Answering The Fundamental Question

TORONTO (June 18) — I’ve been asked by several blog readers why I seem particularly down on the Toronto Maple Leafs right now. It’s a fair question, though the concept of being “up” or “down” on a sports team connotes emotional engagement. And, while I will never squander my passion for writing or talking about the Leafs, whether they win or lose games doesn’t affect me… and hasn’t since my earliest time covering the team for The FAN–590.

There is far–too–much cheerleading and subjective involvement today amid those entrusted to follow the club professionally, in electronic and print media. If this corner is therefore worthy of anything, a critical eye governs what is written. As it did what was said about the team during my radio career. Whether or not you approve of it.

My objection toward the Leafs is nothing new, though it was largely exacerbated by the nonchalance of president Brendan Shanahan in the wake of the playoff collapse against Montreal. Through the ups and downs of his proprietorship, Shanahan maintained adaptability and lofty ambition — both of which were demolished by a sudden turn toward inflexibility. If the Leafs of the past half–decade were on trial for lack of playoff performance, even amid the lesser burden of “beyond reasonable doubt”, there’d be ample evidence for conviction. Yet, Shanahan stubbornly disregarded the mountain of proof against his team and vowed to stay the course. “We will get this done,” he assured all those in the absence of rationale; which, sadly, represents most fans of the team and some of those in mainstream media. As such, Brendan hasn’t yet been called out by any person collecting a salary to cover the Leafs. His apathetic remark that the club lacks “killer instinct” was similarly neglected; as if he could alter such a crisis by casting a spell over the players entrenched in long–term salary. Finding a way out of this morass involves an onerous evaluation of the roster and the people that comprised it. Fundamental change is required.

Not some pompous, trivial guarantee that everything is fine… and what we’ve all seen is an illusion.


So, yeah, by the definition of some readers, I’m a little “down” on the Leafs. The reason? Shanahan’s declaration showed that the club is still more–than–happy to exploit the unconditional devotion of its enormous following.

This, you can be sure, will be heightened by a carefully timed announcement that the cost of the National Hockey League’s most–expensive tickets are to increase. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — undoubtedly working on the language of such a memorandum (as if it matters in Corporate Toronto) — will cry poor as a result of lost revenue from the pandemic. No part of the announcement will include that Bell and Rogers, which comprise 75% of MLSE, are among the most–profitable enterprises in North America; that they received a combined $205.2 million in support as part of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) or that both companies abused that gift by laying off countless employees. Neither will it tell you that Larry Tanenbaum, a 25% shareholder in MLSE and a kind, philanthropic man, is among the wealthiest individuals in Toronto; his former company, The Warren Paving & Materials Group Limited, having pored most of the concrete for the office buildings that dot the skyline. All you will read and hear is that MLSE has lost revenue during the pandemic. Which is indisputable; the hidden message that profit margins must be restored. And, most automatically, that MLSE is raising ticket prices because it can.

These are not the frugal, negligent Leafs of the Harold Ballard era. Shanahan came aboard with a blueprint that MLSE impeccably bought into. There was nothing cheap about bottoming out; drafting the best–available talent over a three–year span… and, ultimately, paying that talent NHL–commensurate wages. The addition of an established forward (John Tavares) for an intractable $77 million over seven years was not part of the plan and became a greedy accession. It also complicated the process, immeasurably, in the event the initial approach didn’t work.

Which, today, seems irrefutable.

There is mounting evidence that the Leafs drafted the wrong people to deliver a Stanley Cup challenge, even if they wouldn’t have known it at the time. Virtually nothing demonstrates that William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, chewing up roughly $29 million of a flat salary cap, are capable of prolonging regular–season brilliance. If anything, the past four years have shown they wither, as a group, amid the added burden.

Ignoring such proof, as Shanahan vowed to all, is a derelict of responsibility.

And, if that, as an observer of the Leafs, doesn’t get you “down” on the team, nothing ever will.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

13 comments on “Answering The Fundamental Question

  1. To echo Eugene Melnyk comments about the “Shanaplan” Mistakes were made and someone forgot about defense.

    Howard, I recall you wrote a column before St. Louis won the cup. At the time you penned the column, St. Louis’s playoff aspirations were abysmal and I recall you suggested that Pietrangelo could be had. (I think you were first-in with the inclination but your pal Kypreos was also broadcasting/telepathing the potential trade).

    Instead, Toronto reached into the discount bin and picked out Muzzin and the rest is history.

