The Toronto Maple Leafs should be great. They have an enormous fanbase, and their organization is the wealthiest in the National Hockey League, independently appraised at a staggering $1.5 billion. Despite these advantages, the Leafs are floundering, taking their place among the bottom-feeding Sabres, Oilers, and Coyotes. Their season has been tainted by press scandals, social media outbursts, and general failure and dysfunction. There is a practical and sensible way out for this club, and if the Leafs rebuild the right way, they could soon find postseason success. Here’s the blueprint:
TRADE EVERYTHING EXCEPT KADRI
I’m a big proponent of basement teams dealing their way out of trouble, and for many non-playoff teams, this isn’t feasible, I know. Remember the Thomas Vanek trade disaster that landed Garth Snow in trouble? He swore up and down that the offer he received from the Canadians for Vanek was the best he could find — which was a conditional second round pick and a minor leaguer. Dealing away good players doesn’t ensure good returns, and the trade market isn’t where great teams are built.
That being said, the Leafs need to sell everything not nailed down. Kessel, Phanuef, Bozak, Lupul, and Van Riemsdyk have legitimate trade value, and even if they all just return picks, the Leafs will be in infinitely better shape in 3-5 years time. Their fans won’t be fooled by a pseudo-rebuild. This core won’t challenge the Rangers or the Habs for dominance of the Eastern Conference in this configuration. The Leafs are in 7th place in Atlantic Division. They’re not competing. Their fans know it, their players know it, and pretending this group could make a run isn’t really fooling anyone. Strip everything down and build through the draft and make sensible trades. Nonis showed a brief flash of brilliance in unloading Clarkson, wisely unburdening the team from his absurd contract with little impact on their depth sheet. More trades like that — with bigger assets — and the Leafs can start heading in the right direction.
BURN THE PR PLAYBOOK
Did someone make a crass joke on Twitter? Better take to Instagram and threaten total strangers with legal action and physical violence while coercing Twitter users into awkward and contrived apologies. Did someone hit the snooze button too many times? Better make him a healthy scratch and call a press conference and bring it to everyone’s attention. These are two great examples of Toronto’s press blunders, architects of their self-inflicted media wounds. Spend whatever money is necessary and change the organization’s perspective on media relations and media training. What they’re doing now is absolutely not working, and they have no excuse for the soap opera they’ve been running for the last season.
No, the Leafs aren’t drawing attention just because they’re playing poorly. When’s the last time you heard a salacious story emanating from New Jersey, Columbus, or Carolina? They’re all terrible hockey clubs with a clear lack of drama. Similarly, great hockey clubs aren’t exempt from media missteps and controversies. Can’t blame all of Toronto’s trouble on the media — especially when Lupul is cyberbullying his detractors by himself in his spare time. I haven’t hesitated to criticize the fanatic Canadian hockey media in the past, but they are decidedly not to blame for Toronto’s public relations failures, and they are having tangible impacts on the on-ice product.
BUILD A DEFENSIVELY RESPONSIBLE ROSTER
Toronto allows, on average, 33.5 shots against per game, second worst in the league. Toronto allows, on average, 3.11 goals against per games, second only to the Oilers at 3.29. Their defensive structure is virtually non-existent. They’re cutting a paycheck to washed-up-journeyman Eric Brewer. These are dark times for the Toronto blueline, and much like Edmonton, this team won’t get any better until some actual talent is built at this position. The Leafs need to break out the checkbook and attract coaching expertise with lucrative job offers. This organization is blessed beyond measure to have deep pockets, and plenty of NHL franchises would kill to have a fraction of their purchasing power. Spend until you have the best in the world working in your hockey operations department — and watch as the on-ice product improves.
This problem won’t be solved by coaching alone. Kessel is a +/- -34, Bozak is -33, James Van Riesmdyk is -32, and Polak and Gardinier are -22 and -21, respectively. Another season with these players consuming the lion’s share of Toronto’s ice time probably won’t produce significantly different results. The Leafs need strong puck possession players and a coaching staff that is able to limit scoring chances through a tight-checking system.
FOLLOW WINNIPEG’S EXAMPLE
Look no further than Winnipeg’s punishing out-hit-the-opposition-to-win blueprint that’s expertly implemented by Paul Maurice. His depth chart has, at times, looked as questionable as Toronto’s, but he’s been able to guide them out of the basement and into the playoff picture. The Jets also made a blockbuster trade when some personnel issues sprang up, and the addition of Myers and Stafford certainly hasn’t made them any worse. Practical roster moves coupled with a tenured NHL coach behind the bench (looking at you, Mike Babcock), could catapult the Leafs back into contention. The Leafs don’t have much more to lose at this point, but they can limit the wasted seasons by building a cohesive rebuild strategy.