Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What's wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs?

No playoffs in 8 years. That pretty much sums it up. The Leafs have been in a bad way for some time, and no end of band-aid solutions has managed to get them back on track. The team has added talented players - Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Joffrey Lupul.

So why can't they put it together? As the media has recently pointed out, they need a #1 centre and a goaltender. Easy enough to say, but those assets don't exactly grow on trees.

The Leafs meant to satisfy the first requirement by acquiring Tim Connolly, but it shouldn't come as any surprise that he turned out to be inadequate to the task. In the NHL, one team's trash is going to turn out as trash for everyone else as well. Brian Burke has repeatedly touted James Reimer as the solution in goal - but we've heard that story before. Reimer, like all others, has turned out to be pretty mediocre.

The team is missing a lot of parts; they have a wealth of second-line forwards, a couple good defencemen, but little else. They have two options:

1. Keep trying to paper over the holes. Leafs fans are hard to please, and declaring 'rebuild' has two problems. Firstly, the fans will bemoan the loss of a season or more; second, they will start calling for the team to 'go for it' at the first sign of progress.

2. Tear down and start over. If Burke truly could have added the 'four first-round picks' he spoke of at the trade deadline, he should've perhaps done it. This year's draft class is said to be weak, but many of the Leafs' assets are very replaceable players.

In Kessel, Phaneuf and Lupul, the Leafs have some real assets; are they players to build around? I hardly think so. If the Leafs could get star prospects for them, they should make a move. We've heard that the Leafs brass has been scouting Nail Yakupov; if they can swing a deal with whoever draws the #1 pick, they should go for it. From a PR standpoint, it would work; the team would finally have something to sell. They would finally have a legitimate star in the making, and could use him, rather than the losing, to justify the rebuild - call it the 'Sale for Nail'. Veterans could be sold off for picks and prospects, under the guise of providing a group that could grow together. Leafs fans, already tired of having no real success, would be able to cheer for the team in a different way. The team could sign some veterans to tutor the kids, and start the year with a 'we're not expecting to win; we're expecting to develop' mantra.

Because if the Leafs keep it up with the Band-Aid solutions, where does that get them? A first-round playoff exit? Sustained team success requires real assets - young players who will be with the team long-term. Leafs fans may be fickle and harsh, but they're not stupid; I suspect a lot of them see what's going on in Edmonton and are envious. The Leafs are kidding themselves if they think they can compete with the core they have.

I once had the chance to see Brian Burke speak to a small gathering and he was asked about his philosophy on team-building. I expected he'd repeat his preference to build from the net out, which we've heard in a few places. Instead, he said this:

"First you have to crawl before you can walk. Then you run, and then you sprint."

Pushed by their fans, the Leafs are trying to sprint, but they're forgetting that they haven't got the legs for this race. I wonder if Burke is feeling so much pressure from the Toronto setting that it's overheating his good judgment.

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