    No disrespect to Muzzin who is a fine defenseman but watching Pietrangelo and Weber trade blows and play bombs-a-way from the blue line has me questioning why Toronto keeps pinching pennies when it comes to the blue line. Could a deal have been worked out between Toronto and St. Louis? Considering St. Louis let Pietrangelo walk away without any compensation leads me to believe the answer is YES.
    I recall the painful trade that sent Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff packing for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar – It worked out for Toronto (not so much for San Diego), but at the time, letting go of Fernandez and McGriff felt like Toronto’s GM had gone bonkers. Pat Gillick’s wife was aghast that her husband had traded her favorite player (McGriff) and urged Pat to leave the office before screwing the team any further.
    Does this mean Marner is getting traded? Maybe? Certainly, Toronto must acknowledge that the 4 remaining teams have a bonafide defensive behemoth.

  2. Mostly agree Howard, at current, Habs are beating Vegas 2-1 (so as much as this surprises everyone, maybe the Habs have caught lightning in a bottle, and the hockey gods are in their favor) because not much of they’re playoff success to date has made much sense).
    I’ve always supported Marner and your views of him as well.
    Okay, this playoffs, just seemed extremely weak on every play.
    It seems he only wants to do his skilled play , no look, flick, soft touch, behind the back, quick touch, moves on every play. (this is the playoffs).
    Even his over the glass penalties…He cant just shoot it down the ice, he’s got to try cup it up with his stick and loft it over everyone (into the stands)
    everything he does has to be a highlight reel play. Although that’s all great during regular season, there is no hard nose play whatsoever.
    no grittiness, no digging deep, no hard on the puck at all, way too soft, that’s just not going to get it done in playoffs.
    Matthews ramped it up a bit with physicality to try playoff hockey but with only 1 game of success.
    Nylander is the same, he got more points by right place right time, not by more determination.
    But he makes over 4 mill less, so not the whipping boy.
    I don’t know the solution, but if Montreal goes on to beat Vegas, after sweeping the jets, into the finals, how does anyone build a model team.
    Surely not after the Habs.

    1. I just spent 15 minutes trying – and, I stress, TRYING – to clean up 35 or so spelling errors and make this diatribe sound English. It is still borderline. I appreciate you commenting. But, if you insist on being so lazy and careless, please refrain.

  3. Howard,

    I am just curious to know how Brendan Shanahan has not lost his job after being employed for 8 years. despite not having won a SINGLE playoff round. Are the MLSE’s Board of Directors THAT disengaged with the Leafs performance on the ice, that playoff success literally means NOTHING to them???? Or is Brendon Shanahan the greatest salesman of all time, and is able to sell the board his “vision” year after year?

    1. Howard just answered that question. The Leafs have a blindly loyal following, much like the Cubs, who will accept whatever garbage comes out of the President’s mouth> and that was garbage. Also, a huge conflict of interest with some sportswriters and broadcasters who are, indirectly, paid by the same people as the players and management. Not a lot of critical analysis. As they are constructed right now, this team is life and death to make the playoff next year, fighting for a wild card.

  4. Leafs in cap hell with a GM & Pres who will not admit it.
    A lineup that is unbalanced.
    5 Years no playoff success. (actually regressing)
    CN Tower displaying red,white and blue.
    Habs 2 games away from a cup final appearence.

    If this doesnt light a fire under MLSE nothing ever will.

  5. I cannot see this version of the Leafs being able to match the level of intensity and physicality currently on display in the Habs-Knights series. The success of the Habs – and the Islanders – seems to be proof that a balanced team with a solid ‘middle class’ of players (not affordable in the current Leafs payroll construct) can make a dent in the playoffs.

    1. 100% correct. If the Leafs could swap rosters with the Islanders or Habs with the exception of Matthews it would be beautiful.

      How Dubas convinced Shanahan that that much money should be allocated to 4 forwards at the expense of all other positions is astounding.

      Actually no its not. Shanahan had no prior experience. Dubas had no prior experience and Keefe had no prior experience. Its so painful to watch a once in generation player being wasted away. Even more painful that the rookie GM only signed him for 5 years!

  6. Howard, You’re on fire!
    I appreciate all the latest activity and always enjoy your opinion and how you present it.

    I don’t agree that the error was in drafting these 3 fellows. The error (as you previously stated) was in signing Tavares AND keeping all 3. Had they skipped Tavares, and/or traded one of the 3 they could have constructed a competitive roster.

    I would think missing the playoffs would rattle the executive suite into action, and I don’t feel any certainty that this top heavy collection, no matter what low budget additions are added this off season will make the playoffs against the improved competition in their division.

  7. Very well put. Many questions linger of course, but my main one. You need a number one goalie, a top d-man and your core to play physical come playoff time. Yes, it is ok to hit in the playoffs. They have roughly a 2 year window left with nothing to show for the first 3. Where do they go from here? Where do they go after next year’s collapse?

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