The Big “What If” For the Toronto Maple Leafs

People always tend to wonder how different things would be if a different decision was made whether a life decision or if their sports team made the right call. The highly debatable topic in Toronto for years has been the Phil Kessel trade which ended being the Kessel for Seguin/Hamilton trade. Leafs fans will never get over the trade and there will always be the question in the minds of all Leafs fans, what if the trade never happened.

Why did the trade occur in the first place?

The Leafs needed a dynamic goal scorer which the team lost when Mats Sundin left. The leading goal scorer for the Leafs in 2008-09? Jason Blake, 25 goals and 63 points. Blake was considered a disappointing free agent in Toronto because he scored 40 goals for the Islanders in one season, but he never did that for the Leafs. Not the first time a free agent did not meet the team’s expectations (cough cough David Clarkson). When Brian Burke was brought in as GM he knew that he had an impatient fanbase who wanted a winner. So he made a move that most would believe was the impatient move, traded for a young goal scorer in Phil Kessel who scored 30 goals in his 2nd NHL season and became the new franchise player for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

How different could the trade have been?

Part of the reason why Kessel became the new face of the Leas was because of the steep price that the Leafs paid to acquire Kessel. It was rumoured that the Leafs wanted to acquire Kessel at the 2009 NHL draft ( where a  miscommunication between Boston and Toronto ended a potential trade that would have had Kessel and Kaberle switching teams. The Leafs thought that the Bruins would trade Kessel and it’s first round pick and another pick for Kaberle and I am assuming a lower pick, but the Bruins wanted the Leafs to include their 7th overall pick (which was used to select Kadri). How much different would the Leafs have been if that trade would have taken place.

The Leafs would not have Kadri or Kaberle, who the Leafs traded for a 1st round pick and Joe Colborne to Boston anyways, but they could have had both Seguin and Kessel. Imagine the possibilities, they would have Seguin and Hamilton along with the other moves that Brian Burke made. Toronto Star writer Kevin McGran wrote an article last year which explained how the quick flip decisions have haunted the Leafs because of everything the Leafs could have had (Rask, Seguin, Hamilton, Couture). Couture however, was drafted by the Sharks because they traded up for Couture so the Leafs may not have had the opportunity to get Couture with the 13th pick (he was picked 9th overall). ( Now there is no way in saying that it would have worked out that way, maybe there were other reasons why the original trade did not work but the Bruins knew that the Leafs wanted Kessel and Burke believed that he was a big piece of the puzzle missing.

The 2009-2010 season was an eventful season for the Leafs they went without a win in 8 games to start the season. Kessel missed the first 12 with a shoulder injury and Burke began to clean house. However there was a glaring need for a replacement for Mats Sundin which Burke could not accomplish. Why is that? It’s because teams draft a number one center and the Leafs refused to do what was necessary to find that top center in the draft, the Leafs never put themselves in a position to do so. Then again it would take a really high calibre player to succeed in Toronto. Look at the list of elite centermen that the Leafs had in their history; Mats Sundin, Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, George Armstrong, Doug Gilmour, Syl Apps.

Is an elite centermen the thing that the Leafs are missing?

Let us look at the most recent elite centermen that the Leafs have had; Gilmour, Sittler and Sundin. These three centermen were great players but failed to achieve the ultimate goal of capturing the Stanley Cup with Toronto. So is it really an elite center that the Leafs need? Is it one player or do they need to have a more complete team? I would lean more towards the latter. In 1992-93 and 2001-02 the Leafs made it to the conference finals and honestly those teams were capable of winning a Stanley Cup. If you look at both rosters they had a complete team, good coaching (Pat Burns and Pat Quinn), high calibre goaltending but they lost in heart breaking fashion both times (especially in 1993). After that the Leafs have not been close to repeating the success that those teams had.

Back to my elite centermen discussion, I am not saying that a team does not need an elite center to win a Stanley Cup, I just think that so much more of an emphasis needs to be placed on creating a team that will do what it takes to win. That is what Brian Burke was trying to accomplish, he wanted to assemble a team that had motivated players that would be difference makers. His trades were great but every team in the salary cap era has to rely on the draft to get that over the top player that will be the leader of a Stanley Cup run. Jonathon Toews/Patrick Kane, Drew Doughty/Anze Kopitar, Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk/Henrik Zetterberg, Patrice Bergeron/Zdeno Chara(free agent but only because Ottawa let him go), Correy Perry/Ryan Getzlaf. They were all drafted (except for Chara) and surrounded by good players to carry them through the tough grind for the Stanley Cup. The Leafs do not have players like that because they never sat back drafted and developed players that can lead this team and they have had opportunities to do so.

How has impatience and refusal to rebuild the Leafs kryptonite?

