What is Wrong With The Toronto Maple Leafs?
Months back, I wrote an article begging Brian Burke not to re sign Ron Wilson until the team actually took a step forward under his tutelage and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can view that article here I wasn’t delusional. I didn’t say “wait for them to WIN the Cup”, I only asked that they’d qualify for the playoffs for the first time in a team record seven years. Don’t mistake me for a hater. I am a Toronto boy, I am a Leafs fan. All I want is to have a team to cheer for, to have pride in, and that will have some success. The Leafs haven’t had any success in years. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs. They haven’t drafted any up and coming superstars. Their mediocrity has begun to swallow Leafs nation whole. The Air Canada Center is always full of Leaf fans. Constant sell outs, and now the die hard fans who empty their wallets on over priced tickets are finally losing faith in their club, and there is good reason for it.
The Leafs have several major problems. The first being their pathetic excuse for a head coach, Ron Wilson. Coaching has a big impact on a team’s success. People can point to the roster and ask how it could possibly qualify for the playoffs against more talented teams in cities like Buffalo and Washington, but that isn’t the be all end all. Look at some of the mediocre rosters in the league who manage to qualify for the playoffs year after year. Phoenix and Nashville come to mind. What do they have in common? Teams devoid of superstars, who are Coached exceptionally well. Dave Tippett and Barry Trotz continuously coax the most out of their rosters, implementing fantastic systems and motivating their players. Ron Wilson had an excuse for the first couple of seasons in Toronto, his roster was absolutely pathetic. That is no longer the case. Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski, Phaneuf, MacArthur, all of these guys are on pace for career years, yet the Leafs are likely to be on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
I blame it on Wilson. His systems stink. His powerplay is up and down, his penalty kill is among the league’s worst, and his goaltenders are both terrible. Is it their faults? No. The players in front of the goalies haven’t responded to Wilson’s systems, and the once “truculent” team that was created to be tough to play against, is one of the softest in the league. The forwards are all offense and no defense, the defense is terribly turnover prone, and the goalies are hung out to dry every night. Old man Wilson cannot relate to his young roster, and he cannot get the best out of them. A new, young coach is necessary and can’t be worse than Wilson has been. If you don’t qualify for the playoffs EVER, nothing can be worse.
The team is one of the youngest in the league. Top to bottom, there are young players without winning pedigrees playing in pivotal situations. Neither Reimer nor Gustavsson have ever been number one goalies in the NHL over the course of a full season. Tyler Bozak is the top line center in only his 3rd full season in the NHL. Kessel is still young at 23, and the defense is full of kids. Schenn, Gardiner, Gunnarsson, etc. They have been good in spurts, and terrible in others. That is what you can expect from a team of kids. Talent that is lacking consistency and the smarts and experience to handle the rigors of an 82 game season.
The only veterans the Leafs have either missed extensive time due to injury, or have been relegated to the press box due to having mediocre seasons. Colby Armstrong is looking like a huge waste of money, just like his buddy Mike Komisarek. John Michael Liles was great early on, but has faded down the stretch like he typically does and hasn’t been the same since missing games due to injury. In the cruch time of the season, Phaneuf has failed to motivate and can’t step it up himself, and so the Leafs have faltered. Burke failed to add a veteran presence at the deadline, preaching “faith” in the roster, but he knows better than anyone that this team is going nowhere without improvements across the board.
The goalies have been the biggest enigma this season. One day Reimer and Gustavsson steal the show, the next they are a laughing stock. People say that teams play confidently in front of a stud goalie, but I’d say its a two way street. The defense has been turning the puck over and hanging the goalies out to dry, and when the defense is pressed and needs the big save, the goalies have been giving up softies. The whole “chicken and egg” argument comes to mind, but the reality is simple. An upgrade is necessary across the board. Reimer isn’t a #1 yet, and Gustavsson is on his way out.
For the Leafs to contend next year, they need internal improvement and upgrades across the board. A new coach, a legitimate #1 center, #1 goalie, and a solid veteran shut down defenseman are what keep this team from having any chance of being a contender, and it doesn’t appear that any of those things are coming up in the pipeline. There is one positive thing that comes out of my rant. At least we have our first round pick this year, and the way its going now, we could have a top 5 choice this summer.