April 16, 2014

Many changes needed for Leafs

by Dan Bilicki In: Ice Hockey

It’s mid-April and the question we’re asking about the Leafs is the usual one: What time are they teeing off today?

After snapping the streak last season, it was back to normal. Maybe they should campaign to play just 48 games every year. Or to put Detroit and Columbus back in the Western Conference.

We all watched this season go terribly wrong after the Olympic break. There was that eight-game losing streak in which the team didn’t even pick up a consolation point for going to OT.

There were players looking over their heads, making dumb decisions – especially in their own end.

And when a team that has little to nothing in the way of secondary scoring sees their top line and top star go through one of his epic cold streaks, well, you’re just not going to win games.

It’s the second straight season we saw this team meltdown, only this time it was over the course of a month as opposed to 10 minutes last year in Game 7. If last year was a swift decapitation, this year was a slow, torturous bleed.

So how can this star-crossed team avoid the same fate next season? Well, I’d start by lowering expectations.

Before the collapse, the Leafs were third in the conference and hoping to lock up home-ice advantage in the first round. That had everyone optimistic for a playoff run, even though the team was always flawed and showed some cracks on a nightly basis.

The defence was always suspect, getting bailed out by strong goalkeeping from Jonathan Bernier and occasionally James Reimer.

But when Bernier went down, Reimer wasn’t able to hold his end of the bargain.

On defence, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are both fine young offensive defencemen, but both have to grow into more physical players with better awareness in their own end.

Captain Dion Phaneuf had some howlers of giveaways, costing the Leafs on more than one occasion. It was questionable if he deserved his big contract extension when he was playing well, now it seems like a salary cap albatross.

And as for Cody Franson, after his breakout performance against Boston in last year’s playoffs, we thought he’d step into a role as a top-two defenceman. Instead, he regressed horribly, leading the team with a minus-20.

As for the forwards, after Phil Kessel’s slumping ways, it is readily apparent that you need a consistent second and third line to help ease the scoring burden. Guys like Nazem Kadri and Nik Kulemin clearly aren’t the answer here while also providing little in the way defensive help too.

The first big change that has already happened is the appointment of Brendan Shanahan as team president. Personally, I’m not sure if this will have much of an immediate impact at all – and even a long-term one is dicey. This is a guy that has no history of building teams or even organizations. The only reason that it’s big news is because this is Toronto we’re talking about and Shanny’s a Mimico boy, through and through. But just remember the last South Etobicoke guy that the team signed: David Clarkson.

Starting with the roster makeover, if anybody wants to take on Clarkson’s enormous salary, let them – for whatever it wants to give.

The next issue is Reimer. This guy has been torn down too many times to be rebuilt in Toronto. He should be shopped for any draft pick the Leafs can get, if only just jettison this toxic asset.

Talking about toxic assets, Colton Orr should never play in the NHL again. What good is a goon who doesn’t fight? He didn’t have a single point this season in 54 games and didn’t get in a fight after late November. So, what good is having him on the roster, let alone playing?

The Leafs will have roughly $21 million in cap space this coming summer, but as they learned last year, that doesn’t guarantee good pieces coming in. Also, because the cap is being raised, every team will have at least some space too, which will see a lot of buyers in the market.

The biggest notable observation down the stretch was that the team looked dead, as if it couldn’t care less about the predicament that it had put itself in. That falls on the leadership of the team, specifically the captain and especially the coach. Randy Carlyle has to go.

He has clearly lost the team if he can’t get them up for what were essentially elimination games in late March and early April.

Not helping the case to keep Carlyle is the fact that the Preds have fired long-time, highly respected coach Barry Trotz. With that kind of name on the market, it would be wise for Toronto to quickly cut ties with Carlyle and go after the former Preds bench boss hard.

Of course, all of these decisions are in the hands of Shanny now. Whether he’ll be a strong voice in the front office or just a puppet for Tim Leiweke remains to be seen. And if I were a member of Leafs Nation, I’d really hope that it is the former. The NHL is a league where you can’t just buy success.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

1 Comment

  1. Go Leafs

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