The Maple Leafs have gone off the rails of craziness and dysfunction.
Sitting Morgan Rielly as a healthy scratch? Sitting Jake Gardiner as a healthy scratch? Giving Nazem Kadri less ice time than the inferior Tyler Bozak? Starting James Reimer in back-to-back games? What is going on with this team and why?
I thought it was a good thing when the Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan. I remember his opening press conference where he dismissed talk about leadership and culture as “things you only talk about when you’re losing,” basically saying what smart people have said for years: those things are meaningless abstractions that have no basis in reality and which cannot be measured or quantified in anyway.
When I heard Shanahan dismiss that stuff, when I heard him talking about listening to people and having an open mind – basically saying the Leafs were going to move into the 21st Century and operate under an umbrella of critical thinking, I was impressed.
When he hired Kyle Dubas, I was impressed. When he hired Cam Charon, declared there would be an analytics department, fired Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, I was impressed. When he hired Dale Hunter, you guessed it: Impressed.
But what’s the deal with leaving Nonis and Carlyle to twist in the wind, their authority usurped but still with the two most coveted titles in sports management: Coach and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs? This, to my eye, is having a negative effect on the team right now.
The Problem As I See It
While Nonis and Carlyle retain their titles, it remains to be seen how much authority they have. They had their assistants fired. Nonis went from having carte blanche to having a boss. Neither man seems to have had any say in the hiring of their assistants. As Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter is now in charge of the draft.
So, if I have this correctly: The Leafs GM must get approval to make a trade, he isn’t in charge of drafting or development and his assistants report directly to his boss? If true, what exactly is Nonis’ job? To be uncomfortable at press conferences?
If Nonis and Carlye do not have the authority to run the team as they see fit, then why are they being retained? If they do have some autonomy, can two guys who are – if you look at the situation in the most positive of lights, from their perspective – coaching and managing for their jobs be trusted to run the team in a way that is best for its long-term viability?
The pressure those two are under to win and keep their jobs must be unreal. If that is the case, aren’t they liable to make short-term decisions that are not best for the club’s long-term future?
You know, like the time the Leafs didn’t want the embarrassment of being the team that traded the draft pick that was Eric Lindros, so they made even more short-term decisions and only being the team that traded away Scott Niedermayer instead.
It seems obvious to me that this is what is happening. It began when the Leafs first benched Jake Gardiner (who, despite what the clowns on TV say, is only thought of so negatively because you notice the glaring errors that lead to goals and do not notice the dozens of smart, smaller profile plays he makes every game) and continued last night when they benched Morgan Reilly. It happens every time they start future Jets goalie James Reimer.
If the Leafs were a team who I thought was capable of competing for anything more than the eighth seed and the right to get crushed by Tampa or Pittsburgh in the opening round, I would think differently. But they aren’t. So what if sitting out Jake Gardiner does give you a better chance to win tonight? Long-term you need him to play as much as possible and even if he does cost you a game, you still win in the long run. The Leafs, until they go out and acquire a legitimate first line centre and a top pairing defensemen, have no chance of winning the Cup or even really, competing for it.
As such, especially with new management and a chance to start over with a clean slate, the team needs to have a defined goal. Is that goal to compete now? If so, move out a couple players, use some future assets and build around what they have. If that’s the case, once those players are acquired and then I have no problem with dressing the six best defensemen as defined by the coach.
If, however, the team is not about to add a couple of major pieces, then this season needs to be about development. That means that Bernier starts 60 games. It means that you win or you lose with Gardiner, Percy and Reilly, no matter what. It means Kadri and Holland get between 15-20 minutes every game and that they play on the power-play.
The Leafs can afford to make a few changes and try to compete now. They can afford to be patient and hope to build a perennial contender. What they can’t afford to do is exactly what Carlyle’s insane roster choices and Shanahan’s indecision are leading them to be, and what they’ve been for almost a decade: a team that is not good enough to win and not bad enough to draft high.
The way the team is operating right now is completely dysfunctional. Shanahan, based on his words and his progressive hires, is building a team that is the polar opposite to the Nonis/Carlyle vision. To leave those two in place while time is wasted and opportunities are lost is, frankly, mind-boggling.
I want to know what Shanahan is thinking. I want to know why it’s OK with him for his coach to act counter to the organization’s plan and act like winning now is the ultimate goal? I can’t blame Carlyle for coaching this way, but that is why he needs to be fired. A coach with assurances that he will still be the coach in three years despite this season’s record will have the motivation to develop players. Why should Carlyle care if Kadri develops when he sure as hell won’t be here to see it through?
By having a coach and GM who are running counter to the long-term plans of the organization is not a good idea. To leave them there and allow them to healthy scratch the future of your franchise is just incomprehensible. The whole thing is in disarray.
I trust Shanahan to be a good team president. He’s thoughtful and smart and he knows to listen to people when they are smart. But I have to question why he is allowing this gong-show to continue. He has two options as I see it:
1. Call a press conference and announce that Nonis and Carlyle are here to stay, that the team’s goal is to win now and moves to address the glaring holes at top-line C and D will be immediately made.
2. Call a press conference and announce that Dale Hunter and Peter Horachek (or whoever, those are the obvious choices, but it could be anyone) are the new coach and GM of the Leafs and that the focus of this year will be on development and that trades to expedite the process will soon follow.
What he can’t do is continue to allow this dysfunction to fester. Is the team trying to win now? Is the ultimate goal of the league’s most storied franchise to just make the playoffs and that’s it? How he can let another game go by while watching the coach he didn’t hire sit the future of the franchise in the press-box?
He can’t, but it’s already 4:00 PM Friday, and I’ve never heard of a coach being canned before a Saturday game, so the smart money says he will. Who knows, maybe the Leafs will call up Colton Orr in time for tomorrow’s game so they can make Nazem Kadri a healthy scratch. It sure wouldn’t surprise me at this point.
The train wreck continues.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.