What are the Leafs doing? The short answer is, seemingly, nothing. But is this just the pause as they inhale and get ready to spring into action to cover the long list of off-season tasks or is it some other form of inactivity?
Back up for a minute to the last weekend in April before the Leafs didn’t really explain the exit (or not) of Lou Lamoriello, and we talked about how the team had a lot to do and not as much time as it seems to do it. My take on April 30 was that either the Leafs needed to swap out Lamoriello for a new GM that morning, or they needed to extend him for a period that covers this whole off-season. Instead they did half of that and left the team continuing on in a state of inactivity that they’ve been locked into since the trade deadline.
Since March 1, in excess of 125 players have been signed to extensions or ELCs in the NHL, and the Leafs count for one of those: Mason Marchment.
The Carolina Hurricanes, who technically don’t have a GM and have managed to turn their ownership and management changes into a public circus, have made a trade, and a good one. Meanwhile in Leafs land, nature, abhorring a vacuum, has filled the empty space on every sports site where the Leafs news goes with speculation, rumours, and campaigning for the future GM as if this is something the press gets a vote on.
Behind the scenes, there is some activity. The Marlies are in the second round of the playoffs, and the Leafs brass, minus Lou Lamoriello who is allegedly now a consultant, have been in attendance at Ricoh Coliseum. The list of young players on tryouts that the Marlies had as a second development squad has been winnowed down to just the AHL-contracted players not in the playoffs and some Leafs draft picks. Someone is filing some paperwork there.
Then there’s the rumours of who is going where to talk to whom. Mike Babcock is either running off to Arizona to have an emergency meeting with a disgruntled Auston Matthews, or he’s there on vacation and is dropping in. He’s also slated to drop in on Frederik Andersen, but you can’t actually go to the World Champions and avoid that, what with it being in his home town. Babcock went to Worlds last year with Lou Lamoriello. They also watched some NHL playoff action in Nashville, so reading too much into his travels is as fruitless as it is inevitable.
Just one note on the dissatisfaction of Auston Matthews: Nick Kypreos and others have hung this story on the idea the Babcock lost Matthews as his “go to” guy in the playoffs. Kypreos constantly mentions ice time. And yet … you know what’s coming don’t you?
Auston Matthews played the most minutes per game at five-on-five among Leafs forwards in the playoffs. He is one second per game behind Brad Marchand at time of writing. So the guy who plays the most on the Boston Bruins is playing exactly the same proportion of the game as Matthews. Neither of these players are playing 20 minutes a night at five-on-five. No one runs a team like that anymore except John Tortorella, who rode his top line at that pace and failed. The only other team that’s come close to that outmoded usage is the LA Kings, who rode Anze Kopitar and his line and failed.
Now if you want to talk power play ice time, then there’s a question. The Leafs are way down on the list of playoff power play time per game played because they didn’t draw a lot of penalties. And Matthews played on the second unit, which played about 30 seconds less per game than the top unit. And here’s my take on that: Auston Matthews was one of the poorest performing Leafs forwards on the power play all year long. Not by goals, by shots, both individual and on-ice. The unit didn’t succeed as a group, and he was not any better than the rest of them. So if anyone is dissatisfied on Auston Matthews’ behalf that other players got more time on the power play than him, I’d say to both you and him that when he’s good enough at it, he’ll play the top unit. The chances that that day comes next year on day one are really high. You may have noticed that Matthews doesn’t like to fail, and his small playoff minutes on the power play were better than his regular season efforts.
If the real source of a problem, if there even is one, is that Matthews wasn’t used to matchup against the Patrice Bergeron line and he thinks he should have been, well, that’s a problem only Matthews can solve himself. The truth is, he was the main offensive driver for the Leafs in the playoffs, but that came with some time spent hemmed in his own zone that was bad even by Leafs standards. It was bad enough to make the New York Islanders blush. Matthews is a great player, but his playoff performance was not great against Boston.
As far as Mike Babcock goes, while I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to put Mitch Marner on Matthews line unless the Leafs land a really sexy centre to replace Bozak, I also don’t ever want to see Connor Brown on the Leafs top line. Ever. Not for a second. That getting hemmed in problem, the lack of Matthews’ and Zach Hyman’s forechecking success against Boston, none of that was improved by Brown trying really hard. He performed at his peak ability. He overshot what I thought that capability was, and he still wasn’t good enough to be playing that role.
But then who else was there? With Nazem Kadri out, and then returning and performing very, very poorly, Nylander had to make things happen on another line and so did Marner. When the Leafs started running out of viable top line players who could handle the Bruins defensively, that might have been something to look to the GM for answers on. The bright glaring need for defencemen on the Leafs has always obscured some serious weaknesses in the forward ranks. If you want to run a top-heavy team that can dominate in the regular season with one line and dissolve in the playoffs, the Leafs are rich in ways to do that. If you want to be like Tampa or Winnipeg, the Leafs are not good enough. Yet.
And there we are right back to staring at the empty GM chair. And contemplating the Leafs’ inactivity.
They have acquired very little as part of their rebuild. They spent a pick to get Frederik Andersen, they tossed a low pick and an AHLer to Vegas to get Calvin Pickard, and they spent two second-round picks two years running to shore up their centre depth for the playoffs. Everything else they’ve done has been filling in with short-term free agents and disposing of bad contracts.
The time for trading, for acquisition seems to be here. To be honest, it seemed to be here weeks or even months ago, but the deals haven’t panned out. That’s not necessarily bad. In running down the Leafs career of Lamoriello, most people start with the Dion Phaneuf trade (or conveniently forget it if they want to claim he’s had no success), but I begin with my favourite deal, which is the one he didn’t make. I am extremely glad the Leafs did not pour out a bucket of draft picks for Travis Hamonic. Or Ryan McDonagh.
It takes nerve to say no to a move that would legitimately help the Leafs at their weakest position because the cost is too high. So that’s my summation of the career of Lou Lamoriello: He was a man with the fortitude to say no. Now the Leafs need someone to say yes to some things.
Brendan Shanahan pushed out Lamoriello early, and then stopped and did nothing. He’s not yet said yes to anyone as the replacement, and that seems like a strange thing to do when there is so much work to be done. He is reported to be speaking to Mark Hunter right about now, and I’m baffled by the timing. Surely you want Hunter running the draft which is in less than two months. Surely you want Kyle Dubas focused on the Marlies, the prospects on tryouts, the draft picks who might be offered contracts and that small matter of the ECHL team forming up in Newfoundland.
Maybe Shanahan has decided to say no to both Hunter and Dubas (have you noticed Ron Francis’s name is not cropping up in any rumours?) and just keep on running things himself, or there’s been a delay in getting the big, blue off-season machine going for some other reason. The simplest explanation is that they want the Marlies playoffs past the second round, but that doesn’t really add up. They can’t wait for the Calder Cup to be handed out, not when success for the Marlies means playing in June.
Last year, the Leafs signed Miro Aaltonen in March and Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman on May 16. They aren’t quite at the point where they’re risking losing out on opportunities because no one is minding the store, but they are at the point where you have to ask what they’re gaining by delaying. Is this just bureaucratic inertia or is Shanahan having second thoughts?