The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the last 10 years and over the last few seasons they’ve been through several coaches and a couple of General Managers. It’s hard to imagine a team that has hit more of a rock bottom after another 30-44-8 season.
They did manage to get their man plucking Mike Babcock as head coach from the Detroit Red Wings for a reported $50 million over the next eight seasons. They do have a respected hockey man in Brendan Shanahan as the franchise’s President.
However, they are also without a GM and trade rumors are swirling around several of Toronto’s key players including Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. There’s a general concern that some of the roster’s talented young player have stagnated in their development, notably forward Nazeem Kadri and defenseman Jake Gardiner.
In reality, the Maple Leafs suffered from roster mismanagement, partially encouraged by making the playoffs and taking the Boston Bruins to a Game 7 in 2012-13. They’ve suffered from all too often having coaches and GMs working from different scripts and they’ve struggled to establish clear on-ice leadership.
Shanahan’s number one priority must be to get the right man in place as GM and there’s every possibility that that could mean serving as interim GM himself for a period of time. Babcock’s hiring gives the veteran head coach a lot of power and he’ll clearly have plenty of say in the roster’s direction.
Perhaps that is deserved considering his history of success with the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks. However, there’s also no question that returning this roster to competitiveness will be a greater challenge than either of those stops. Neither Ron Wilson nor Randy Carlyle could turn Toronto’s post 2004-05 lockout fortunes around, both well-established NHL head coaches with impressive records.
Every time a team misses the playoffs, they need to “re-“ something – either re-build or re-tool. The course that Toronto chooses may very well depend upon Babcock’s opinion Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
After signing a large, eight-year contract extension, Kessel experienced his poorest goal-scoring output since 2007-08, which was just his second NHL campaign. Widely regarded as a little media unfriendly and known for having some so-so relationships with coaches, Kessel had an especially combative spell in 2014-15. He was almost constantly in local media coverage sparring with one reporter or another and there have been multiple reports suggesting that his relationship with the team isn’t much better.
However, Kessel is a superb skater and pure goal-scorer who has nearly 250 regular season tallies to his name and five 30+ goal campaigns in the last seven seasons. His success is even more impressive considering that for the most part Tyler Bozak, a solid, but unspectacular offensive player, has been the man centering him.
Meanwhile, Phaneuf is the explosive, physical and offensive-minded defenseman that many teams dream of having to light up games. The problem is, that he is now 30, it has been a while since he was at his explosive best or most offensively productive, but he still makes the same defensive gaffes that have always plagued his game.
Babcock dealt with adversity during his time with the Red Wings. His last two seasons coaching a young roster are evidence of that. However, he was always able to build around a group of well-rounded players, who also possessed terrific intangibles, see Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall.
Kessel and Phaneuf are ultimately one-dimensional and they've struggled to establish themselves as leaders on this team. On the flip side, their skill sets are not that easy to replace.
Indeed, Babcock might look at this roster and think that he is spoilt for young talent including Kessel, Phanuef, James van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Tim Erixon, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. You can throw in the 2015 fourth overall pick from the NHL draft as well.
It’s not that bad of a starting point and perhaps a re-tool and change of approach is more necessary than the complete overhaul – again dependent on the veteran head coach’s perception of Kessel and Phaneuf.
Advanced statistics like Corsi generally suggest that Gardiner and Rielly in particular have a bright future in the NHL and you can bet that Babcock will like their puck movement. He’ll also surely be able to implement systems that have an immediate impact on the special teams units, which both ranked in the bottom eight in the league percentage wise last season.
He’ll want to carry over some of the puck control and puck possession element from Detroit and whoever takes the GM position will surely need to address the team’s challenges at the center position, which have been a reality for several seasons now.
Kadri may one day be that top option, Bozak and Holland are both useful utility options, but this team is thin down the middle of the ice and that’s a challenge for any coaching system.
There’s a fine line between success and failure in the NHL, especially in the salary cap era. One piece added or one piece missing can seriously change the look and feel of a roster. For the Maple Leafs, it might be a center, it might be a more secure defensive set-up in front of Bernier and Reimer. It might be Babcock.
For Babcock, he has chosen a tough situation. Enjoy success in Toronto, and his legacy will be sealed. Fail, and he joins Carlyle and Wilson in the line of coaches that just couldn’t make it work with this group for some reason.
Whichever of those it ends up being, one thing is for certain – the Maple Leafs will be an interesting team to follow and watch this offseason heading into 2015-16. Those that love and hate the Leafs, and there are plenty that hate them, will want to see at least something a little more interesting happening In Toronto this coming season. It's an Original Six franchise and huge fan base after all.