It has become the primary water cooler topic of discussion in Toronto these days with the Maple Leafs coming off a dreadful Western road swing through Death Valley where analytics were about the only positive thing worth paying any attention to. Here is what I don’t personally understand however, the analytics appeared to show promise but the team still lost (or more politically incorrect…sucked). So what good are analytics that are positively trending if the players are still unable to overcome their opposition? If anything perhaps it means they are a little better than we give them credit for individually but as a team are not adding up to the sum of their parts. Perhaps media have started using these same analytics to micro analyze performances when they should only be used to express trends over larger sample sizes and in essence are using them incorrectly.
Regardless of the trends or all the losing, this blogger for one hope’s they blow up the team sky high, like epic high…and here’s why.
The Maple Leafs have always had money thanks to massive corporate sponsorships and their fans (including yours truly) that continue to put up with a sub-par product decade after decade. It is not often that you hear the Toronto media lamenting on poor attendance records for the team when in all honesty they should be if fans want to send the ultimate message to ownership. So yes fans, it really is all your fault for continuing to attend games, purchasing beer at prices that makes you look insane and decking yourself out in merchandise like the team has actually won something in your lifetime (kidding… well sort of).
How does all this money help though? Well for one and let’s face it, if they are going to blow the team up they won’t need to max out to the cap ceiling for the next couple of years especially with younger players and potential reclamation projects on the roster which will afford the Leafs the potential flexibility to eat contract dollars for players who are not performing to their supposed values (like Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul or Stephane Robidas). Perhaps they can potentially use that flexibility to demand greater returns from other clubs in the various trade scenarios they should be exploring; if more salary is retained (for example, perhaps you eat $2.5m of Phaneuf’s contract) but request a player along with a prospect or a draft pick in return, you would essentially be buying the prospect or draft pick you ask to be included. Which then begs the question, how much is a prospect or draft pick worth if you are essentially trying to buy them?
This financial flexibility should further allow the team to invest more heavily than it appears to have previously done especially given their draft record, in scouting the farthest reaches of the planet for prospects who have gone relatively unnoticed by other clubs. After watching the world juniors there appears to be a consensus that a hockey resurgence of sorts is starting to occur, with stronger junior teams coming out of traditionally weaker European countries as of late that perhaps management needs to have more of a presence in; countries like Slovakia and Denmark for example. Not to mention, other than Rynat Valiev, when was the last time the team took any interest in a prospect from Russia? Is the team truly that averse to drafting players from that country given the supposed ‘Russian factor’? Perhaps with the KHL faltering for all appearances, maybe it is worth investing in heightened scouting or at minimum relationship building with players in Russia especially if they start reconsidering the NHL.
‘Leafs Nation’ as MLSE likes to refer to it, other than buying tickets or merchandise have never truly had a direct impact on the team and let’s face it, they are pretty pissed off right now. Other than screaming and yelling for change there has been no real way for the fan to help the team succeed other than chanting ‘Go Leafs Go’ over and over again (side note: can we please start looking to European chants to use over here to spur on the team? ‘GLG’ is pretty lame especially after one has attended a Premiership football or Rugby Union match). If ‘Leafs Nation’ is really so large (and I have no doubt it is given the number of fans from all over the world you see on Twitter) why not setup a website that allows fans to provide basic scouting reports on hockey games they attend? We all attend midget, AA, AAA, beer league games all over the globe and you have to admit there are tonnes of fans out there that actually DO have a pretty good grasp of the game. Why not utilize this strength in numbers to cover off more potential prospects your REAL scouts could follow-up on later? Let’s face it, how many games do the scouts actually make? Do they hit a lot of Russian minor league games? Slovakia? Denmark? MLSE might be missing out on a great marketing ploy and generate valuable data from all over the globe on prospects they might never have known existed.
It really is about high time that the Maple Leafs actually start playing their prospects at the NHL level. As much as they have talked about it, having 27 year old Korbinian Holzer playing with the team this year as a seventh defenseman does not necessarily count as a youth movement. Neither do the cups of coffee that were handed out to Stuart Percy, Sam Carrick, Brandon Kozun and Carter Ashton. Games will not be significantly won on a nightly basis by your third pairing defensemen or your bottom two lines and at some point you have to start taking on the risk of determining what the ceiling of some of your prospects might be. Ashton, Leivo, Kozun and possibly Spencer Abbott are all at an age and skill level that it might be best to give them extended shots in the NHL. All showed relative promise at training camp but management ultimately opted to go with more expensive veteran players like Daniel Winnik, David Booth, Mike Santorelli and the aforementioned Robidas. Winnik and Santorelli have been solid additions but Booth was not being properly deployed and is now injured along with Robidas; their impact has been minimal at best as much as I hate to admit it and both could have been easily replaced by the likes of Leivo and Percy.
The team has a number of players of similar caliber at similar positions (one could argue that Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak and even Peter Holland to a certain extent are all number two centermen) and perhaps it is time the Leafs attempted a package trade in the hopes of landing one player from an opposing team who is intrinsically better than the sum of the parts being dealt (Ryan O’Reilly anyone?) along with a lower level draft pick in return. The Leafs have actually been pretty good with lower level picks as of late with Connor Brown and Victor Loov as examples so maybe it is worth the risk? Perhaps they need to take a more extended look at the Marlies roster and start packaging players together with the same principal in mind; the roster is just packed and playing time is becoming an issue. William Nylander, Connor Brown, Loov, Petter Granberg, Percy and Anotine Bibeau are all showing promise as a solid AHL core but perhaps it might be time to consider making some trades and opening up some roster spots for next year’s group coming in.
Perhaps the Maple Leafs consider purchasing another AHL team? Obviously I have no actual idea of the barriers to entry in a case like this but is it actually outside of the realm of possibility? The Hamilton Bulldogs agreement with the Montreal Canadians is from what we hear coming up soon and the rumour is that Montreal would prefer that their farm team to be located in Quebec, possibly in the Montreal area so they can further realize operating synergies. Perhaps the Leafs need to swoop in and place a second AHL franchise right smack dab in the middle of their rabid fan market in Hamilton and literally run two teams. One dedicated to drafted prospects and the other of just AHL contracted players that could be longer development shots but potential long term projects (examples like Brady Vail, Byron Froese, Zack Yuen etc.).
The team really has nothing left to lose at this point. The playoffs are a long shot and the core players have not displayed enough dominance in critical games to take this team to the next level. Can anyone list the 3 and 4th lines or the 3rd pairing defensemen for Anaheim, LA or even St. Louis without looking it up? Not likely but you definitely know who the key contributors are because of how dominant they are. Outside of Kessel, who lacks a bonefide number one center to make up for his lack of defense (which I have to say is justified to a certain extent as he excels in one thing, rushing up the wing and scoring goals at even strength) who else really stands out in a good way night in and night out? Maybe JVR but when you place Toronto’s top two lines up against any one of the potential Stanley Cup contenders in the league there is just no comparison.
So there you have it. Some pretty wild ideas mixed in with some subtle changes. The Maple Leafs need to change, that much is apparent and sometimes it needs to be paired with out of the box thinking. They started with assembling an analytics team that we can all agree should have been done years ago, brought in Brendan Shannahan and appear to be all but done with Dave Nonis while parting ways with Randy Carlyle in the hopes of landing current Detroit front man Dave Babcock. They are going to draft high again this year but need to make more changes if they hope to succeed. What they have been doing has not worked and MLSE needs to recognize that; it’s time for change gentlemen. As always, puck for thought.