There are many things that the Leafs need to fix in the future. There are many fingers to point, and a lot of blame to go around.
Let's start with the obvious:
-Fire Randy Carlyle.
Whether he is or isn't the source of the Leafs' problems are both fair assessments. On one hand, you can make a case that he won a Cup with the Ducks. He has a good enough resume. But since then, he's failed to replicate that same success.
However, his style of Hockey is clearly not suited for the composition of this roster. He has an old-school view of the NHL, where the team is strong, big and brutish defensively. Which, the Leafs clearly are not.
This roster is anything but that. It's set-up and configured as a run and gun team. The defensive system is clearly not working. It obviously needs a change.
I've said numerous times before, good Coaches know where team issues lie, and make the right types of changes to correct them. Carlyle really hasn't done this. He is stuck in the mentality of: "this is how I've done it before, so it should work." This kind of outlook doesn't match up when other NHL teams are changing players and coaches as needed. The Eastern conference is much different from the Western Conference in terms of style of play, and the NHL is changing as a league as well.
Who do the Leafs hire if they let Carlyle go? Some are saying hire Peter Laviolette. Others are saying Davis Payne. Personally, I think Willie Desjardins would be an excellent choice as Coach.
-Fix obvious loopholes.
Among the Leafs' biggest mistakes this season was over-valuing and under-analyzing the benefits and withdraws of the roster changes that the team made. Many of us were concerned that the Grabovski for Bolland swap was going to be literally painful. I was one who expressed many concerns about Bolland's inability to stay healthy, and this season wasn't any different.
Not bringing back a character player who could have been retained for cheap was a huge mistake. That player was Leo Komarov.
Uncle Leo, as I like to call him (see Seinfeld) was an asset removal that was detrimental to the team. He speaks 5 different languages...so he obviously knows how to troll players. He is physical, and he was a strong player on the PK. He was plenty capable of taking key defensive zone face-offs. To think that the team handed out that Clarkson contract when it could have just brought back Komarov, paid him $2.5-3 and he could have produced similiar, if not better results over Clarkson was hugely detrimental to the team. A huge mistake to say the least. They also could have said no Clarkson and guaranteed Komarov 3rd line minutes. But Nonis and Carlyle didn't choose to do that.
The PK ranks 28th in the league. In the prior season, though shortened, it ranked much higher. Komarov was a huge asset in the PK, and he did a lot of other things with success that you didn't often see on camera, but they made a huge difference. You can't win in this league with a PK like that so low. Do whatever it takes to bring him back.
Uncle Leo, also frequently took successful runs at premier NHL talent with success (see below).
My next three views sort of tie together:
-1)Take a river-boat gamble on a 1D upgrade.
We frequently look back at bad trades the Leafs made. Some were hits, others ended up being huge misses. But the time is now:
The Leafs need upgrades in both areas either 1D or 1C.
Whether you like Phaneuf or not, he could definitely use a different look somewhere. He has become the target of people like Don Cherry and has a host of people who frequently inaccurately criticize him for trying to make up for obvious mistakes the rest of the Leafs are clearly making. (I think this is more often than not a Coaching thing, moreso than it is a talent thing).
Personally speaking, I think Phaneuf is plenty capable of being a first pairing defenseman. There's also nothing wrong Carl Gunarsson. I do however, think Gunnarsson would be a more ideal fit as a 3-4 guy.
I don't know who the Leafs should target as a 1D to compliment for Phaneuf. But it's something that should be considered. I'd like to see Phaneuf with a PMD. Perhaps they don't need an upgrade there, and Rielly or Gardiner can play that role.
-2) Center of attention: Go find a clear-cut 1C:
These guys are probably the hardest find in the NHL, they are rarely available, and they always cost the most.
This target of course is obvious,the huge need for a 1C upgrade.
The Leafs clearly are not going to go places with Kadri/Bozak/Bolland and McClement as this teams' approach at the Center position for a wide variety of reasons.
But here's the problem:
However, and whoever the Leafs choose to select as a trade the team has got to do it.
