Time For Toronto To Tear It All Down?
If ever there was a week to engage in a little Maple Leafs related hyperbole, this is it.
From the circus that surrounded Phil Kessel’s PR skills to Tuesday night’s obliteration at the hands of Nashville, it’s hard to believe things could get any worse for the much loved/maligned franchise.
But in spite of three straight defeats (and a clash with the NHL’s highest scoring team, Tampa Bay, tonight), Toronto is still on the bubble – which is precisely where most people expected them to be this year.
The dizzying highs and crushing lows the club seems to drag its fan base through masquerade a question which seems to be seldom asked of a team rich in resources but starved of success – where exactly is this team heading?
At their best, Toronto is still a good team – one with enough talent to qualify for the play-offs. But is that what this team is aiming for? To just extend their season by a few more weeks?
Some clubs do seem to exist simply to make the post season; hoping a play-off appearance will help balance the books while they wait for the stars to align and their ship to truly come in. Perhaps the Leafs opponents on Tuesday are a good example of this – as Nashville have slowly built themselves up from expansion team to regular post season competitors.
But Toronto don’t have the need to establish a foothold in their market like the Predators or Blue Jackets do, nor financial worries Arizona has or the need to be seen as ‘competitive’ simply to make people come and watch a la Florida. They are the single biggest team in hockey. One whose years of questionable management and continual disappointments have left their aims on a par with some of the leagues weakest teams, not its best.
It’s not hard to understand why the bar is set pretty low by many. Since the 2004/05 lock out, the Leafs have made the play-offs just once.
Perhaps the greatest crime is that the club has consistently churned out average teams during that period though.
Toronto finished just two points outside the play-offs in 2005/06 – pipped at the post by Tampa Bay – with their 90 points significantly better than the New York Islanders (78 points), Boston Bruins (74 points), Washington Capitals (70 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (58 points!!!). Expand that to the West and they were also considerably better than Chicago (65 points) and 30th placed St Louis (57 points).
In the the nine seasons since, Pittsburgh and Boston each have a Cup and an additional appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, with Chicago also hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup – twice.
All three remain perennial contenders, St Louis have become one of the strongest teams in the West, and while Washington have had their own ups and downs and the Islanders have only just pulled themselves out of the basement, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest all six have now surpassed the Leafs.
Perhaps more importantly, all six appear closer to a Cup that Toronto does.
Of course it hasn’t hurt those organisations adding superstars like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares – but then all ’embraced’ the situation they found themselves, and rebuilt through the draft.
Toronto on the other hand seemed to spend more time trying to paper over the cracks, rather than undergoing a much needed rebuild. A strategy that may have kept them on the bubble (at least in theory) but ultimately led them nowhere.
Too sloppy to make the play-offs, but ‘too good’ to ever pick higher than fifth, one mediocre effort followed another.
The situation was compounded by ‘blue collar’ prospects like Tuukka Rask and Luke Schenn failing to become the stalwarts many once hoped they’d be – with Rask’s presence in the Bruins net a constant reminder of just how poor some of the teams decisions have been over the past decade.
Toronto did eventually turn the disappointing Schenn in to James van Riemsdyk, with then GM Brian Burke also acquiring winger Phil Kessel and restocking a drastic depleted farm system with prospects you could at least call ‘functional’.
But functional doesn’t win Cups, and Kessel remains the clubs only truly elite talent.
Hopes are high for blue liner Morgan Reilly (justifiably so given the promising start he’s made to his NHL career), William Nylander and Petter Granberg; but the organisation seems to have learnt little from recent failures – attempting to patch things up rather than start over.
Even under new President Brendan Shannahan progress seems slow. The oft vilified Randy Carlyle remains behind the bench, and Dave Nonis remains GM, but there is a feeling both are there as sacrificial lambs – ready to be tossed on the fire as soon as public opinion dips unsustainably low.
But that cannot distract from the fact this roster simply isn’t good enough. Still. Whether they can hire Mike Babcock or Scotty Bowman, there is no escaping the lack of quality in the Leafs line up.
With perhaps three or four exceptions, it’s a team that is entirely expendable/replaceable.
Kessel is one of the leagues top 5 wingers, Reilly is an elite prospect, and they could be forgiven for standing by Bernier as their go to netminder. You can perhaps throw Dion Phaneuf in there as well, mostly on the basis that finding an alternative #1 D man is nigh on impossible – but equally you might suggest that could be Reilly down the road…
But beyond these 3/4, what do the Leafs have? Two third liners commanding $8m in salary, a first line centre who wouldn’t make the top 6 on any other bubble team or contender, two ‘top’ youngsters the club (or perhaps the coach?) seems to have little faith in and a handful of competent but largely unremarkable players.
Again, on form it adds up to a ‘good’ team – but ‘good’ teams don’t win championships, great ones do.
As painful as it may be to admit, perhaps this franchise needs to strap some dynamite to its roster and blow it up, to start over, to ‘Dishonour for Connor’; call it what you want, but after ten years of mediocrity, more of the same won’t be tolerated by the Leafs fan base – will it?