Leafs Need an Ice Magnet

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 21) — Let’s not be mistaken. The Toronto Maple Leafs will ultimately succeed in their hunt for a new general manager and coach. There are only 60–such jobs available in the National Hockey League, and this city — for all its craziness — is still an attractive place to work and live. So, the person (or persons) hired by club president Brendan Shanahan will likely arrive with an appropriate resume.

At the moment, however, the Leafs can offer only marginal tangibility.

Without question, money is a non–issue; Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will open the vault to attract a GM and coach. Beyond that, it is nebulous. There’s a promise in place… that ownership is committed to building the hockey club prudently and conventionally; without apparent time constraint. “However long it takes,” was the recurring theme of Shanahan’s end–of–season address to the media last week. But, this is widely open to question for a number of reasons — not the least of which is MLSE co–owner Rogers Communications’ need for a competitive Maple Leafs team to drive digital content and TV ratings.

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DOES BRENDAN SHANAHAN HAVE ENOUGH “ATTRACTION” TO LURE THE TOP GM AND COACHING CANDIDATES THIS OFF–SEASON TO THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS?

In a tumultuous week, Rogers blamed a first–quarter profit recession of 17 percent from a year ago largely (according to the Globe and Mail) on “lackluster broadcast revenues from mid–season hockey games.” The architect of the company’s 12–year, $5.2–billion commitment to the NHL for national TV rights — Keith Pelley — left to run the European Golf Tour. Some suggest he jumped before being pushed. With the declining Canadian dollar, there appears to be much trepidation in the media arm of Rogers. Another lifeless, embarrassing Leafs team will do nothing to boost the bottom line — equally important to the communications giant as it was to the hockey club’s previous majority owner: the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. So, we cannot be at all certain that composure and restraint will abound in an already fractious MLSE boardroom.

Most disconcerting, however, to a potential GM and/or coach would have to be the current Maple Leafs roster — comprised of several tantalizing youngsters, but devoid of an anchor. The club’s top players — Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul (all lavishly compensated) — have proven incapable of offering leadership and direction. Altering the structure of the hockey team will be difficult, given the bloated, drawn–out contracts of the aforementioned and a league salary cap that threatens to decline by nearly $2 million per team next season. As such, there is no element of attraction for a credentialed manager or coach — neither in the short term nor foreseeable future, if Shanahan’s indefinite timeline prevails.

What the Leafs sorely need is an ice “magnet” — at least one player around which the club can justifiably build. A player that can entice and captivate. Morgan Rielly is an excellent piece but not yet a cornerstone. No other member of the current team qualifies. Though the Leafs have employed a revolving door of coaches and managers in the post–1967 era, not since 1992 has the club been in such an analogous situation.

After more than a decade of turmoil and dissent under Harold Ballard (who died in April 1990), the Leafs recaptured credibility by luring Cliff Fletcher away from Calgary as GM. In 1991–92, Fletcher’s first season, the Leafs were a sorry bunch, compiling a 10–25–5 record in their first 40 games. Incumbent coach Tom Watt was nobody’s fool, but Fletcher had bigger ideas. He engineered what is still the most extensive swap (10 players) in NHL history and acquired Doug Gilmour from Calgary. In the prime of his Hall–of–Fame career, Gilmour registered 49 points during Toronto’s last 40 games and the Leafs improved by 17 points (20–18–2) in the second half — narrowly missing the playoffs. Gilmour was undeniably the anchor the club needed and he served as a “magnet” when one of the NHL’s premier coaches, Pat Burns, became available from Montreal. Understanding he had a true on–ice centerpiece — a player through whom he could confidently impart his message — Burns joined Fletcher and the Leafs mere hours after the Canadiens let him go.

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DOUG GILMOUR IN 1991–92 — HIS FIRST SEASON WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS.

There is no–such enticement with the current Toronto club. Coming off one of the most dreadful seasons in team history, the Maple Leafs are, in fact, hamstrung by their “best” players — none of whom remotely possess what Gilmour supplied more than 23 years ago. Todd McLellan is on the market. Mike Babcock could follow. It is difficult to believe that money alone will prevent such highly–touted figures from seeking opportunity elsewhere. It doesn’t guarantee the Leafs will be left to approach third and fourth–choice candidates, but it makes it more likely.

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3 comments on “Leafs Need an Ice Magnet

  1. I’m not convinced every top candidate prefers to jump back into a pressure cooker like they’d find in Boston or Pitt, where winning is expected immediately. Perhaps the allure of better money, longer term and a two-year honeymoon phase before the pressure starts to ramp up might prove enticing? If we can take MLSE at its word, the new hires would be given time to remake the team in their image, and jettison the sad sacks that currently comprise the “core”.

  2. As you have so eloquently said, Howard, it’s bad…
    and in fact it may be even worse than bad…
    Maybe Shanahan should be his own GM and a good coach like
    Ted Nolan (look what he was able to do with Buffalo’s losers ) should coach for a couple of years…

  3. Always makes my day to see an article from you Howard.

    The current group of core players doesn’t come close to delivering what Gilmour did COLLECTIVELY let alone on an individual basis.

    As for the willingness of MLSE to see this version of a proper rebuild through; I think this time they will. If only because they have tangible and expensive evidence as to the cost of impatience. The amount of actual dollars they are spending on WAAAY inflated long-term contracts for 2nd tier (or worse) players, failed free agent signing Clarkson, bought out contractual mistakes or dismissed executives is staggering and likely is a source of embarrassment for the organization. They can’t afford any more shortcuts because it comes strait off the bottom line.

    Everything has a limit, even MLSEs pile of money.

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