With what has happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs over the past two seasons, two major questions hung in the air heading into this summer. Can the team buy in and execute what Randy Carlyle is preaching and is the core of this team good enough to compete when the going gets tough with the top sixteen teams in the league?
A colossal game seven flame-out in 2012-2013 followed by a post Olympic crash last season saw the core of this team embarrassed by poor play at the most important times. In short, when things got real on the ice, other teams flourished and the Leafs wilted under the pressure of it all. I don’t measure a season by individual statistics or play as a whole, in the big leagues, you are measured by how you perform and achieve results when the best hockey is played and the Leafs’ core players have failed miserably at “crunch time”, over the past two seasons.
The failures of the past should prompt big changes on the ice for this group of players, yet the only changes that have occurred this summer are “big” moves in the front office. (ie: the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as president and Kyle Dubas as Assistant General Manager) while the core of this team has remained untouched.
In my opinion, the core of the Leafs includes, coach Randy Carlyle, forwards Phil Kessel, James Van Reimsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak. On the back end it is Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly
I’m still not sure which goalie to put into that mix, yes Jonathon Bernier was good when he played last season but he was injured too much for a starter and in the end, was unable to lead the Leafs to the playoffs as the number one man. The Leafs made it clear that Bernier was the undisputed number one over the man that got them to the dance the year before, James Reimer.
These are the Leaf players that must lead the ship to the promised land, and while all others need to follow, they are merely bit players that cannot make a big impact when the best players on the other teams ratchet up their game.
I left last season in the waste bin with one clear message in my head. This core does not have the top level skill or leadership that it needs when the toughest times come calling between the boards. This core must change, and some of these names have to be moved and improved.
It hasn’t happened yet.
The Leafs have made a myriad of moves on the periphery, moving out players like Mason Raymond, Jay McClement, Carl Gunnarson, and Tim Gleason and replacing them with the likes of Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin, Roman Polak, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik and David Booth.
In my opinion, your bottom line players should be filled with a mix of youthful exuberance and veterans who have been to the dance. The players the Leafs let go were not the issue last year and if they were, they should have been replaced with players who made significant contributions on playoff teams last season. That said, only Winnik and Polak qualify, sort of. Winnick was a role player on Anaheim, and Polak an even lesser player on St. Louis. Both teams failed to reach their self imposed goals last season.
There may be more moves coming before the puck drops on the season but as it stands now, the Leafs are relying on improvements from the same core players. They just signed Gardiner, Franson and Reimer to new deals in the past week, and while they should be able to count on improvements from young Gardiner, how much did he improve under Carlyle last season?
The more things change in Leaf land the more things stay the same, and the management is playing with fire relying on this unchanged core.