Debating the Leafs — Two Weeks Later


TORONTO (July 10) — Where on Earth did time go?

As I was penning the headline to this blog, I nearly wrote, “Debating the Leafs — One Week Later.” Then it hit me: The Connor McDavid draft gathering in Florida was already a fortnight ago. I imagine it’s another aspect of growing older. The clock does tick faster… or so it seems.

In any event, I received a call today out of the blue from a person everyone in the game knows, but is neither in the media nor affiliated with any of the 30 National Hockey League clubs. I hadn’t spoken to this man since last summer and we caught up on the blower for nearly 45 minutes. Our conversation quickly turned to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the events of the past couple of weeks — the 2015 draft in Sunrise and the trade, on July 1, of Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Though he’s open to all possibilities, my friend wasn’t impressed with the Leafs’ selection of London center Mitch Marner, fourth overall.

“Toronto had an opportunity to draft one of two potentially franchise defenceman and took a small forward,” he began, referring to Noah Hanifin (drafted fifth by Carolina) and Ivan Provorov (seventh by Philadelphia). “I like Mitch Marner and think he has a chance to become a top NHL forward. But, let’s say he develops into another Patrick Kane. Where would Kane and the [Chicago] Blackhawks be without Duncan Keith? We saw it through the playoffs — Keith is the guy that everything on that team evolves from. And, on a contender, it almost always has to be that way… coming from the blue line. What made Toronto’s choice even more puzzling to me is that Mike Babcock pushed hard for [the team to draft] a defenceman. As would any coach of a rebuilding club.”



In that regard, my friend was preaching to the choir.

As I often spoke about during my years on radio at The FAN–590 — and as I’ve written numerous times in this corner — Stanley Cup winners almost exclusively possess at least one Norris Trophy–caliber defenceman. We can go back 45 years to Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. Then move forward with the Big 3 of the Canadiens — Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe. To Denis Potvin and the New York Islanders; Paul Coffey and the Edmonton Oilers; Coffey and Larry Murphy of the 1991–1992 Pittsburgh Penguins; Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer of New Jersey’s championship teams; Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit; Drew Doughty of Los Angeles… and Keith of the Blackhawks.

There have been exceptions: The Philadelphia Stanley Cups of 1974 and 1975 were won by Bernie Parent in goal. The 1990 Edmonton Oilers no longer had Coffey. Patrick Roy won the 1993 championship for Montreal. As he did for Colorado in 1996. The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes were hardly stacked on the blue line. But, that’s it.

Seven deviations in 45 years.

Even the non–dynasty Cup teams have been endowed with at least one Norris Trophy type: Al MacInnis and Gary Suter on the 1989 Calgary Flames; Brian Leetch on the 1994 New York Rangers; Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov on the 1999 Dallas Stars; Rob Blake and Raymond Bourque on the 2001 Colorado Avalanche; Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger on the 2007 Anaheim Ducks; Kris Letang on the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and big Zdeno Chara on the 2011 Boston Bruins. I’m not suggesting, of course, that a Norris defender can win a Stanley Cup alone — as occasionally can a goaltender — but it’s nearly certain that a team will not prevail without at least one–such commodity.

The Leafs, as we know, aren’t close to being a championship — or maybe even a playoff — team. Nor would they be in the short term had they drafted either Hanifin or Provorov. It is also understood that Hanifin and Provorov must prove themselves worthy of their draft potential before we lop them in among the blue–liners of Stanley Cup lore. But, it will be interesting to see how the Leafs develop over the next three or four years in relation to the Hurricanes and Flyers. And, if Toronto’s choice to by–pass defense in the 2015 draft becomes a long–term factor.

Also to be answered: Do the Maple Leafs already have a Norris Trophy contender in Morgan Rielly? And, if so, would it not have been wise to pair him with a second blue–liner of such potential? We shall see.



As for trading Kessel, my friend was fully on–side with the decision but wondered if the issue involved player or team here in Toronto.

“Kessel was fat and out of shape last season and did not play close to his ability. But, I often felt he was poorly cast by the Leafs. He is not a leader and will never be a leader. What he needs is what I think he’ll have in Pittsburgh — a buffer; a supporting cast of three established players [Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang] into which he can assimilate. Without needing to be the guy — which he was in Toronto when [Brian] Burke acquired him and after [David] Nonis signed him to that extension. Kessel hadn’t played to a level worthy of [an $8 million cap hit] for eight years. He was simply the Leafs’ best forward — which may not be saying a whole lot. I’ve also wondered how possible it was for him to stay motivated last year with a team that had no chance and decided to make moves for the future. Kessel is only human.”

