The Leafs have lost 4 of their last 5 games, are 3-6-2 in November, and 8-11-5 on the season. At times they have showed some signs of life like their pair of shutout 3-0 wins over division rivals Buffalo and Ottawa where they played a smart team defensive game while at other times they look disinterested and a bunch of individuals playing for themselves and not the team. If there were signs of improving consistency you could probably argue that it is worth waiting a little longer to see of the current crew can work it out but they looked weak against Dallas and dreadful against Phoenix on the weekend. Improvement is not what we are seeing with this team and the inconsistency has been going on for 100+ games now dating to last season.
I still believe that this group of players is capable of much better things but it is also apparent that such better things aren’t going to happen without changes being made. The first change has to start with the coach. I have a real hard time identifying what positives coach Paul Maurice has brought to the Leafs. When you watch every other top tier team their players have well defined roles. You have defensive players whose role is to stop opposing forwards. You have offensive players whose main objective is to produce goals. You have penalty killing specialist and power play specialists. The Leafs do not have that. It seems that every game coach Paul Maurice is grabbing at straws by changing his line up and his lines all the time. How can a player learn a system or a role or learn the tendencies of a line mate if he has different line mates every game, if not every period. Paul Maurice has to go and a real systems coach needs to be brought in and the players need to be taught how to play as a team in a system.
But the coach cannot be blamed for everything. The players deserve some blame too and while I know some people will target the defence first, the first thing that needs fixing is the goaltending. This is the primary problem with the Leafs and the primary failure in my mind of GM John Ferguson Jr. While both Raycroft and Toskala have had a good game or two more often than not they have been mediocre to bad. The Leafs sit second last in the NHL (surprising the Flames are last but I can’t seem them staying there all season) in save % and there is no way you can be a competitive team with that kind of goaltending. It is time that the Andrew Raycroft experiment dies a quick and painless death by putting him on waivers in hopes of finding a taker or if not sent to the Toronto Marlies to backup Justin Pogge. Two years ago Raycroft had a .879 save percentage, last year he was at .894 and this year he is at .882. None of those are even mediocre save percentages and not even good enough to qualify as a backup on most teams. As far as I am concerned his NHL career should be done and the Leafs should bring up Clemensen to back up Toskala. As far as Toskala is concerned he hasn’t shown me that he deserved that 2 year $8 million extension but the Leafs have made the bet that he can be a solid starter and so the remainder of this season should be devoted to seeing if he can be that guy or whether goaltending needs to be addresses yet again next summer.
I think if you added the right coach who was able to get the team to play a smart defence-first system you will solve 80% of the Leafs problems because there is no way you can convince me that the group of defensemen and forwards that the Blue Jackets or Islanders or several other teams have are better than the Leafs but those teams have managed to be reasonably successful this season. But that doesn’t mean all the defensemen and forwards should be considered safe. Even with good coaching and goaltending they aren’t going to be serious Stanley Cup threats (just like the Islanders and Blue Jackets aren’t) so ultimately management needs to look to next season and beyond. While there can be no untouchables on this roster the players I would aim to build the team around are:
Tomas Kaberle: One of the best puckhandling defensemen in the league and isn’t making huge bucks.
Hal Gill: He has been the best Leaf defenseman since he got here and needs I would look to make him half of a shutdown tandem.
Mats Sundin: Still one of the best players in the game and he should remain a Leaf so long as he wants to be here.
Jason Blake: He hasn’t produced goals like the Leafs would have liked but he has still produced and is capable of being a front line winger.
Kyle Wellwood: Probably the most talented forward outside of Sundin and would be an ideal second line center.
Nik Antropov: Can score goals, kill penalties, is big and strong and doesn’t hurt you defensively.
Matt Stajan and Alex Steen: I would look to these two as being two-thirds of a defensive shutdown line and PK specialists. They both have good speed, defensively responsible, and can also chip in offensively too. These two could be a Leaf version of Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly in Ottawa. I’d even try to sign Kelly as a UFA next summer to join this duo. That could form a nice shutdown line capable of forcing mistakes and capitalizing on them.
