Leafs Ice-Level Direction Must Change

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 9) – Having missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight of nine springs, the genius of Issac Newton, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin would unlikely be sufficient remedy for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Franklin, at least, knew how to generate a bolt of electricity and if any pro sports team on Earth requires shock treatment, it’s your beloved Blue and White.

This will not happen at the highest level. Success or failure, it is said, begins at the top but you can be sure that Guy Laurence, George Cope, Larry Tanenbaum, Tim Leiweke and David Nonis are – for the time being – immune to change. The first three, of course, combine to own 100 percent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment: Laurence the grand poobah at Rogers Communications (37.5%); Cope at Bell Canada (37.5%) and Tanenbaum at Kilmer Group (25%).

A monstrous salary hauled Leiweke east from Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) in California, which owns and/or operates (among other enterprises) the Los Angeles Kings; Los Angeles Lakers, Staples Center, the Oakland Coliseum, Consol Energy Center (home of the Pittsburgh Penguins), Barclays Center (soon-to-be home of the New York Islanders) and American Airlines Arena (home of the two-time NBA-champion Miami Heat). Leiweke had been replaced at AEG by Dan Beckerman but maintains a 4% stake in the company; his imprint will be all over Leafs for years to come. And Nonis, the Leafs GM, is also likely safe, given the five-year contract extension he received from Leiweke last summer.

Change, therefore, will be confined to where it is most needed – at ice level. In that regard, Leafs are best served to have a new coach; new captain and new big-minutes leader for the opening face-off in 2014-15.

Randy Carlyle cannot be credibly retained after overseeing the club’s implosion. Neither can a replacement be determined right now; it will largely depend on the league-wide shakedown this summer.

Dion Phaneuf, though an honest, dedicated worker, cannot credibly return as skipper of the doddering boat; his consumption of ice-time best transferred to the team’s emerging boy-wonder, Morgan Rielly. 

“Too soon,” you may suggest for Rielly. But, not if he’s the star-to-be that so many within the game anticipate. He would merely follow a lengthy cast of NHL defense phenoms from Bobby Orr to Denis Potvin to Raymond Bourque to Paul Coffey to Scott Niedermayer to Chris Pronger to Nicklas Lidstrom, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo primed to assume command in their early 20’s. Rielly has demonstrated the requisite poise, skating and puck-handling ability in his rookie season with the Blue and White. All he needs is the mantle. Otherwise, the Maple Leafs are not as terribly positioned as it seems right now. An emotional, knee-jerk assessment of the club would include a large stick of dynamite, but that isn’t the answer. Change in leadership and defensive structure should plug what appears to be a gaping chasm.

AS PROVEN DURING THEIR LATE-SEASON COLLAPSE, THE LEAFS DESPERATELY NEED A CHANGE IN PRIMARY VOICE BEHIND THE BENCH AND ON THE ICE. RANDY CARLYLE AND DION PHANEUF, THEREFORE, SHOULD NOT RETURN IN 2014-15.

Carlyle and Phaneuf have failed abjectly in the leadership role.

The coach either has no defensive game-plan (unlikely); hasn’t the players to execute his plan (perhaps) or cannot efficiently communicate such a system (bingo!). If he returns for next season, it will be on a terribly short leash and, therefore, without integrity. Much better to start anew with a fresh voice and defensive blueprint. The captain has shouldered lopsided blame for the calamitous failure of the group. Such acute inadequacy cannot fall at the skates of one man – regardless of compensation or status. Phaneuf, nonetheless, crumbled in entirety down the stretch and must either be replaced (my choice) or pared of responsibility. His seven-year, $49-million contract – to kick in next October – will be difficult, though not impossible, to move. This objective should be at the apex of off-season consideration for Nonis.

Alternatively, the Maple Leafs have a rock-solid nucleus of talent.

Jonathan Bernier, destructively managed, late in the season, by Carlyle, is a legitimate, No. 1 goalie in the NHL; the best Leafs have deployed in nearly a decade. But, he sorely needs a defensive archetype, one that can limit the unmitigated dependence on him. This will require change behind the bench and on the ice, for the Leafs’ top acquisitions (Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk) were traded largely because they could not defend with their former teams – two of which, Boston and Philadelphia, are solidly in the Stanley Cup hunt this year. Kessel and van Riemsdyk aren’t likely going anywhere, so they must be upheld by a thorough system that curbs disarray in the Toronto zone. 

Other teams can properly affect this; why can’t the Maple Leafs?

In Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, Nazem Kadri and the likely emergence of blue-liner Matt Finn, the Maple Leafs are endowed with youth and skill. All should be retained and given opportunity within a revamped coaching structure. Kessel and Tyler Bozak provide the Leafs terrific front-line chemistry; van Riemsdyk is a solid (if one-dimensional) partner. Other such point-men as Joffrey Lupul and David Clarkson must soul-search in the off-season; both can perform (and have performed) at a much-higher level. Jay McClement; one of Frazer McLaren or Colton Orr; Tim Gleason and Jerry D’Amigo provide decent value.

Given his energy and commitment to detail at both ends of the ice, D’Amigo is worthy of an expanded role. Nikolai Kulemin, Carl Gunnarsson, David Bolland, Mason Raymond and Paul Ranger have all – in my view – played their final games for the Blue and White. An unrestricted free agent, Kulemin will sign elsewhere in the NHL or play in the Kontinental Hockey League. Gunnarsson could be an adjunct to a bigger, off-season trade. Providing he fully recovers from his severed ankle tendon, Bolland (also unrestricted as of July 1) should entertain open-market offers before re-signing here. Raymond and Ranger – though conscientious workers – are fully expendable.

So, the Maple Leafs aren’t entirely in the wilderness. There are many sound components to the hockey club – none of which can thrive in a vacuum of leadership. That’s why Nonis must look beyond Carlyle and Phaneuf – faces of the stretch-drive cataclysm. Leafs are in need of a central makeover, not a top-to-bottom refurbishment. As always, it seems, there is much work to be done between April and October.

Over to you, David N.

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