Looking at Colorado's depth at position maybe you look at either Duchene or MacKinnon? Neither will come cheap, but both are at least young enough they'll be worth an investment. Colorado has the type of needs the Leafs have assets to give. It's a place to start at least.
-3) Decide on Gardiner or Rielly, but not both.
I know I am going to get lambasted for this view, but hear me out:
I think Gardiner and Rielly are tremendous blueline assets for the future of this team. As many mistakes as Gardiner makes, he also spends a great deal of time in making up for the mistake his team-mates are making.
As for Morgan Rielly I wasn't as impressed with him that much earlier in this season, but seeing him mature like he has lately shows the future is wide-open for this kid.
Both of these guys are excellent skaters, and very poised with the puck. They both clearly have offensive upside.
Then there is the problem with Cody Franson. On one hand, Franson is a blight defensively, frequently making costly mistakes. On the other hand he has a clear-cut offensive ability.
The problem with this blue-line of course is the fact there are too many defenseman who shoot Left and not enough who shoot Right. This is where Franson has an advantage over the other guys.
When you have a roster full of defenseman who shoot from one side, it creates all kinds of other problems not always evident. But here's how I explain it:
It's basic things like: Being able to make outlet passes on the backhand or the forehand.
Or, skating behind the net on the backhand vs. the forehand.
Also, shooting from the near side of the net, verses the far side of the net, are also those things that create too many problems with the blue-line.
So, it seems rather obvious that the Leafs need to target a 1D who shoots Right. Not that I could tell you who that guy is going to be.
One can make a strong case Gunnarsson has helped Phaneuf. But I think Phaneuf would really benefit in having a guy who's a true PMD.
So here's how the three-views tie together:
Believe it or not I think it's time that the Leafs swing for the fences in a trade. I would try to move some combination of Kadri or Bozak, Franson/Rielly/Gardiner, and possibly even the Leafs 1st round pick this year even if it's a 8-10 pick.
By doing so, they either choose to upgrade the 1C or 1D position. Both are clearly team needs as of this moment, and you gotta start somewhere.
Why? I think TJ Brennan is close to being NHL ready. I also don't think Percy is far off, and I see a bright future for another Leafs prospect in Tom Nilsson, who, also shoots Right. He just needs some AHL time next year.
Truthfully I don't think the Leafs can get both a 1C or a 1D this off-season. But if the team wants to move forward it needs an upgrade in at least one area both would definitely be preferable but odds are the Leafs can only get 1 position upgrade at best, if the cards are right. 1C is where I'd try to look first, with fury and fervor.
Sorting out the 4th line:
When Pat Quinn had success with the Leafs he rolled 4th lines with success. No coach since Quinn has done so since, and it shows. Clearly it shows this season.
Another huge problem, and probably this is a Randy Carlyle induced one, is the lack of use or inability to use the 4th line with effectiveness.
Carlyle has spent this entire season riding the 1st line too much. Kessel and JVR clearly look injured, out of breath, even though both are having career years.
Move on from Colton Orr, and forget about Fraser McClaren.
If McClement has to stay, keep him on the PK, and don't put him on the 3rd line or give him 2nd line defensive role minutes. That's just dumb, and it's not working to protect a lead.
I really think Carter Ashton needs to play. I think he's plenty capable. He's fearless in the corners, not really a fighter, and shouldn't have to be one. But his size and cycle ability should be enough to help the team. His offense with the Marlies is proof enough he's ready for the NHL.
Jerry D'Amigo also needs to play. He's still young, and makes some occasional mistakes but he's plenty smart. After all he was attending RPI before the AHL transition. I like his speed and I think he's defensively sound enough to play on the 4th line. Both Ashton and D'Amigo should play 7-10 minutes a game. Not 3-5 minutes a game.
Maybe Peter Holland isn't an ideal 4th line Center, but I think he's capable of being a NHL center, his offensive isn't a problem.
The Leafs could always go cheap and let McClement and Bolland walk. And trade some of Kadri/Bozak/Gardiner/Rielly/Franson and use these guys.
Either way, you look at it, it's time for the Leafs to stop flirting with mediocrity, and it's time to get serious in making this roster better.