The vultures are circling on what seems to be the dead carcass of a Toronto Maple Leafs team that’s stinking up the joint. Respected pundits have weighed in their belief that the organization must make some moves. What do they believe? Is it time to blow up the team, including the foundational ideas upon which it was created?
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at what commentators are suggesting and how the team – players and management – is responding.
What Do the Hockey Pundits Suggest?
Chris Johnston’s Comments
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reviewed the Maple Leafs situation the day after the team was eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He noted that, at first, he believed the “Shanaplan” made sense – at least on paper. President Brendan Shanahan’s philosophy is based on icing an overwhelming number of offensive talent that focuses on controlling the puck in the offensive zone.
Johnston seems to have recanted his faith in that system and wonders if Shanahan’s philosophy – especially in a time of salary cap restraints – has a fatal flaw; if the plan is a boat, there’s a hole in the bottom (my words, not Johnston’s). Meaning, the team’s defence has been “second rate” (his words).
Johnston’s critique is fair but hardly new. He also admitted that the defence took a huge hit to the back of the head when Jake Muzzin was injured late in Game 2.
Elliotte Friedman’s Comments
Friedman noted that, although he doesn’t believe general manager Kyle Dubas is ready to abandon his plan and might let the offseason pass without fundamental changes, the team might be forced into drastic moves. Friedman believes that, in a perfect world, Dubas would give his big four players another chance to seek the Stanley Cup.
Friedman pointed to the team’s three 5v5 goals during the entire series against the Blue Jackets; and, similar to Johnston, points to a suspect defense which is might lose key members, Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie. Then, Friedman noted that the flat cap won’t make them easy to replace. In other words, these issues can’t be ignored.
Friedman believes there will be a long conversation within the brain trust as to whether the “the plan” should remain “the plan.” Specifically, on a Writers Bloc podcast on FAN590 earlier this week, he said the team might make a bold move to trade Mitch Marner for some help on defense. Interestingly, he doesn’t think Marner alone would be enough to trade for a defenseman like the Blue Jackets’ Seth Jones. Friedman believes adding a draft pick would be needed.
By the way, Johnston and Friedman are two of the best hockey thinkers and are far from alone in their criticism. Maple Leafs fans are upset about another playoff failure and are demanding more. In short, Johnston and Friedman believe Dubas might be forced to make a move whether he wants to or not.
How Did the Maple Leafs Reply?
There are two great things about hockey: one is that games are dramatic and exciting; two is that fans and commentators care enough to constantly converse about what they care about. As a result, criticism offers opportunities for the criticized to respond. Yesterday, members of the Maple Leafs did just that. What did they say?
Shanahan has faith in his general manager and his coach. As the team’s President, he was clear: “I have complete faith in Kyle as a general manager, in Sheldon [Keefe] as a coach and complete confidence in what we’re going to do here in Toronto.”
Shanahan added: “I think our potential for growth is even greater than it was a couple years ago. I’m absolutely confident that we’re going to be determined to get it done. You just have to go to work.”
He specifically noted, “We’ve identified and seen some of the things that are deficient in our group. We’ve been around long enough now where we’ve seen them, and we want to make those improvements. This is a results business, and we’re determined to get those results.”
Such comments suggest that we shouldn’t expect to see organizational, coaching, or major personnel changes during the offseason. Shanahan is doubling down and hopes that, with a little luck and some wise player decisions, the team will finish stronger next season.
Kyle Dubas’ Thoughts
Dubas understands the derision. However, on Wednesday, he strongly defended his players and the organization’s process. When asked if it was possible he’d misread the potential of the Maple Leafs’ core group of players, he simply responded, “No.”
He added: “It’s not a dream, in terms of how we can play because we showed it multiple times throughout this year. Just the fact that we could not do it as often as required to reach our potential would be the most disappointing factor from my end.”
Dubas responded to criticism that he’s stubbornly built a team in one way and that he’ll stick to that vision regardless. He responded, “You all think I have one way of going about things and that it’s never changing. The vision for me is always changing.”
Auston Matthews’ Thoughts
Auston Matthews believes the Maple Leafs might be out of this season’s bubble, but they’re right on the bubble going forward. I think his voice is more powerful than either Shanahan’s or Dubas’.
Matthews spent considerable time responding. “The perception of how things are going or how the team’s been perceived outside the locker room may be a lot different than what we believe in,” he said. “Obviously, the results of the playoffs and what not (sic) haven’t shown. But with the players we have on this team and the core group that we have – being together for four years now – we really believe we are right there.”
He added, “And I gotta be honest, we don’t really care what other people think, or how far away other people think we are, or the article they’re going to write about all the things that we need. I think we believe in our management and in our staff and in the players on this team and in this organization that we’re going to power through this adversity and we’re going to break through eventually.”
Of note, he referred to the team as “we”, so he’s clearly speaking for the team who must have discussed the recent criticism against the organization. It also gives readers a sense that the players are angry and have a chip on their collective shoulders. That can’t be a bad thing going into next season.
What About Expectations?
Clearly, there will be changes within the organization. However, the changes fans and hockey commentators believe should happen are probably not shared by the organization. On the face of it, and within a week of the team’s elimination from the 2020 Stanley Cup hunt, those hoping for change will probably remain unhappy.
It’s interesting to see a Maple Leafs organization that sticks to its guns, and probably expecting anything else would be folly. It’s also interesting that, if I’ve read the tone correctly, the team is developing an attitude. Perhaps that’s not so bad.
Skill is one thing; experience is another. Is attitude the missing ingredient?