Measured Leaf Thoughts

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 31) – Understandably, people who subscribe to the Toronto Maple Leafs as one would a religion are ticked off right now – and, therefore, emotional rather than rational. 

This is found in the number of Internet Leaf supporters that want the current team “blown up” and re-shaped from top to bottom. Detonating the Leafs is fine, so long as the club ceases to exist. Otherwise, it would have to be “put together” again before next season – with barely a five-month turnaround. It is imperative, then, to look at the team and its current struggle in a measured tone, which I’ll attempt to do in this blog.

Let’s begin with the obvious: There is no way to gloss over the eight-game losing streak that has all but eliminated Maple Leafs from the Stanley Cup playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons. A balanced, well-structured team with character and resolve doesn’t fall apart at the most critical juncture of the schedule. If it loses a couple of meaningful games, it has the underpinning to recover. This team clearly does not. And though I maintain the needless aggravation of Jonathan Bernier’s groin injury at Los Angeles, Mar. 13, tipped the scale, it should not have resulted in a total collapse. As such, there are major coaching and personnel issues that must be addressed before next season.

With virtually half the roster up for contract renewal, general manager David Nonis will have many cards to deal. I suspect he’ll be granted that opportunity, though I haven’t a clue what may be swirling through the mind of Tim Leiweke. The Chief Executive Officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment doesn’t strike me as inert, so anything is possible. He did, however, allot Nonis a five-year continuation on July 25 of last summer, stating that “ownership and management felt it was critical to extend David now for a lengthy period of time and to reward him for the progression of the Leafs and Marlies. This extension will allow David the time to build his kind of team [and] to produce steady results, year after year.” Unless Leiweke is being urged to make a change by the tall foreheads at Rogers Communications and Bell Media – MLSE is foremost a business enterprise and will not revel in the sudden loss of playoff income – I presume Leafs management is safe… for the time being.

WILL MLSE CHIEF TIM LEIWEKE STAY TRUE TO THE FIVE-YEAR COMMITMENT HE OFFERED DAVID NONIS LAST JULY? IT LIKELY DEPENDS – IN PART – ON HIS BOSSES: NADIR MOHAMED OF ROGERS COMMUNICATIONS AND GEORGE COPE OF BELL MEDIA. 

That doesn’t minimize the task ahead, nor should it result in knee-jerk reaction. Though it may appear to be in a shambles, the hockey club is not without redeeming quality. Bernier provides a solid foundation; in my view, the best goalie Leafs have deployed since Hall-of-Famer Ed Belfour a decade ago. He is, however, in need of the framework and support that can moderate the club’s dependence on him. And that, to me, is the preeminent challenge for Nonis. Until the Maple Leafs are able to enact a reasonable defensive posture, Bernier will be wasted.

Does such a project require fundamental change or peripheral enhancement? The former would imperil Randy Carlyle and franchise cornerstones Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. The latter would serve to maintain the club’s nucleus. Given the late-season calamity, Toronto hockey zealots are probably leaning toward the fundamental route – as I suggested in my weekend blog. What cannot be ignored, conversely, is how the Carlyle-Kessel-Phaneuf triumvirate has been undermined by the subtraction of “lesser ingredients.” For example, it has long been apparent that the human bullet-train, Leo Komarov, should not have been discarded and may be available for re-hire. Though moderately gifted, Komarov seems to have personified the relentless attitude of the club that scrapped its way into the post-season a year ago. Same with the unassuming Clarke MacArthur, who never provided Leafs a moment of dishonor and whose secondary production has been missed. John-Michael Liles also possessed an intangible Carlyle never appreciated.

In hindsight, there was no benefit to off-loading the aforementioned trio. As the NBA Toronto Raptors may have accidentally proven by trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento for “lesser ingredients,” a proper mix of character and inclination can largely offset the “star” syndrome. That doesn’t eliminate the need for natural ability and Leafs have the requisite amount. Bernier, Kessel, Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and up-and-comer Matt Finn position the club nicely. Talent, therefore, is not an overriding issue. What the Maple Leafs need is structure and there is no easy pathway to it. This is where Nonis will earn his keep.

Again, does the procurement of structure require fundamental change? In other words, a new coaching staff and the expunging of either Kessel or Phaneuf? There is no simple answer. Carlyle won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim but he did so with the incomparable defense tandem – at the time – of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. He’s had no such benefit in Toronto. As mentioned above, however, there is an enviable talent-base here. Has Carlyle mismanaged the current crop or is he simply unable to impart his message? Remember, for 20 games – or roughly a quarter of the NHL schedule – the Leafs were in wonderful shape.

Given my recollection, there were no hunches of impending doom as the club soared to a 14-3-3 record between Jan. 12 and Mar. 10. Whatever ailed Carlyle appeared to be either a myth or generally overstated. Phaneuf was playing his best hockey as captain of the Blue and White.

