It’s been a long hard ride for Toronto Maple Leaf fans, filled with poor decisions and lousy 60-minute games. But the future is bright.
Last week, Leafs President Brendan Shanahan got full approval from the bosses at Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (MLSE) for a complete five-year rebuild of the team, declaring the roster a non-playoff contender.
In this column we will look at the plan Shanahan will put in place, and take an overall look at how the Leafs will approach this rebuild.
For many years, there has been a lack of front office leadership, the players sense it and aren’t performing.
Newly acquired forward Olli Jokinen talked to the media last night after his first game vs Florida Panthers, and talked about the Leafs, and there was no positive energy in the locker room.
“The one thing I noticed, being here two days, is there is a lot of negative energy”, Jokinen said.
There are four things Leafs management needs in order for the team to become a playoff contender.
First, trade away players at the deadline on March 2 who at the moment help the Leafs win games.
No one is safe; the team’s top defenceman and captain Dion Phaneuf, forwards Joffery Lupul, Tyler Bozak, David Booth and Daniel Winnik are all on the trade block.
Phaneuf logs a big chunk of the minutes on the Leafs’ back end, and you’ve got to get good value back.
Phaneuf will be tough to move at the deadline due to his gigantic contract, and Leafs General Manager Dave Nonis would have to acquire a player who is a vast part of his respective team.
The only safe players on the team are forwards James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri along with two defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner – pending if Gardiner or Kadri become deal breakers in a blockbuster deal.
There has been talk of star winger Phil Kessel being traded to the Panthers, but management should not pull the trigger and Panthers management reported they have not been in talks.
Kessel was just signed to an eight-year $8-million contract, but he has never been given a true playmaker at centre. If Kessel wants out, then by all means trade him and get high-end talent who can play now, a first round pick and another prospect.
The idea of a future first line of van Riemsdyk, William Nylander and Kessel is very intriguing.
A lot of GMs won’t pull the trigger on a deal right now, so if Phaneuf or Kessel are leaving, they will likely be shipped out in the offseason in a package deal.
The other players listed could help out teams that are making the playoff race.
Bozak is a good second line centre and great third line centre, and would put up consistent playoff points. Lupul, when healthy, can put up good point production – as he had 67 points in the 2011-2012 season with the Leafs, and is a high-risk high reward type player. Booth and Winnik can be moved up and down the lineup of a playoff team; what the Leafs acquire in return is prospects and draft picks.
After the deadline and the last Leafs game on April 11, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see current GM Nonis and his staff relieved of their duties and Shanahan take over or bring in his own guy. Then, he needs to hire the right coach and continue to prepare for the deep 2015 NHL Entry Draft and offseason tasks.
If the free fall of the Leafs continues, the team could be staring at a top five pick in this year’s deep draft.
Picking the right prospects with their current two first-round draft picks is crucial along with finding top-end talent to further the rebuild. The Leafs are sitting in the Top 10 of the draft at the moment and are most likely to stay there until the end of the year.
Prospects the Leafs will scout are the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters centre Dylan Strome, London Knights’ centre Mitchell Marner, Sarnia Stings’ winger Pavel Zacha, and Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds’ centre Mathew Barzal and American defenceman Noah Hanifin – who will be gone after the top three.
Those players have a high potential of becoming the future superstars of the NHL – but only a few are NHL ready. A good draft this year will benefit the Leafs down the road.
A few days after the draft, the free agency window will open for players whose contracts have expired. The Leafs will look to add young players between the ages of 23 to 25 they can develop and play the next year so the team can keep top young forward prospects William Nylander and Connor Brown and defenceman Stuart Percy to name a few, hidden and develop with the affiliate to the Leafs, the Toronto Marlies.
With the team in full on rebuild mode, there will be dark times ahead for Leaf fans and no quick fix. Patience will be a virtue.