Maple Leafs on track for a brighter future

Toronto Maple Leafs have won three of their last four games with goalie James Remier playing at a high level.

At the start of the 2015-16 NHL season the Toronto Maple Leafs were predicted to have a very poor year. Ticket sales were expected to take a huge hit, and viewership was predicted to decrease as well. This year’s Maple Leafs were expected to be the start of a rebuild, but if there’s one thing the Edmonton Oilers have taught us, building through the draft does not guarantee success.

If former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke taught us anything, it’s that saying you are going to build a team from the net out does not mean you will succeed.

If there was a Stanley Cup for the best management in the NHL, the Maple Leafs would be favourites to win it. Though their front office has yet to do anything significant, one thing is for sure, on paper it’s the best staff they’ve had in a while.

For the longest time, the General Managers (Brian Burke and John Ferguson Jr. to name a couple) have come and gone with this franchise have not been patient at all. They’ve tried the quick build, and it has not worked. Take the MLB’s Chicago Cubs as an example. A franchise that has not won a Championship since 1908, but with the help of Theo Epstein, who took over as general manager of the Cubs in 2011, a patient rebuild has the team only steps away from a World Series.

James Remier was named third star for the week in the NHL; Photo credit: Bloguin.com

James Remier was named third star for the week in the NHL;
Photo credit: Bloguin.com

In no way should current Maple Leafs team president Brendan Shanahan get the praise of Epstein. Before joining the Cubs, Epstein had built many strong teams with the Boston Red Sox. The Maple Leafs are Shanahan’s first swing at building a Stanley Cup team as an NHL team President, and for a first timer, he’s doing it the right way.

Shanahan first hired Brock University alumni Kyle Dubas as Assistant General Manager, followed by the hiring of Brandon Pridham as the Assistant to the General Manager and then went on to hire Mark Hunter as Director Player Personnel. Then came the hard part; Shanahan fired general manager Dave Nonis, interim coach Peter Horachek (head coach Randy Carlyle was fired mid-season), Horachek’s entire staff, director of pro scouting Steve Kasper, director of player development Jim Hughes and many other members of the team’s scouting staff were let go after the 2014-2015 season as well.

For now, Shanahan is still inexperienced as an NHL team President and so are his first three hirings of Dubas, Pridham and Hunter. But with the brains of some young hockey people, Shanahan was hoping to add some experience pieces to the management core.

Long-time Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock joined the Maple Leafs as Shanahan lured him their way. Babcock has coached in the NHL since 2002, and he won a Stanley Cup in 2008. He consistently coached the Red Wings to the playoffs, making himself known as one of the best coaches in the NHL.

Following this, Shanahan finished his off-season of re-building a front office by bringing in long-time New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. In 1987, Lamoriello took over as President of Hockey Operations for the Devils and continued on until May 2015, and later joined the Maple Leafs in July.

Under Lamoriello, the Devils were a playoff team every year between 1988 and 2012, except for three seasons. He built five rosters that went to the Stanley Cup finals and three of them came away with wins.

Now, with the Leafs set pieces in the front office, the focus shifts to the on-ice matters. The Leafs roster on paper is not very good. In fact, it’s considered one of the worst in the NHL.

To begin the 2015-16 NHL season the Leafs got off to a 2-8-4. On paper it looked as if it was the terrible start everyone expected from the Leafs. But there was a different vibe when the Leafs lost. Maybe it was because this season fans expect them to lose, so it’s easier to take them in. However, as games went on, the Leafs began to play better defensively and were no longer being outshot by a large margin by their opponents. Something that happened way too many times last year.

In their recent stretch, the Leafs have won three of four games. They beat the Dallas Stars for the second time this season, and the Stars are currently the best team in the western conference. They also picked up wins against top western conference teams in Nashville and Vancouver. We would be sitting here talking about a four game win streak for the Leafs had it not been for goaltender Jonathan Bernier. In the team’s 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers, Bernier allowed a shot from centre ice to go into the net, and then gave up another goal on a rebound that he should have easily held onto.

Last season, in their first 18 games, the Leafs had a record of 9-7-2. They also had more goals scored and fewer goals against than what they have this season. In terms of that, this year’s team is on pace to being worse than last seasons, although, on-ice performance would say otherwise. However, the way Babcock has this team playing brings a different feel. The Maple Leafs actually look like a hockey team, which is something we have not been able to say over the last couple seasons.

Their recent stretch of winning three of four should not be made in too big of a deal. The Leafs are not going to become a playoff team overnight, but with the people working the front office and Babcock behind the bench, this franchise is finding a path it has not seen in a long time, and it’s the right path.

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