Return to the Basement: Should the Leafs Embrace a Complete Rebuild or Continue Striving for Mediocrity?
Oh, the spring-summer of 2013. How glorious you were! Despite the collapse at the end of Game 7, there was definitely a positive vibe surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs.
May 6, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Fans gather in Maple Leaf Square outside of the Air Canada Centre prior to game three of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Maple Leaf Square, while filled with disappointment, was home to thoughts about what improvements would come over the summer. The roster practically overflowed with solid players for whom the best was yet to come.
The goaltending situation looked to be at its best since the days of Ed Belfour, or Curtis Joseph before him. For the first time in a long while, the team had an identity. Work hard and great results would come.
The front office went to work on improving things, first with the acquisition of Jonathan Bernier, followed by the signing of rugged forward David Clarkson, and capped off with the signing of Mason Raymond on a show-me type of deal.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, the roster looked even better, with improved depth and size up front, on top of a great tandem in goal. There was finally something to look forward to. Perhaps the years of misery and embarrassing defeat were coming to their end…
Sadly, once again the team didn’t meet their expectations. Clarkson struggled to live up to his big contract. Bernier and Reimer were not up to the task of keeping the team in the game, up against so many shots.
The team as a whole wasn’t as committed to the same kind of battling that we saw the year before. This ultimately cost some jobs. But has anything really changed?
Nov 30, 2013; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle and players react as Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Pacioretty (not pictured) scored a goal during the second period at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports
Dave Nonis is still calling the shots – albeit with Brendan Shanahan looming above him, and now Kyle Dubas to offer yet another different perspective on things. Randy Carlyle continues to roll out the same type of team, one unsuited to playing the style he found success with in the past. It seems as though the song remains the same, and the anticipation we felt as fans, has been lost.
Let’s look at some of the decisions Nonis has made, like the big money extensions for Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, and now, Jake Gardiner. A lot of these moves were viewed through tinted lenses.
They seemed to be good decisions at the time, but have left the team with little opportunity for growth in the coming years. With Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri, and Bernier as the notable exceptions, most of this team has already reached their expected peaks.
Apologies to Kessel and JVR, but they’ve performed so well, we can’t realistically expect them to be even better. Nevertheless, there’s always the internal belief that the team is on the cusp of greatness. I hope that after this coming season the team can grasp the reality of their situation.
Here’s the team’s cap situation (from capgeek.com):
Who really believes this is a team that will win the Cup during the next five to seven years? Does our top six matchup well versus the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks? As nice as it would be to reach the finals, what does that matter if we can’t win once we’re there? I think the team would be best served by taking a step back and finally embracing a full rebuild.
The Leafs haven’t had a strong track record with prospects in years. Often, the organization rushes their development, and media scrutiny burns out these players before they can shine. Think about the serviceable NHLers that have been shipped out of town in the last 15 years. Brad Boyes, Alexander Steen, Tuukka Rask (I die a little more, every time I think of that trade), Anton Stralman, Viktor Stalberg, Luke Schenn. Each of these players have been caught up in the desires of an organization that feels they’re close to winning. But when has that been the case? Sure, we had a good stretch from the late 90s until the lockout, but were any of those teams really that close to ending the drought? I’m not saying that keeping these players would’ve won us a Cup, but the depth of the organization as a whole has been hurt by this tactic.
Editor In Leaf
If you look at the teams that have risen to the top of the new NHL, they’ve consistently drafted well, building quality teams around their core, while maintaining flexibility. The Leafs are, and likely will continue to be (despite my pleas), the kind of team that thinks they’ll build a winner entirely based on market and fan base.
As a whole, this organization has failed to embrace the salary cap era. They are foolishly using the same tactics that have failed in the past.
As much as we talk about the money, players still want to win. Period. Until the Leafs take a step back and develop the organization from top to bottom, we the fans will continue to cheer for a team that can never deliver what we all want.
I hope that I am wrong about this. I hope they can surprise me, and the rest of the NHL. Thus far, the 2014-15 team looks great! I’m really excited, and so are all the fans. But we’ve just seen this song and dance one too many times…