Everyone else should be made available for trade between now and the trade deadline with the primary goal being adding youth and adding financial flexibility to sign a big name free agent or two next summer. Some names to consider trading include:
Bryan McCabe: He has a no movement clause in his contract but if he can be convinced to waive it he needs to be traded. Not because McCabe is a bad player, because he is not, but because he has become the scapegoat for the fans and media (not completely warranted either) and that Leafs would be better off without that negativity around the team.
Pavel Kubina: I like Kubina and think he was starting to really fit into this team before he got injured a couple weeks ago. If the Leafs could manage to trade McCabe I would consider keeping Kubina but I think the Leafs really need to free themselves of at least one of these two defensemen salaries so they can address other concerns.
Darcy Tucker: Under Paul Maurice Tucker has been given the lowly role of fourth liner and power play specialist. While he excels on the power play if that is his primary and only role I say look to find him a new home and use his $3 million per season elsewhere. Whether he should get moved or not should depend somewhat on how any new coach might use him.
Vesa Toskala: He has shown nothing to me that he is capable of being a #1 goalie or that he deserves his $4 million salary next season and the one after. I doubt you can find any takers but if you could get someone to take his salary off the books take the offer without even blinking.
So, assuming you can free up some salary cap space the primary targets for next summer should be:
1. A defensive defenseman capable of forming a shutdown tandem with Hal Gill. I’d love to see the Leafs sign Marek Malik from the Rangers.
2. A defensive forward to play with Stajan and Steen. I’d absolutely love to see Chris Kelly on that line to form a solid defensive line with some offensive punch and lots of speed and some feistiness as well.
3. Another reliable scoring winger. Marian Hossa is probably out of their budget (even if they rid themselves of McCabes and Tucker’s contracts) but Cory Stillman would be an awesome addition or Markus Naslund if the price was right.
So I have discussed the coach and the players and I am sure some of you may be wondering what I think about John Ferguson Jr. Well, it appears it really doesn’t matter because it seems almost certain that he won’t return. It is not a matter of if he will be fired but when. I’ll have mixed emotions when he gets fired because I think on many levels he has done some smart moves. Some haven’t worked out but he had the guts to make some bold moves and I think that is needed to be GM in Toronto. I also don’t think he has been given a fair shake by the owners, the media or the fans. He was brought into a tough situation replacing Pat Quinn as GM while Quinn remained on as coach and he was never given a chance by the media because he had no proven track record as a GM. So when JFJ gets fired I really hope that he finds another job as GM where he will be given a fair chance by those involved with the team.
Now there are a lot of rumours going around right now that they might replace JFJ by committee which may include former players Glenn Healey, Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour and others. There are also rumours they will try to bring in a big name GM with a proven track record like Scotty Bowman, Ken Holland or even Brian Burke. Personally I think the committee solution is doomed to failure in Toronto despite it being somewhat successful with the Islanders who are led by former goalie Garth Snow. I just don’t think the media would give that kind of set up a fair chance and the negativity around the team would continue to be a distraction for everyone involved. One might hope that the Toronto media would give Mark Messier or Ron Francis a fair chance but I have little hope of that. Just look how they ripped the Brett Hull promotion to co-GM.
What I would really love to see happen is Brian Burke be given the job. Now I am not a huge fan of Brian Burke because I think he is opinionated, outspoken and maybe a bit stubborn (probably not unlike myself though) but I think that those are the perfect attributes for a GM of the Leafs. I would absolutely love to see Steve Simmons write some of his ridiculous anti-Leaf articles about Brian Burke because I can’t wait to see Brian Burke publicly rip Steve Simmons to shreds and put him and his nonsensical newspaper articles in their place (at the bottom of everyone’s bird cages hopefully). Brian Burke has the personality and credibility to defend his coach and players that JFJ doesn’t seem to have and that would allow the coach and players to do what they do best, coach and play.