Maple Leafs lack leadership

Apr 6, 2014 by

Maple Leafs lack leadership

If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan you wake up today realizing this team is far away from being a playoff contender.  Going 2-9 over the last 11 games, the Leafs went from battling for home ice to a team out of the playoffs, and with little hope of making it, with three games left to play in the regular season.  If you had the great misfortune of wasting your Saturday night watching them get out outshot by the mediocre Winnipeg Jets 41-25 in a crucial 4-2 loss you know this team is deserving of their unlikely fall.  In the biggest game of the year they looked like a scared, disorganized team incapable and unwilling to rise to the occasion.  They clearly have not removed the proverbial monkey off their back sitting there comfortably since last year’s devastating playoff loss.  In the offseason, the organisation must address the root causes of their glaring and often embarrassing ineptitude which has unnecessarily shortened two seasons of play.

This year’s collapse is eerily similar to that of last year’s crushing defeat to Boston last spring.  Except this year it’s been slow and painful, instead of brief and intensely shocking.  This Maple Leafs incarnation really knows how to lose dramatically and in the process cause fans to feel discomfort in creative and unwelcoming ways.  In the short-term there is little to feel warm and fuzzy about, but once fans embrace the reality that this team won’t be in the playoffs again, we can objectively realize that all is not lost.  With players like Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, Jonathon Bernier and Morgan Reilly forming the nucleus, there is a group of young exciting and highly talented players that the Leafs organization can build around.  Where the team appears to sorely lack is in its leadership.

Dion Phaneuf may be the captain and number one defenceman, but he is arguably a two or three rather than a number one that he’s paid to be.  Too often his slow-footed play and general clumsiness with the puck is exploited by the opposition.  He’s a solid hockey player better suited in a complimentary role than being the leader in the back-end, but if he’s going to play out his contract the organization needs to find a serious upgrade for his partner.  Who this player might be is up for debate and the prospect of finding a Shea Weber type of player that this team sorely needs is highly unlikely.  Then again a stalwart veteran two-way defenceman who can play big minutes is an absolute must in order for this team to improve defensively.  Cody Franson looks like he can play the part but he too is consistently guilty of poor decision-making and susceptible to causing mind-numbing turnovers which often lead to great scoring opportunities for the opposition. Jake Gardiner and Reilly are excellent skaters and puck moving offensively oriented defenceman, but Gardiner may need to be moved as part of a bigger package in order to upgrade the back-end with a more established defensive oriented defender, or possibly a two-way centreman to fill the second line void.   Whether it’s through trade or free agency it’s difficult seeing a tangible improvement without one or even two defenceman being upgraded.

The offense is built around a top-tier first line, and they have been excellent this year, but there is a lack of scoring depth on the second and third lines.  Nazm Kadri is in many ways comparable to Gardiner, exciting and inconsistent, but may be needed in a trade to upgrade in the short-term for a more established player. With the likely departure of David Bolland to unrestricted free agency the Maple Leafs must find a top centre with some size, skill and composure.  Again trying to figure out who that might be is reserved for radio talk shows, but getting a player like Paul Stastny might be a good start.

Coaching is another facet of the team worth re-evaluating and no one would be surprised if Randy Carlyle was fired at the end of the season.  Under his reign this team has shown both flashes of brilliance and shocking meltdowns.   Perhaps his coaching style is incompatible with the personnel, but it’s rare that an entire roster has been traded for the benefit of saving a coach.  His defensive oriented style is not being mirrored on the ice, either he is unsuited for this team or they are simply not listening.  Either way it seems like Carlyle doesn’t fit and will likely lose his job as result.

David Nonis can’t be forgotten in this squandered season, but this was his first full year as a General Manager and was recently given a long-term extension.  Most of his moves have been solid thus far but David Clarkson’s free agent signing is likely to hang over him this offseason.  After starting the year with a ten game suspension, Clarkson followed up with an atrocious first season.  Five goals in roughly 60 games isn’t going to cut it for being  the highly touted power forward free signing that he was coveted as being.  If his poor play continues his 7 year deal which sees him earning 5+ million annually will be an albatross of a contract that could suffocate the Maple Leafs spending for years to come.  For the time being Nonis gets the benefit of the doubt, but if next season is similar to this one all bets are off.

Nonis has a lot of work to do in the off-season and is faced with numerous difficult decisions with his coaching and player personnel. He may have to give up some promising young talent like Gardiner or Kadri to improve this team, and if the right deal comes along he should.  At the very least he needs a calming influence on this team in the back-end and perhaps a veteran goaltender to back up Bernier next year.  Additionally, they need a veteran forward or two, especially at the center position, that can impact this roster and help mentor one of the leagues youngest teams. The current version of the Maple Leafs has to learn how learn how to deal with adversity and rebound through tough times.  An eight game losing streak that cost this team a playoff spot is unacceptable.  So is blowing a 4-1 game with ten minutes left in a decisive game seven.  There is a negative trend afoot in Leaf land, and for all the positive advances made over the past few seasons, there is still much to learn.  This team has talent, but the nervousness that comes to light while facing adversity must be weeded out. Whether it’s through trades or firings or both, the Leafs management must rectify this ongoing problem.   Otherwise you can expect this team will continue to underperform and provide unusual, distasteful and unpredictably predictable ways to lose in the years to come.


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