Crumbling Leafs: Perpetual Failure at the Center of the Hockey Universe

Part I: Respecting Your Elders

Riding the wake of the latest NHL lockout, Canada’s favourite water cooler punch line, the Toronto Maple Leafs, have slinked into yet another closely-scrutinized campaign.  Shortly after news broke about the conclusion of the agonizing lockout, the Maple Leafs stole headlines by firing their cantankerous GM Brian Burke, a mere 10 days before the opening night puck drop.  It wasn’t the fact that Burke was let go that shocked the hockey world.  I think everyone sort of expected it to happen at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, the seventh straight without a playoff berth.  It was the timing and vagueness of the dismissal that left everyone scratching their heads.

With Burke gone and his protégé Davis Nonis nostalgically filling his void, the rumours quickly mounted about what might lie ahead for the Leafs.  First it was the Roberto Luongo trade rumors and then the talk about replicating the recent complete makeover of their neighbours, the Toronto Blue Jays.  Once the season began, the stories, as if just regurgitated from last year and the year before that, began to circulate about how awful a captain Dion Phaneuf is and how terrible a trade it was to acquire Phil Kessel.

Yet somehow in the midst of all the negativity and finger-pointing, the glimmer of hope still dimly shines buried deeply in the minds of all Leaf fans that this year’s group is only a tweak away from being contenders.  And it is the knowledge and stubbornness of this hope that has kept the Toronto Maple Leafs from establishing a successful blueprint for success.

Over the past 15 years, the Leafs have managed to stay middle-to-lower end of the pack, just good enough to keep the hope alive and poorly enough to know that some drastic changes are required.  However, each year, due to the fact that Toronto is the self-proclaimed “Mecca” of the hockey world, the mindset is always to win now at all costs.  All it takes is for the likes of Damien Cox to say that Toronto fans deserve better and that they have waited long enough in the cloud of mediocrity.  This evokes the inevitable pushing of the panic button and another collection of draft picks, prospects or combination of the two are swiftly shuttled off to secure the services of the “Missing Ingredient” to recaptured glory.

Are the 2012-13 edition of the Leafs ready to break their lengthy trend of failure?  At this point, all indications are that they aren’t any closer to success than in any of the last seven seasons.  Why do I say this with so much certainty?  I believe there are several factors to success that they are lacking and that the franchise has completely lost its identity.  In fact, I believe that if they were able to re-establish themselves and become a perennial contender, it will take 3 – 4 years to create a model for continued success.  And by success, I don’t mean just slinking into the playoffs and bowing out in a puff of smoke.  I mean establishing franchise worthy of their historical roots.

It all starts with the draft.  Just ask the New York Rangers.  Starting in the 2001-02 season, the Rangers started stacking their lineup with the games most individually talented and brightest stars.  Over the next three seasons, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, Alexei Kovalev, Theoren Fleury, Brian Leetch, and Petr Nedved amongst others, all donned the red and blue.  In each one of those seasons, the Rangers finished below .500 and missed the playoffs, going to show you that big numbers on paper don’t always translate to success in the real world.

Unlike baseball, where the New York Yankees are able to flex their big budget and bully their way into the post-season year after year, hockey is a sport where chemistry and collectiveness reigns supreme over individual skill and accolades.  In baseball you have a lot more control over your individual success because there is more of the one on one element to the sport.  In hockey, the most talented teams are not necessarily the best and the most prolific players in the world don’t always collaborate to create poetry on ice.  In hockey it takes the precise blend of skill, grit and character to breed a winner.

After the experiment in New   York failed, the Rangers made adjustments and began to rebuild their model for success.  Over the next decade, the Rangers strengthened their prospect base through astute scouting and successful draft selections.  Despite trading away several high draft picks to secure the aforementioned talent housed during the all-star team experiment years, the Rangers were able to turn their later picks into success stories.  During the first decade of the new millennium, the Rangers used picks after the first round to select several future NHL mainstays: Derek Stepan (2nd Rd 2008), Carl Hagelin (6th rd, 2007), Artem Anisimov (2nd rd 2006), Brandon Dubinsky (3rd rd 2004), current captain Ryan Callahan (4th rd 2004), Fedor Tyutin (2nd rd, 2001), Marek Zidlicky (6th rd 2001), and franchise cornerstone Henrik Lundqvist (7th rd 2000).

After making the adjustment following the 2003-04 season, the Rangers went on to make the playoffs six out of the next seven years.  During the same span of seven years, the Toronto Maple Leafs failed to reach the playoffs once.  The Leafs, like the Rangers, felt the pressure of playing in a big market and tried to load up on proven, tested talent while depleting their prospect base.  During the Pat Quinn years, the Leafs made deals to acquire aging legends, who were well past their prime, like Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Owen Nolan, Eric Lindros and Shane Corson.

During his seven years as Head Coach and GM with the Leafs, Quinn managed to lead the Leafs to the playoffs six times.  On the surface it appeared that the Leafs were surging.  The problem was, along the way to the short-term success, Quinn was depleting the Leafs minor league system and peddling away future draft picks, in essence sacrificing the future.  Once Quinn was relieved of his duties after the 2005-06 season, there wasn’t much depth left in the system.  The Leafs were at a fork in the road.  They could do what the Rangers did and try and rebuild through the draft and add depth to their system or they could double up and keep trying to add the “Missing Ingredient” at a premium cost to the future of the franchise.

During the reload, two particular trades severely handicapped the future for the Leafs.  On March 5th, 2003, the Leafs traded Brad Boyes, Alyn McCauley and their first round pick in the 2003 draft to the San Jose Sharks for Owen Nolan.  Nolan would go on to play 79 games over the next two seasons, posting 60 points in that span, while Boyes would go on to post five consecutive seasons of 20 or more goals including two seasons of 30 or more and one of 43.  Alyn McCauley would go on to post 47 points the next season with the Sharks and was a finalist for the Frank J. Selke award as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

A year after the Nolan trade on March 4th, 2004, the Leafs were at it again, dealing away two prospects, a first-rounder in 2004 and a second-rounder in 2005 for 36 year-old defenseman Brian Leetch.  Leetch would play 15 regular season games plus 13 playoff games for the Leafs before the next season was lost to a lockout, following which Leetch fled for Boston for his swan song in 2005-06.

Since hindsight is 20-20 and you never know who would have been selected with the picks had they not been dealt away, it isn’t fair to speculate who the Leafs would have taken with the picks instead of making the deal for both Owen Nolan and Brian Leetch.  But just for argument’s sake, the following players were still on the board when it would have been Toronto’s turn to pick in 2003: Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, David Backes and Joe Pavelski.  If they had kept their first-rounder from 2004, they would have been in position to select Cory Schneider, Mike Green, Ryan Callahan, or Johan Franzen.  When the 40th selection in the 2005 draft was announced, Paul Stastny, Kristopher Letang, Jonathan Quick and Keith Yandle were all still anxiously waiting for their names to be called.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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