Much ink has been shed lately, and much anguish expressed on the latest plight of the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the second season in a row, the Leafs have served up a second-half melt down that has removed them from contention for the playoffs, and put them in the running for a high draft pick. Such is the despair of Leafs' fans that it can be said, without hyperbole, that they have completely turned on this team and have now developed a genuine hatred for the blue and white.
It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed now. And I humbly offer my solution. The solution comes in two parts:
A) Put all energy in developing the AHL Marlies.
B) Put absolutely no energy or enthusiasm in developing the Leafs.
It sounds simple, but the plan is nuanced, and needs explanation.
Over the past few seasons, the Marlies have put together winning and entertaining hockey. Twice in the last four seasons, they have gone deep in the AHL playoffs, not winning the championship, but coming close. The parent Leafs, in the same time period, have made the playoffs once, and made a dramatic and spectacularly awful exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
If playoff hockey matters, and it does, the Marlies have done the job masterfully and, for that, the ownership group, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, must reward them. MLSE must promote the Marlies in their playoff drive and do all they can to ensure that the Marlies make the playoffs and go as far as they can. MLSE must market the Marlies as their marquee franchise: they must bring players from the Leafs' roster who can help the Marlies win. And they must put all planning and strategy for future success in the Marlies, not the Leafs.
Playoff success aside, the Marlies exist as the development team for the Leafs. In the earlier playoff runs, the Marlies made use of some of the current Leafs. They had a good young coach, Dallas Eakins, who was able to teach young players how to play winning hockey. MLSE must now see the Marlies as the team in which to put all resources and planning. Instead of worrying about finding a fitting coach for the Leafs, MLSE should invest a thorough and energetic search for the right coaching staff to work in the AHL, educating and developing the young players who currently play there, or will be playing there in the next few seasons, as the Leafs make use of low draft choices or trade for other organizations' best prospects.
And when those young prospects and draftees arrive, they should remain in the AHL with the Marlies for a minimum of four years. Why four years? Why not? Four years should bring in anywhere from four to six top young players through the draft. If the Leafs finish low in the NHL standings during those years, which I will discuss more fully in the next section, their first and second round choices will be high picks, and decent-to-outstanding players will come their way.
But MLSE must be careful how they draft. If they follow the Edmonton Oilers' model, and draft the "best players available" over a period of four years, they will have a roster of impressive names, but no real team. Therefore, the Leafs should not be blinded by the stats of top rated junior or international draftees, but should choose players with the right combination of "skill" and "character".
And these players must stay together with the Marlies, growing and learning and, hopefully, winning together. If the Marlies roster improves, and they go deep in the AHL playoffs, they will develop the so-called "culture of winning" so badly lacking with the Leafs. Winning begets winning, and confidence is created with success.
MLSE must market the Marlies as such a team. If MLSE gets the Toronto sports fans and media excited about them, and not the Leafs, then expectations rise for the Marlies and the young players and coaches on that team. When the time is right, four or perhaps five years down the road, MLSE should promote a cohort of Marlies up to the Leafs to be the core of the NHL team. They will still be young, they will be confident, they will be a cohesive group, and, most importantly, they will know how to win. They will be ready to compete at a high NHL level.
On first glance, this doesn't seem like a difficult thing to do. How does one downgrade something that is a chronic underachiever? But what is meant here is a fundamental shift in the priorities of MLSE, the Toronto sports media, and Toronto hockey fans.
We have been conditioned to follow the Leafs blindly and without question for generations. We have believed, sometimes correctly, most times incorrectly, that the Leafs' managers, coaches and players are among the elite, not just in the NHL, but in the world. We have been told that the Leafs are a financial and corporate success, and that, if we are patient, the team on the ice will follow suit.
We have been duped by a successive group of narrow-minded hucksters and con artists in fancy suits.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are only a financial success because those who buy tickets, either corporations or wealthy individuals who lock up season tickets year after year, have bought into the notion that the Leafs are "big league", and that attending a Leafs' game is part of being a high roller or a person "in the know" in Toronto. MLSE does little to promote the Leafs: they don't need to. And, as a result, they continually hire people in management positions who make decisions which presuppose that, because the Leafs are "big league", things have to be done a certain way.
The results of these decisions speak for themselves. There has been only one recent "winning" regular season, when the team made the playoffs. There has been no playoff success whatsoever for several season. Free agent signings, over the years, and blockbuster trades have brought in high priced players who have not flourished or developed at all, nor have they contributed in any way to the team's success. When was the last time the Leafs had a bona fide star player? When was the last or any time that the Leafs had a major star player, one who was among the elite in the league? There has never been a Maple Leaf equivalent to a Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, Hull, Beliveau, Richard, Orr, Crosby, Ovechkin or Stamkos ..... never. Players like Apps, Kennedy, Keon, Mahovlich, Sittler, McDonald, Clark or Salming have come close to superstardom, but have not quite reached it.
Yet, those superstar players are out there. They are few in number, but they always wind up somewhere else. It has always been that way. There is not only an absence of a culture of winning in Toronto, but there has never really been a culture of excellence either.
Year after year, though, the trades are made and the free agent signings are announced to much media attention and fan hopes. It has been a generational and continuous failure. And has been such a failure because the management, media and fans allow it to be so.
It must stop. We must pay less attention to the Leafs. And the key to this is in management's hands.
Just as I propose to allow four years for MLSE to place all their planning and expertise in the development of the AHL Marlies, I propose that MLSE put absolutely no emphasis in developing the NHL Leafs. The current Leafs' roster must be systematically disassembled: all players with the exception of three or four young players, must be sent packing in trades or buy outs. The trades should not be for any other teams' roster players, but only for draft choices or prospects from the other teams' development systems. And these prospects, as stated above, must play in the AHL for that time period.
The Leafs' roster, therefore, must be filled with veteran journeymen players, free agents who are looking for work, those who are cast-offs from other teams, those who can't find a place in another team's development plan, those who have suffered set-backs in their careers, either through injury or a loss of self-esteem, and who are looking for fresh starts. In other words, fill the Leafs with has-beens for the next four or five years. This will accomplish three important things.
First, it will make it easy for the Toronto media and Toronto fans to "fall out of love" with the Leafs. They will pay attention only because they like the sweaters. And they will look for another place to put their loyalty, which will be the Marlies.
Second, a roster of less-than-stellar players, those with no real or inflated expectation of success, will ensure that the Leafs will finish low in the league standings for the next few years. That ensures higher draft choices, and, therefore, access to more promising young players .... for the Marlies. No young draftees should play for the Leafs until they have paid their dues and achieved success in the AHL.
Thirdly, a roster of less-than-stellar players will eventually ensure that the Leafs operate under whatever salary cap exists. Down the road, a low salary cap means that, when the young Marlies stars are ready to be promoted en masse to the NHL, there will be money to pay them according to their worth and keep them in the organization. And furthermore, room in the salary cap will mean that, in five or six years, when the Leafs prove that they are ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup, there will be funds available to allow them to make decisions regarding free agents, players who will be able to "fill in the gaps" needed to turn the team into a contender.
Thus, a complete paradigm shift needs to happen. Toronto must become an AHL town for a few years, and the fans and media must get behind it. And Toronto must all but ignore the Maple Leafs for the same time period. It is almost like believing that the Maple Leafs have been removed from the NHL, only to re-emerge a few years later, like an expansion team, with a completely new outlook, completely new expectations, and a completely new culture. The minor league must now become big league, and the major league must all but disappear from our consciousness.
This is the only way.