From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.
Toronto Maple Leafs
1. The culture thing. Since the salary cap era began, Toronto has been one of the worst teams in the league.
Some of the teams were simply bad and none of them were great, but it’s also true the Leafs fell apart when it mattered most. In fact, this is the third straight summer where one of the key questions surrounding the club is how it’ll respond to a monumental collapse.
As such, it’s hard to believe Phil Kessel or MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke when they promise Toronto won’t have to endure another 2-12-0 season-ending stretch. Part of that confidence stems from the belief they’ve addressed their culture problem, starting with new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.
“I’m not sure the Leafs have [the right culture],” Maple Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke said in April, per NHL.com. “This is something these two gentlemen [Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis] will have to work on. I definitely sense that we lack an identity and right now we’re a team that lacks direction, and we want to change that.”
The sticking point, though, is that Shanahan really just picked around the edges of the franchise’s core. Nonis and head coach Randy Carlyle kept their jobs, but each got new assistants. Shanahan also signed some complimentary players and rolled the dice on a few new veterans, but even with those additions the 2014-15 Leafs will look a lot like their predecessors.
Shanahan not only has to hope that’s enough to change the team’s culture, but that the team’s culture was what held it back in the first place. The Maple Leafs still have some significant question marks and if the issue in 2013-14 was that they simply didn’t have a playoff-caliber roster, then that’s a huge problem — because he’s done little to alter that.
2. They need to improve puck possession. Rather than claim that the Maple Leafs choked, some believe their poor play simply caught up with them.
Based on advanced statistics like Corsi and Fenwick, the Leafs overachieved last season. Toronto was one of the worst puck possession teams in the league and finished last in shots allowed (35.9 per game).
And just like with the team’s culture, Shanahan is betting on the notion Toronto’s poor performance wasn’t simply the byproduct of putting an inadequate team on the ice. He believes the squad is capable of controlling the play far more than it has in the past.
The Leafs took a unique approach in addressing this problem by bringing in Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager and to lead a new analytics department. The department includes Darryl Metcalfe, who built the once-popular advanced statistics website extraskater.com, which the Maple Leafs now own — and aren’t sharing.
“We don’t want anyone else seeing it,” Leiweke said, according to the Globe and Mail. “It’s called a monopoly. It’s good.”
Leiweke said he believes Dubas and Metcalfe will make the team smarter, but will that be reflected in future signings and trades? Will Carlyle be able to use this data to help the team now? The head coach was either unable or incapable of addressing such problems last season, so questions remain if this extra information will be impactful enough to make this existing group of Leafs at least passable in the short-term.
3. Will any of their summer gambles pay off? Let’s say hiring new assists for Carlyle isn’t going to fundamentally change the way the team is coached, and bringing in a 28-year-old assistant general manager isn’t going to revolutionize this franchise overnight.
After taking a minute to digest just how sad a time it is for Leafs fans when those are their best hopes for change, you’re left just hoping their summer signings will pay off — and this is where things get depressing.
As we’ve touched on already, Shanahan and Nonis didn’t change the team’s core. Instead, they’ve sign a lot of players that might be good, but are far from safe bets.
Stephane Robidas is a solid defenseman, but at the age of 37 might not have much left to give. David Booth limped through three seasons with Vancouver and is out to prove that he can stay healthy (he’s already off to a bad start) and still be a productive top-six forward.
Petri Kontiola, 29, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2007-08, but he’s eager to prove he belongs after several strong seasons in the NHL. He’ll have to start that journey in the minors, though, as he couldn’t even make the opening game roster.
From a cap perspective, the risk the Maple Leafs took on these players wasn’t great and therefore an argument can made that it’s okay if they don’t end up contributing much. What makes that misleading, though, is the fact that Toronto might not make the playoffs without such help. Last year, Mason Raymond was a good diamond in the rough signing, but so far it looks like the leading candidates to be this year’s version won’t pan out — which is problematic, given they lost Raymond over the summer and need to fill that void.
When it comes to their blueline, the Maple Leafs will look fairly thin if Robidas regresses or has another injury-filled campaign. If nothing else, the Maple Leafs defense was pretty healthy last season as five guys played in a minimum of 73 games each. It wouldn’t be impossible for Robidas to do the same in 2014-15, but he’s coming off of a season where he was limited to 38 contests.