Leaf Players Are Stealing Money

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 10) – Late in Thursday’s game at Raleigh, N.C. – as his team was being demolished for a third consecutive night – Toronto Maple Leafs general manager David Nonis was shown on Sportsnet fiddling with his mobile device and looking ashen. This could not have been what Nonis expected upon locking up his two big guns – Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf – for the next seven seasons at a combined $15 million cap gouge per year.

Not even close.

You can blame Randy Carlyle all you want for the Maple Leafs angled nosedive since November – and I’ve done my share of it. At some point, however, accountability has to shift from the conductor to the musicians. And, the Maple Leafs are horribly out of tune. Kessel and Phaneuf – the anointed orchestra-leaders – are nowhere to be found right now. James van Riemsdyk, having performed steadily through much of the schedule, is also missing in action. David Clarkson, for whatever reason, hasn’t shown up. Only Joffrey Lupul and a well-rested Tyler Bozak are breaking a sweat among the Leafs’ big-money men.

And, it doesn’t even border on acceptable.

MAPLE LEAFS HAVE BEEN TOO-EASILY SHOVED ASIDE THIS WEEK, AS EVIDENCED THURSDAY NIGHT IN RALEIGH, N.C. BY MANNY MALHOTRA ON CARL GUNNARSSON. GRANT HALVERSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

When Maple Leafs are foundering, the nature of the Toronto hockey beast is to get out the scalpel and dissect. Theories abound and calls for a “shake-up” intensify. That isn’t going to happen here; certainly not before the Mar. 5 National Hockey League trade deadline and not likely on that date either. Too much of a salary-cap hit – $37.95 million for two seasons after this – has been committed to a nucleus of seven players (Kessel, Phaneuf, Clarkson, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Tim Gleason). The contracts of 12 other current Maple Leafs – Dave Bolland, Nikolai Kulemin, Jay McClement, Mason Raymond, Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton, Trevor Smith, Cody Franson, Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer – must also be renewed before next season.

Not all of them will be retained, but roster spots have to be filled.

This is not going to be a new team by the beginning of next week.

Nor should it have to be.

Yes, the Leafs have inherent flaws – clearly more than we anticipated prior to the season. There’s enough top-end skill for the club to threaten on most nights. Goaltending – though abysmal the past week – is solid. The mixture, however, seems poisonous. For all the talk about “great guys in the room,” the Leafs are miscreants when the puck is dropped. And, that’s where Carlyle enters the picture. It was at his behest that Nonis off-loaded a pair of good players and solid citizens – Clarke MacArthur and John-Michael Liles – while some needless penny-pinching last summer cost the team another vital component: Leo Komarov. That old “chemistry” thing isn’t working in their absence.

The current crop appears to have increasingly tuned out Carlyle, but you have to wonder if these players would tune out the Concorde. It seems that no amount of noise is too much for the Maple Leafs to ignore right now. At some point, a person wearing full equipment has to stand up and lead the club onto the ice; has to say whatever words are required for the team to put forth at least modicum effort. The over-used term is “leadership.” Without it, money wasted on this group will exceed the gross national profit of a small nation.

Like almost every year since 1967, there is no quick fix for the Maple Leafs. Don’t go looking for one. You’ll be disappointed. Firing the coach in mid-stream (or late-stream) has proven the equivalent of closing a surgical wound with a band-aid. Just ask Carlyle and he’ll tell you how much he “enjoyed” assuming control from Ron Wilson a year ago March. And though I maintain that Carlyle will not survive a playoff absence this spring, neither should he take the bullet for the Maple Leafs’ total lack of commitment and character this week.

That falls on the players.

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