Which may have answered my devils’ advocate question: Didn’t the Leafs fail largely as a result of Kessel’s indifference?

“It doesn’t matter in which order you put it,” replied my friend. “Either way, the Leafs weren’t good enough and Kessel had too much of the onus on him from the first game he played in Toronto. They had to trade him and they did. I think, into a much better situation.”

So, was my friend suggesting Fast Phil will not continue to be the wildly streaky goal producer he was in Toronto… and in Boston, beforehand? “I can’t predict that but I’ll tell you this: Every goal he scores for Pittsburgh will be more important than virtually any goal he scored for the Leafs. With the Penguins, if Kessel has a dry spell, others will likely fill the void. And, Pittsburgh is a much–better team than Toronto. As such, all of Kessel’s goals — however many he scores — will be more significant.”

Let the games begin — in three months.





12 comments on “Debating the Leafs — Two Weeks Later

  1. A lot of people disagree with your buddy, Howard. You could have chosen to talk with many who loved the Marner pick. Typical negativity of anything Leafs.
    The rebuild isn’t done at all. They’ll get a top pick next season and already have what appears to be two first rounders.
    Marner’s skill is elite.

  2. Everyone is entitled to an opinion but it should be based on some kind of analysis. The fact is that forwards are much easier to project at the draft than defencemen. Your choice of Dunacan Keith to illustrate the value of a franchise defenceman actually undermines your argument since he was picked nowhere near the first round. Lidstrom, arguably the best defender since Bobby Orr, was a third round selection. Because defenders develop more slowly, their future value is harder to predict than forwards’. It therefore makes perfect sense to go for a winger who would be a candidate for first overall in any other year and hope to acquire the franchise altering defender with a later pick.

    1. Hanifin and Provorov may have been No. 1-worthy in other years as well. Don’t care where Keith and Lidstrom were picked. Their worthiness as NHL players is all that matters. Small forwards are a dime-a-dozen by comparison. But, it sounds like you buy into everything the Leafs do. So, why argue? Right?

  3. Toronto seems to scout out of London more than most.
    Marner’s a better player than he’s been rated at, that’ll show up quick if he’s supported. Then his value will he higher than the available D picks.

  4. Erik Johnson, #1 overall. Jack Johnson, #3 overall. Duncan Keith, 54th overall. So much for your friend’s opinion. Provorov could take his marbles and go home at any time he becomes unhappy. As for Kessel, addition by subtraction. Babcock & Shanahan have publicly said the right things but privately my guess is that they had zero respect for the way Kessel approached the game, regardless of how much he is paid.

  5. With the amount of armchair experts in Toronto media now it would make no difference which player the Leafs picked. Had they gone with Hanifin the anti-American crowd would be shouting from the rooftops. The Leafs have been roundly criticized for ignoring Ontario talent so now that they draft a skilled, local kid they are being criticized. Might as well draft the player you know!

  6. I’d be interested in seeing an article on the history of the draft pertaining to Top Defenceman. i.e. When in the draft top calibre dman you mentioned were picked and others that busted.

    Seems to me that there may be more “early busts” for dman than forwards. I think the Leafs are thinking they can find a gem in later rounds and couldn’t pass up on the talent and potential of Marner

  7. Also…the draft is daft…a crap shoot…as statistics tell us…no one can know what a teenager will become as an adult…look at me…LOL !!

  8. Anyone can predict…especially anonymously …I predict Kessel will fail in Pittsburgh …why? the habits he picked up in Toronto…
    BTW…I would love to see what the Leafs would happen if Stamkos expressed the desire to move north…

  9. What if Hanifin turns into another Luke Schenn? I remember Burke saying Schenn was so good he was unmoveable and that was at age 21. Pretty hard to know how good Hanifin will actually be at age 18 and the same goes for Marner but maybe Hunter knows a little more than your friend.

    I’ll bet money Hunter knows a lot more than Craig Button who had Marner at 4, Provorov at 5 and Hanifin at 12 in Craigs’s Final List.

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