might sound like an over-dramatic reaction to the current situation, especially when you consider some of the insanity that has been going on across the league. Certainly, I’m not about to call what’s happening the new “dark ages”. But I want you to consider the following.
- Toronto received a lot of praise from the fanbase for their “tank” efforts, but this is also a team that went to great lengths to ensure that their team was filled with NHL-caliber players at the start of the year, even if they were short-term experiments. The team went on extending winning streaks and didn’t start looking like they had a shot at 30th until late January. If Nazem Kadri shoots at his career average and both Jonathan Bernier and Garret Sparks put up league average save percentages, this “tank” team sees their goal differential shoot up by 25-30 goals. The Leafs were a middling possession team who had a ton of bad puck luck, sold a bit like any bottom feeder would at the deadline, and still stayed good enough that they only finished last by one point. They then won a lottery, which got them a franchise centre.
- For all the credit Lou Lamoriello gets for his ability to bend the rules, we haven’t seen a ton of evidence of that actually working yet. “Robidas Island” seems like a bit of an ironic name these days, as the 39-year-old has yet to actually spend any time on cap-saving LTIR. Lamoriello was brazen about buying out Jared Cowen, only to have his efforts formally disputed this week. Nathan Horton was a Nonis move, fixing another Nonis move. Maybe we’re giving Lou too much credit in this regard.
- There are a lot of questions out there about this year’s draft still. After picking a bunch of hyper-skilled, undervalued players that excited both the spreadsheets and the scouts, the Leafs left people very confused by drafting a bunch of overagers, tall guys, and defensive defencemen. That might be fine; maybe they know something we don’t, but there’s no clear evidence of a market inefficiency. Mark Hunter mostly talked about his players being “big, strong guys”, something we all felt skepticism towards. Those who didn’t want to say the Leafs had a bad draft said there must be some form of next-level analytics because the Leafs used one of their eleven picks on a player on Zac Urback’s list. Maybe there’s something there, or maybe philosophies are being shifted again.
- The Leafs lost out on Steven Stamkos. That might not be a bad thing; getting him would’ve accelerated the team’s curve but likely wasn’t a necessity. But let’s not sugar coat the situation. A superstar from Unionville signed a second contract that brought him to UFA at 26, held out all season, and while he talked to other teams, he really only went through all the stops with the Maple Leafs. Something changed after his last meeting, and he spun around and accepted a discounted deal to stay in Tampa not significantly different from one he was given in January. Even Steve Yzerman was shocked. The same team that pitched Mike Babcock on the grand plan with the help of non-cap money tried the same thing with a player who seemed more than open to coming here and struck out. He might not be a necessity, but dropping the ball isn’t a “masterful bullet dodged” or a “fake kicking of tires”. The team tried, aggressively, and lost. Simple as.
- Frederik Andersen is a good goalie, and one I feel reasonably confident in having on the roster for five years, but for a front office that is sold as hellbent on patience, it was really weird to see them be the ones who kicked off the goaltending market, and in doing so, paying the most in assets and in salary for their new netminder. Even if I had my own reservations about keeping him as the all-out starter, renting out James Reimer for scraps and seeing him go for $1.6 million less makes you wonder a little.
- Speaking of trading for scraps, the deadline was a weird one, wasn’t it? The Polak/Spaling trade was a gimme and they deserve credit for it. Moving Matthias made sense, but they’ve already lost Colin Smith, the best asset in that trade. Connor Carrick was a nice get but Bob McKenzie has already theorized that the Leafs might just have to carry Brooks Laich as $4.5 million in dead weight next year. PA Parenteau wasn’t moved, in what was half a perceived need to prove negotiation strength and half a consideration of retaining him. He’s walked for nothing. Whether that game of chicken has helped the Leafs in further trade negotiations is unknown. It may have, it may not have. The only one who really knows is Lou.
- Now we head to free agency. Last year, the Leafs filled out the roster with Parenteau, Hunwick, Arcobello, Winnik, Froese, and Matthias in the first week. All seen as cast-offs, all with underlying reasons to give them a chance, none over $2.4 million, none for more than two years. It was conservative, it was reasonable. Matt Martin is probably a decent hockey player (we’ll talk about him in even more detail later today), but for a team that talks about capitalizing on market inefficiencies, giving a bottom six player $2.5 million a year for four years doesn’t seem like one of those.
- As for Kris Russell, the fact that the team even seems interested in signing him and might need to be saved from themselves a la Dave Bolland is concerning. The numbers rate his performance over the past three years as worse than some of Toronto’s greatest defensive laughing stocks of this era, and he’s only had success when being sheltered, at which point you shouldn’t be paying a third pairing defenceman $5 million.
There are other micro-analyzations that can be made, but the core point is that, while a lot of these things seem small, they add up to a very curious picture. I can’t claim that there’s an internal rift in the Leafs’ front office, because I have no idea if that’s true. But it seems like the philosophy and the team’s success in moving the project along has been bumpier since Lamoriello and Babcock, two former bosses of Shanahan’s, have come into the fold. We know that Babcock values toughness. We know that Lamoriello isn’t exactly getting any younger and that the concept of a 73-year-old leading the way on a slow, nuanced rebuild seems a little oxymoronic. Lamoriello mentioned in his post-Martin press conference yesterday that they wouldn’t make a decision like this unless everyone felt good about it, but also made a point to say that feeling good is different than agreeing. That’s a bit concerning. Not to say that they’ve hijacked the ship and gone for a joyride, but the situation is a curious one.
That’s what this comes down to, curiosity. Toronto’s overall scope still isn’t in laughing stock territory (though Russell would be a hard one to shake off if it happens). But maybe it’s time to start to wonder about the big picture again. Rather than collectively trying to justify every curious move that the team makes, maybe it’s time to start searching for counterpoints and questioning again. Because if you take the big picture and you read it all at once, this is starting to look like a team that’s recognizing a window, starting to adjust themselves to begin to win again, and are doing so in a way that defies what we believed was an ideal process. Maybe they’re smart to do so (I’m in no way saying that’s impossible), but maybe they’re proving that no braintrust is safe from the usual tropes and traps. Whatever the case, there’s enough unusual stuff going on to make me feel that it’s time to lower the trust levels from “complete and total” to “curious”. It’s time start asking questions and searching for answers again.