As the Maple Leafs continue to lose hockey games at an alarming pace, fans of the team must keep perspective. It is far too easy to just throw your hands up in disgust and beg for wholesale changes. As I said last week, the losing streak has been rough, but it’s not as bad as it seems. By which I mean, that during the whole eight game fiasco, only maybe two games – against Tampa and St.Louis – stand out as particularly terrible. That isn’t to make excuses, because it sucks to lose, and they haven’t played great, but with just a few bounces or calls going their way (i.e if they had gotten any luck at all) they could easily have won a few of the games during this ignominious steak.
So, on the heels of a losing streak that is the franchise’s longest in almost 30 years, what should the team do? There are already calls and suggestions that they just blow the whole thing up and start again. I read one comment on a story that suggested the Leafs go Full-Edmonton rebuild. Bad Idea.
What the Leafs have to do – management wise – is continue building what they are building. What the fans need to do is to keep everything in perspective. Here’s how:
1) Remember that no one thought the Leafs were going to win the Stanley Cup this year. The goal of anyone even half-way knowledgeable regarding this team, coming into this year, was to build experience by making the playoffs, while waiting for the salary cap to rise and the youth to develop. Take away the losing streak for a second. If they were two points out with seven games to go and had arrived at that point in any other way but with an eight game losing streak, this season would not be seen as a failure.
2) Remember that they have basically accomplished their goals for this season. As per the above statement, since winning really isn’t the focus this year, as much as it sucks to witness this losing streak and potentially miss the playoffs, the Leafs really have accomplished all their goals for the season. Even if they miss the playoffs, they did gain some priceless experience during this collapse and the rest of the season will basically consist of pseudo-playoff games. What that means is that the experience was gained in a painful way, but at least they got some. Going forward, last year’s game seven meltdown and this year’s late season swoon will both be beneficial, experience-wise, to the team next year.
3) Keep in mind that the team is not that far away from contention. They have a solid goalie. One forward who is among the best of the best in the entire league, and another, JVR, who seems poised to join him. They have two players who, in Bolland and Clarkson, when they find their game – which they will – will instantly make the team tougher to play against. Finally they have youth. The most important thing about last night’s game was not the score. It was the glimpse into the future of how good Morgan Rielly can be. We are talking about a guy who can’t really be over-hyped, even in Toronto. A guy who, had he not been injured would have been drafted higher than the 5th overall the Leafs stole him at. We are talking about a player who will be mentioned alongside Pietrangelo, Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the very near future. Morgan Rielly had a hell of a game last night and that bodes well for the team from here on out.
No Need to Blow it Up
The Leafs might not make the playoffs this year, but they certainly do not need to “blow it all up.” What they need to do is continue to build the way they have been. Their core of Kessel, Phaneuf, JVR, Rielly and Bernier is as good as anyone’s. Maybe not today, but soon. Not one of those players has topped out yet, as they are all young players who are not yet in their primes. Phaneuf is the oldest and takes the most heat, but it might surprise some more casual observers of the team that may have bought into the purely fictional accounts of his bad play, to learn that Dion Phaneuf was considered to have been having the best year of his career this season until the recent descent into losing.
Unfortunately for Phaneuf, he is not recognized for all the great plays he makes on a daily basis – at least not by the vocal fans who call into sports radio and comment on the internet. Rather he is scorned for things that happen to any defenseman playing nearly half of each game and against the league’s top players. He has played badly the last few games – and I have heard people suggest he is playing through an injury – but the fact remains he shouldn’t need to be defended. He is a great player and head shoulders above anyone else the Leafs have had on their back-end for the last four years. In fact, you probably have to go all the way back to Borje Salming to find a player the Leafs have had better than Phaneuf on defense. Certainly he is superior to Kaberle, McCabe, Iafrate or Ellett.
Instead of blowing it up, here is what the Leafs need to do, and that little rant about Dion leads us directly into the first thing on the list.
1) Add a top pairing defenseman to the team. Whether its a legitimate number one defenseman, or just an elite defensive defenseman of the Zbynek Michalek style, a partner for Phaneuf is the most important thing this team needs.
2) Get a large centre. It doesn’t have to be a number one centre like Getzlaf or Crosby, even though that would nice. Bozak is a perfectly decent top line centre and he works well with Kessel and JVR, so I am not advocating replacing him. What I am saying is that Bozak and Kadri 1-2 up the middle can not work. Both players are too small and I believe that at least one of a teams top two centres have to be big in order for the team to cycle effectively and maintain possession in the offensive zone. A player like Martin Hanzal would be somewhat realistic and Eric Staal would be a dream.
I also do not advocate giving up on Kadri. I would move him to the wing and seek to acquire a large body to anchor the second line.
3) They need to move out Franson. The Leafs are simply overburdened with offensive defenseman. I continue to remain shocked that people seem to have expected so much out of a team that dresses Franson, Gardiner, Phaneuf, Rielly and sometimes Ranger on a nightly basis. All of these players are OK, but the group’s physicality is a joke. You need puck moving defenseman, but you only need two of them. Three at the most. Do dress five puck moving offensive defenseman in one game and then wonder why you aren’t in a playoff spot is more shocking to me than the fact that they lost eight games in a row.
I would move out Franson for another Gleason type and ideally Gunnerson would be replaced with whoever is acquired as the new top pairing defenseman. After that, as much as I believe in his potential, I don’t think moving Gardiner in a trade for one of the things listed above is a bad idea. Morgan Rielly, it should go without saying, needs to be considered untouchable.
Other than that – maybe a new coach, some fourth line tinkering etc – the Leafs are fine. You will notice that the things they need are the exact things that they needed coming into this season. It’s easy to get caught up thinking about how bad they’ve been lately, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is still an exciting team on the rise. There is no reason to fire Nonis, trade Kessel or take the “C” from Phaneuf (as if it matters at all who the Captain is!) The team must especially resist moving out guys like Kadri and Rielly for a quick fix. There are no quick fixes in hockey. They rebuild is taking a while, but the team is close.
It’s just hard to see it right now.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.