Out of virtually nowhere – it seems – came the death spiral.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS WERE SOARING AT 14-3-3 IN 20 GAMES AFTER THE FATEFUL NIGHT (ABOVE) OF MAR. 13, WHEN RANDY CARLYLE ALLOWED JONATHAN BERNIER TO PLAY WITH A GROIN INJURY AT LOS ANGELES. THE CLUB HASN’T SINCE GAINED A POINT IN THE STANDINGS. NOAH GRAHAM GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Of course, experts far and wide are now claiming the Leaf demise was inevitable, but that isn’t fair. In my view, a team cannot lose only three of 20 games in regulation time by accident. During the prolonged eruption, Leafs did have structure – certainly enough to mitigate the usual discrepancy in shots on goal. Yes, Bernier was mostly terrific, as need be the stopper of any club. But, there appeared to be balance and a team-wide commitment to building momentum at the most opportune point of the season. Why, then, has it all so thoroughly unraveled?

Embittered Maple Leaf fans look to a paradigm of collapse that began in the waning portion of the Ron Wilson era; continued acutely in the final 13 minutes of Game 7 at Boston last May and is flourishing once again. These people have a valid point. Constant in all of it is the Kessel-Phaneuf tandem. Though Kessel is among the top-dozen gifted performers in hockey, he has no apparent intangible. Phaneuf has been pilloried in this market since Brian Burke acquired him 50 months ago today and soon-after emblazoned a “C” on his blue-and-white jersey. Given the minutes of ice-time he consumes, Phaneuf has also been under-valued. Still, the captain and leader of a hockey club – regardless of compensation – cannot fade as Dion has in the eight-game drought.

My vote, therefore, would be to dissolve the current nucleus. Though I do not revel in the notion of someone losing his or her job, neither is it feasible to retain Carlyle. Additionally, If I’m Dave Nonis, I would pursue every viable option to trade Phaneuf this summer. With a seven-year, $49-million commitment about to kick in, that may seem implausible though I made a point in my weekend blog that I’ll repeat here: Had the Leafs not ponied up for Phaneuf, up to half-a-dozen teams would have thrown similar money and term at him as an unrestricted free agent this July. As such, I don’t believe his contract is unmovable. Neither do I believe Nonis should command a king’s ransom for Phaneuf. In Morgan Rielly, the Leafs have a young stud that can easily accrue the minutes Dion appropriated. Give the team to Rielly and see what happens.

I would also vehemently caution Nonis to the peril of abandoning youthful talent. Kadri, for example, may seem like a perfect trade option right now but I think Leafs would rue such a decision. In my view, Kadri needs a coach he can trust; one that’ll work patiently to help refine his game. Carlyle is not that man and it may not be Carlyle’s fault. It takes two to tango. Dallas Eakins, by comparison, had great success with Kadri in the American Hockey League during the lengthy owners’ shut-down last season. Once the lockout ended, Kadri emerged as a dynamic, nearly point-per-game asset for the Maple Leafs. Clearly, he has lost his way this season. That doesn’t equate to giving up on him.

Same applies, in my opinion, to Gardiner and Cody Franson. The latter has also regressed in 2013-14 and is now deemed to be “slow” and “immobile.” But, he looked pretty damned good against Boston in the playoffs last spring. While yearning for the quick fix, Leafs have forever yielded prospects and draft choices. Despite the bitter disappointment fans are experiencing right now, that has to change.

Make no mistake, Nonis has a big job ahead of him. Leiweke understood that building the Maple Leafs would not be an overnight venture; thus the five-year contract he awarded his GM last summer. In the midst of a gut-wrenching though largely unforeseen tumble, everyone involved should take a deep breath; understand where the club is right now; and neither react emotionally nor idly accept what has happened.

Believe it or not, there is an answer to the Toronto hockey conundrum.

MARLIES DOING JUST FINE

Maybe the Leafs should try developing players for the Marlies, rather than the other way around. Under first-year coach Steve Spott, Toronto’s American Hockey League club is again flourishing atop the North Division with a 41-20-6 record for 86 points. With my son, Shane, I ducked inside Ricoh Coliseum amid beautiful weather on Sunday to catch the Marlies in action against Abbotsford Heat. After falling behind 3-1 early in the second period, Marlies roared back to win the game, 6-4. I had my trusty Nikon with me – before, during and after:  

RICOH COLISEUM – HOME OF THE MARLIES – IS HARD BY THE PRINCES’ GATE (BOTTOM-LEFT) ON THE GROUNDS OF THE CANADIAN NATIONAL EXHIBITION.

WEARING THROWBACK UNIFORMS FROM THE 1970’s AND 80’s, THE MARLIES CAME BACK TO UPEND ABBOTSFORD – THE CALGARY FLAMES’ AHL AFFILIATE.

OLD-TIME MARLIES-TURNED-LEAFS ? ON THE COLISEUM FACADE.

AS MENTIONED, IT WAS A SPECTACULAR EARLY-SPRING DAY HERE IN TORONTO…

… AND A BEAUTIFUL EVENING AT HOME NEAR YONGE AND EGLINTON.

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