Toronto Maple Leafs: Another Collapse or a Terrible Season?

Maple Leafs captain
Dave Nonis failed to find sufficient support for Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf this summer (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

If the changes made by GM Dave Nonis and his staff are any indicator, the Toronto Maple Leafs are primed for a third straight collapse in 2014-15.

It goes without saying that the Maple Leafs have lacked a reliable first line centre since the departure of Mats Sundin in 2008. The best they have are Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri, not nearly enough to compete with the best of the best. After disappointing finishes to the last two campaigns, it was widely expected that Nonis would find the missing piece along with shoring up the defence corps.

Neither of that happened.

Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak are talened defencemen. Petri Kontiola, Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik are all talented forwards. None of these players or any other newbies hold the talent, defensively or offensively, that will help put the Maple Leafs over the top.

Admittedly, the Maple Leafs did make a wise call recently, one that even pleased the fans.

https://twitter.com/tomRtripp/status/519144217881616384

This allows the Maple Leafs a chance to engage in a more well-rounded approach as they make use of all 12 forward spots. See: Brandon Kozun, Daniel Winnik, Matt Frattin.

But while the demotion of Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren is a move in the positive direction, it isn’t make or break. Where they gained, the Leafs also lost.

One perfect example of this gain/loss theory comes in the form of experience and leadership. The signing of Stephane Robidas provided the Maple Leafs with exactly that—experience and leadership—but the team lost the same attributes by letting David Bolland go to the Florida Panthers. Further, Robidas has already experienced injury issues in training camp and his age has people concerned.

James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail perfectly explained Stephane Robidas’ current situation with the Maple Leafs:

It was a stretch where he was one of the NHL’s iron men, playing 590 games over eight seasons coming out of the season-long lockout in 2005 and establishing himself as a top pair defenceman.

Playing for some solid Dallas Stars teams, Stephane Robidas logged heavy minutes, with only 16 blueliners handling more between 2005-06 and 2012-13.

Now, the Toronto Maple Leafs need him to do it again.

Let’s make it clear, though: this isn’t meant to be all about Robidas. Take a glance at the Leafs’ forward depth chart:

van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Kessel
Lupul – Kadri – Kozun
Komarov – Santorelli – Clarkson
Winnik – Holland – Frattin

Feel free to use Brandon Kozun and David Clarkson interchangeably, of course; we will need to wait and see if Clarkson can rebound after a rough campaign in 2013-14 and if Kozun can continue his impressive play beyond the pre-season. That statement leads us into the next point — we are once again asking ourselves if the Maple Leafs roster is deep enough to actually do some damage.

Maple Leafs
James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel will need to be just as dynamic this season as they were last (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Based off how the team looks on paper, they are not deep enough. As we saw last season, van Riemsdyk and Kessel create a powerful duo, but unless any combination of Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, Brandon Kozun and David Clarkson can create some magic all while staying healthy, Leaf fans may be in for a long season offensively.

There is, of course, the back-end. We have already spoken of Robidas and, as mentioned above, Roman Polak is a talented defenceman, albeit not any better of a fit than Carl Gunnarsson was in previous seasons. Neither will provide Dion Phaneuf with the relief he badly needs; Phaneuf often finds himself taking much flak for the Leafs’ defensive woes when numbers have proven in the past that all he needs is less playing time. How do you give him less playing time? By bringing in reliable support who can take over a portion of his current minutes.

With no disrespect directed at Phaneuf, the Maple Leafs’ defence this season relies on three youngsters: Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and rookie Stuart Percy, at least until Cody Franson returns. The latter of those three has never appeared in an NHL regular season or playoff game. While Gardiner and Rielly have both shown promise, we all know how to feel about the prospect of the world’s largest hockey market relying on the shoulders of  24-, 20- and 21-year-olds.

Luckily for the Maple Leafs and their fans, the goaltending duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer remains. Together, they form one of the strongest tandems in the entire league. Unluckily, goaltending is one of the only positives coming out of training camp.

The Toronto Maple Leafs succeeded in not handing out overzealous contracts during the summer months, but team management failed to secure what the Maple Leafs need to succeed and are therefore primed for one of two things: a third consecutive collapse or an all-around dreadful season.