In the 2008/09 season,  the Toronto Maple Leafs failed to qualify for the playoffs and instead of losing it’s final game and having a chance to pick in the top 5, the Leafs beat the Ottawa Senators in the season finale and ended up selecting Nazem Kadri with the 7th overall pick. They picked Luke Schenn the year before 5th overall but failed to be patient and stock up on elite level talent after that or prior to that. If the Leafs lost that game and had a lottery pick they could have had a player like Matt Duchene who went below Tavares 2nd overall, Brayden Schenn went 5th overall (who I think will be a good player). These players could have been a possibility if the Leafs decided that it was more important to build for the future. Instead the Leafs spent up to the maximum salary cap on mediocre free agents and they end up missing the playoffs coming in 10th and end up with a mid first round pick.

Over the last few years they have finally put more of an emphasis on the draft with players like Morgan Rielly, Frederick Gauthier,  and now it finds itself in that same position this summer with the 8th overall pick. In 2012/13 there were questions on whether Morgan Rielly should have made the team, but luckily the Leafs decided that it was better for Rielly if he had another season in the WHL. The Leafs found out the hard way what happens when they rush a player like Luke Schenn, if he had more time to develop for the NHL level he could have been an elite shutdown defencemen for the Leafs. Luckily Brian Burke was able to salvage value for Schenn by trading him for James van Riemsdyk. Whoever the Leafs with the 8th overall pick should be the best player available. Teams have made the mistake in drafting for what the needed but sometimes you cannot pass up on a sure thing. There were questions on Colorado taking Nathan MacKinnon with the 1st pick with Seth Jones available but I don’t think they regret their choice. So for the Leafs when they pick 8th overall and they choose a defencemen great, if it is a winger that is fine, this player will not be expected to break the NHL unless he is phenomenal at training camp and should have no pressure on them to do anymore.

Rethink Free Agency Approach

The Leafs have to stop handing out long term contracts to free agents that do not have a consistent track record for success. Look at the list of free agents that did not work out in Toronto;  Pavel Kubina 4 years $20 million, Jason Blake 5 years $20 million, Jeff Finger 4 years $14 million, Mike Komisarek 5 years $22.5 million, Coloby Armstrong 3 years $9 million, Tim Connolly 2 years $9.5 million. I will not include the David Clarkson contract yet because it was one season and I think that he is capable of rebounding.

This offseason for Brendan Shanahan has many twists and turns involved. It is not like the Leafs can go into a full rebuild unless they start selling off players like; Lupul, Clarkson, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gleason who down the road are not going to be able to provide much to the team. Is Shanahan willing to start his tenure by attempting to blow up the roster? Does he think that he can salvage the core of this team by selling off on parts of it. I have no doubt that the Leafs would be willing to make bold moves, they just need to stay away from over paying on a UFA that might not fit the mold of the team.

Offseason work will be crucial

The Leafs decided that Randy Carlyle will return to the team and this seems like a more patient approach for Nonis and Shanahan. Although the team played terribly they still believe that Carlyle can get the most out of this group and hopefully that is still true. However if Carlyle is coming back things will have to change, younger players should not be thrown under the bus if they are not the problem (i.e. Gardiner and Reimer) and players should be utilized properly. No more Colton Orr taking up a spot on the roster if he has nothing to contribute, realize that the team is struggling and adjustments have to be made. So really the Leafs have to make changes to the roster that will prevent another collapse.

Dave Nonis’ will have a hard time this summer because he has to make some bold decisions similar to the situation from last season. They have a group of UFA and RFA to resign or let go and he will probably think twice on giving out long term contracts unless it is for a proven player that will be a difference maker for this team.

This is the UFA list for the Leafs

Player Pos Team Age Cap Hit
Bolland, Dave » C TOR 27 $3,375,000
Kulemin, Nikolai » R TOR 27 $2,800,000
McClement, Jay » C TOR 31 $1,500,000
Raymond, Mason » L TOR 28 $1,000,000
Ranger, Paul » D TOR 29 $1,000,000
Staubitz, Brad » R TOR 29 $637,500
Lasch, Ryan » R TOR 27 $625,000
Bodie, Troy » L TOR 29 $600,000
Brennan, T.J. » D TOR 25 $600,000
MacIntyre, Drew » G TOR 30 $600,000
Smith, Trevor » C TOR 29 $550,000
Smithson, Jerred » C TOR 35 $550,000

This is the RFA list for the Leafs

Player Pos Team Age Cap Hit
Franson, Cody » D TOR 26 $2,000,000
Reimer, James » G TOR 26 $1,800,000
Holland, Peter » C TOR 23 $1,295,000
Gardiner, Jake » D TOR 23 $1,116,667
D’Amigo, Jerry » L TOR 23 $1,082,500
Ashton, Carter » R TOR 23 $1,040,000
Ryan, Kenny » R TOR 22 $900,000
Devane, Jamie » L TOR 23 $701,111
Abbott, Spencer » L TOR 26 $650,000
Abney, Cameron » R TOR 22 $588,333
Kozun, Brandon » R TOR 24 $550,000

My next post will discuss which players should be back, will be let go and which players could possibly be involved in trades with other teams.




About morassd94

Sports fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dallas Cowboys and the Toronto Blue Jays. Musician; piano and drums. Enjoy playing classic rock especially the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin.
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