Are Leafs Better, Different… or Neither?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (July 10) – The question posed in my headline is rhetorical and will probably remain so until the latter portion of next season – which appears to be the time of year the Maple Leafs are most accurately assessed. Given, however, my theory about the team’s incumbent nucleus – and barring an influential trade – I’m tempted, even now, to cash my cheque on “neither.”

That isn’t a criticism of the Blue and White – merely an observation. Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis aimed properly at the underwhelming cast of free agents this summer and filled a bunch of little holes. That’s all the Leafs really could do. The big holes are filled with players that have been documented to perform shabbily in a late-season crisis. And, we’re coming toward what is universally considered to be a “franchise” draft next June in Sunrise, Fla. For years, the Leafs have needed to fall back before they could legitimately move forward. Instead, the club has thrown away draft picks in a futile attempt to achieve its maximum objective: Making the playoffs. No fan in this city needs a reminder of how that strategy has worked in the past decade.

The business element of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has always been in conflict with the hockey element. And somewhat justifiably, given the unconditional support of a crowd that coughs up the highest ticket stipend in the NHL. Brian Burke often spoke befittingly about the company’s obligation to its fans; his abortive attempt to fast-track a competitive team largely inspired by such. That’s why the colloquial concept of “tanking” – if it exists at all – has not been embraced. But, now, the Leafs are starting to get it. The club’s amateur scouting contingent – led by Dave Morrison – is widely respected through the league. Rather than wasting its annual effort, and naturally demoralizing the group, Leafs are hanging onto draft choices and accumulating prospects – trying to build a team the conventional way.

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HOW MIGHT CONNOR McDAVID LOOK IN MAPLE LEAFS BLUE?

This will not happen overnight. Unless it catches some lightning in a bottle – as did the lockout Leafs two years ago – the current roster is more draft worthy than playoff worthy. Leafs are smaller and less experienced at center; slower and more experienced on defense. Jonathan Bernier remains the club’s meal-ticket and we have no idea – right now – which goalie will back him up. James Reimer is under contract for one more year and will pursue arbitration to inflate his $1.6 million salary. Carrying a disgruntled No. 2 stopper would appear to be counterproductive, but the Leafs do have a couple of options. Nonis could sign a third goalie (would Martin Brodeur consent to play for a 33-to-1 Cup long-shot?) or somehow find an appropriate landing spot for Reimer in a trade with virtually no NHL positions available at this time.

Otherwise, the Leafs are pretty much the same and will stay that way – in my view – until the failed nucleus is addressed. At this point, it makes little sense to tinker with the Carlyle-Kessel-Phaneuf triumvirate; inadequate though it is. The addition of another NHL-caliber player – even a good one – will only diminish the Leafs’ drafting post amid a splendid amateur crop. Though it could be painful for die-hard fans to watch, the club is best-served by having the current roster meander its way through the 2014-15 season. There are no quick fixes available and quick-fix attempts have only inhibited the Leafs. This is a good year to take one step back for the purpose of taking many steps forward.

In the strong and deep Western Conference (winner of four of the past five Stanley Cup titles), survival hinges on strength down the middle. Jason Spezza (Dallas) and Brad Richards (Chicago) have joined the likes of Jonathan Toews, Tyler Seguin, Paul Stastny, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Joe Thornton. The Maple Leafs, by comparison, have a one-through-four center contingent of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland and Mike Santorelli. Functional yes; big and deep no. Jay McClement and Dave Bolland have departed the middle position which was suspect even with them on board. The current group appears to be somewhat weaker.

A mitigating factor could well be the 2015 draft, which features a pair of “can’t-miss” centermen at the top. Connor McDavid (Erie OHL) is the best NHL prospect since Sidney Crosby and Jack Eichel (USHL Under-18) is said to be not far behind McDavid. Matthew Barzal (Seattle WHL), Dylan Strome (Erie OHL) and Travis Konecny (Ottawa OHL) are also highly-rated at the center position. Noah Hanifin (USHL Under-17) is an exceptional blue-line prospect. With Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Petter Granberg, Matt Finn, Fredrik Gauthier and 2014 first-rounder William Nylander, the Leafs are finally stockpiling youngsters with possibly a star or two among them. Imagine how the group would look with McDavid, Eichel, Hanifin or any of the other 2015 draft gems.

So, do not fret if the Leafs are agonizingly similar next season. Providing the club does not abandon its current approach, brighter days are in the offing. Shanahan and Nonis are building the tried-and-true way. Finally.

AFTER THE STANLEY CUP

One of these decades, the Leafs will be fortunate enough to publish a media guide as defending Stanley Cup champion. The last time it happened was 1967-68, the year of the Great Expansion when the NHL doubled in size to 12 teams. Here’s how it looked:

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COVER OF THE MAPLE LEAFS 1967-68 MEDIA GUIDE.

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FRONT-COVER FOLD-OUT IN 1967-68.

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INSIDE OF THE FRONT-COVER FOLD-OUT.

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