The current Leafs team has faced a lot of scrutiny. Toronto fans love to blame and this blame has shifted to players from week to week with common scapegoats being: James Reimer, Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and Nazem Kadri, or now former coach Randy Carlyle. The Leafs, I believe, aren’t losing because of any of these players, however, but a player that they don’t have and may even not exist. This isn’t a problem that’s specific to any one player (or his replacement) but rather for a GM (and a President) to solve.
The Current State
The Leafs are a skilled team that, when healthy, have two or maybe even three good lines. The quality of these players should be sufficient to ensure a playoff spot for the foreseeable future. Having said that, there are obvious deficiencies: a defense that allows far too many shots, lack of a star first line center, and a contentious goaltending situation. While this may preclude them from being the top team in a conference or division, it should still mean a reasonable amount of consistency and a playoff spot in any given year.
In the wake of the Carlyle firing, Phil Kessel seems to oddly be taking the bulk of the criticism. There have been calls for trades, total rebuilds, etc. but these all show a lack of understanding of how to build a hockey team. The fact of the matter is, Phil Kessel is an elite NHL player, and trading him isn’t going to get the Leafs any further ahead. What IS actually missing is a player that fosters desire and cohesion in a team. It should be Dion Phaneuf, but it just isn’t. It seems like David Clarkson would love to be that player – but he isn’t either. That’s why it up to Nonis, Shanahan, and the coaching staff to figure out who that player is or if he even exists. For the time being, I actually think it is Phil Kessel that’s keeping the team together, but that’s not really his role.
Who is it?
The player that I have in mind is, probably unsurprisingly, a Wendel Clark type. The type of player that works hard every night, has leadership ability, can score a big goal, and can grab the team by the collar and say “Let’s go”. Not all teams need this, but teams that are mediocre-ly skilled, young, and perhaps just seem a bit disjointed, do.
It’s my contention, that until the Leafs find this player, we’ll see much of the same. A rebuild won’t fix it. Trading Phil Kessel won’t fix it. Even shoring up the goalie problem won’t necessarily fix it. This problem will actually require some thought by Nonis and the Leafs decision-makers, and might even require a few tries and misses, but it has to happen or Leafs fans can expect much of the same in the coming years.