Why the Toronto Maple Leafs Are Not Doomed

I am here to deliver some hope to the Blue and White faithful, because by all accounts that I am aware of, the Toronto Maple Leafs are light years behind schedule in their rebuilding process.  Most seem to think another half-decade of failure is on the horizon.

Well I disagree.  I (and perhaps I alone?) think the Leafs are on their way back to relevancy.

They have a handful of players scoring at very respectable clips. Four players are at or near the 40-point plateau.  The San Jose Sharks also boast four players around the same point totals, and their names are probably a bit more household.

Example:  Right now, Leafs leading scorer Clarke Macarthur is within two points of Joe Thorton (Jumbo’s 46 to Clarke’s 44).

It’s evident to me that the Leafs have a very solid foundation up front, especially if the second line that currently leads them continues to click through the end of this season and beyond.  A lot of teams would delight in seeing their second line pile points up at this rate.

If only their top line could do the same thing.

And that brings up probably the most criticized trade since the lockout.  The Phil Kessel deal.  I don’t think there is a bigger lightning rod on that squad than Kessel, except for maybe Dion Phaneuf.  But Dion cost the Leafs some moving parts.  Kessel cost two high draft picks, which still probably feels a lot like a third degree burn to most Leaf fans.

It seems like a distant memory, but that is the player that Brian Burke traded for.  An electric, pure goal scorer – the likes of which are very rarely available on the open market via any outlet, draft or otherwise.  At the time of the deal people were writing about Kessel and saying he could be the next Joe Sakic with his release and timing.

Fast forward a few years, and that hasn’t exactly worked out.  But the trade is anything but a lost cause.  There are worse things than having a dormant, 23-year-old former  36-scorer that really only needs a confidence boost and maybe a hug from his coach to get going again.

I know it’s difficult to see what will probably end up being two high draft picks heading to Boston.  But it is what it is, and it isn’t like the kid has been a total flop.  He didn’t Kovalchuk Leaf Nation, at least.

Yes, Phil Kessel is enigmatic.  He’s moody and guarded.  And that’s why he shouldn’t be the face of the franchise.  The guy needs a decent center and maybe a guy to give him some space (sound familiar?) and all of a sudden the Leafs have two lines that can score.  Being one or two moves away from that is decent progress.  I see that as a good foundation up front, and far from a loathsome lost cause all around.

Especially considering Brian Burke has tried to build the team from the net out.

The situation in goal isn’t exactly steady as Giguere hasn’t panned out and Gustavsson has left much to be desired.  But it isn’t like the guy upstairs has been sitting pat.  Neither of these goaltenders could be considered worse than Vesa Toskala.  And I haven’t had the chance to watch him play yet, but from what I understand James Reimer could be the real deal.

Toronto’s defense looks fine on paper, and it should be better than it is.  This should be the teams strength – it just hasn’t been.  That isn’t a tough observation to make either.  Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, and Francois Beauchemin should be a pretty solid top three.  They’ve mostly been anything but.  Kaberle is putting up his points, but Dion and Beauchemin should be tougher to play against.

There are too many shoulds in that paragraph, and those shoulds have lead to the seventh worst goals allowed per game average in the league.  Is that just the defense’s fault?  Hardly.  The team as a whole clearly and obviously needs to perform at a higher level in their own zone, goaltenders included.

But all things considered, this team really ought to be better than it is.  They teased us at the beginning of the season, and have shown flashes of good hockey down the stretch.  So why is the team underachieving so badly?

I believe the answer is pretty simple:  a lack of identity.

The team looks like a twenty-something having an identity crisis because it is a team full of important players in their twenties who clearly have issues with their confidence.  Add one of the hottest spotlights in in pro-sports and there’s a bit of a recipe for disaster.

Who’s the anchor in the locker room?  Who is the guy figuring out how to talk to Phil Kessel and pull those goals out of him?  Who is the guy pushing Dion in practice, trying to fire him up and take off someones head at center ice?  Who is reminding J.S. Giguere that he was considered one of the best money goalies in hockey as recently as two years ago?

Frankly, I don’t think that there is one.  This is a team that doesn’t know what it is about, and until they figure out who they are as a whole, I don’t see things getting much better.  Is this a coaching thing?  It’s hard to say.  I’m not in the locker room and neither are you.  But needless to say, this team is listless and isn’t having a whole lot of fun.  There is a lot of inert mojo in Toronto.

Talent wise, this is a team that has what it takes to at least battle for a playoff spot.  Are they the most talented group of players?  No.  But neither are the Nashville Predators.  But those guys know who they are and why they take the ice every night.  They bring it night in and night out and they are always in playoff contention.  Their coach has them all on the same page, and the philosophy is the same across the board.

They aren’t looking to anyone else for answers, or waiting for help to come from the outside.

Dion Phaneuf

(Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

That clearly isn’t the situation in Toronto.  But what if it was?

The reason I believe there is hope for the Maple Leafs is because they have a lot of the right gears in place.  They just need to figure out how to oil the machine, so to speak.  For another example, look the the Rangers this year.  They figured out a team identity of being gritty and tough to play against, and they’ve been in contention despite going stretches without some of their best players.

I feel like the consensus about the Leafs is that they are several key players away from being a contender.  The pieces are there.  They are just scattered across the table, with no clear direction or idea of how to fit together.

The day someone recognizes that and starts figuring out how to utilize a group of talented, though perhaps mentally fragile young 20-somethings is the day this team starts to look a lot better.  No team who has the identity of being in “rebuilding mode” is doing much better in the standings.  That identity is a free pass.

No, someone needs stand up in that room and tell these kids they can play and compete right now, and make them believe it.  They are only nine points out right now, which is a very close-able gap.  The Leafs have been living on the “we’ll get ’em next year” mantra for too long.

Why can’t the time be now?

  • Mr. Drew

    Amen, brother.

  • Mark Ascione

    The team did have an identity to start the year… they were supposed to be a team dedicated to defense, because everyone knew they’d have trouble scoring goals. The trouble is, they got adequate goaltending to start the season, they suffered a ton of poor defensive play, and they started getting shut out. They just aren’t a good enough team to compete when they make mistakes in their own end, at the offensive blue line, taking bad penalties etc.

    Giggy and Jonas had decent numbers coming into December. But it’s tough to win when your team routinely scores 2 or less (or allows the other team a 2-0 lead to start). I think Giggy just degraded physically, Jonas lost his ability to focus and play.

    They have a pretty solid base of ‘decent’ forwards. Maybe CMac, Grabo and Kulie can be consistent 60 point guys, but we’ll have to wait and see. Phil needs to be more, he needs to grow his game so that when he goes 10 without a goal, he contributes with nifty passes or decent defensive play.

    But the commitment has to be there 60 minutes a night… play solid defense, be opportunistic, be responsible. Notice the last few games overall, turnovers reduced, Phaneuf laying a hit or 2 per game, Kulemin, Versteeg, Armstrong going to the net, Kabby and Dion shooting more… That’s where it’s gonna come from…