Our Blue Hearts: Maple Leafs State of the Union

“Hi, my name is Jude MacDonald and I have what some consider an illness. I admit I can’t deal with it on my own and that’s why I’m here today at LeafsHub.com. My only therapy is to talk about it with others who have what I have. Although most look at it as a hardship, I’ve never seen it that way. Sure, I’ve been through hell and back because of it, but I wouldn’t change a moment.
You see…I was born with a Blue Heart.”

I’m the grandson of two poverty stricken Cape Breton coal miners who managed to somehow get to the rink, not to mention play junior together on the same line. Haddie MacDonald and Bill Cordy. Those names won’t mean anything to those of you who don’t know my family, but they meant enough to me to name my first daughter Hadee and my second is Billie.

For me, hockey is hereditary. Eighteen siblings on my grandfather Haddie’s side and enough 1st cousins to ice a team of all MacDonald’s. A pretty damn good one actually. We’re pretty much the Cape Breton Sutter’s. The game has surrounded me at every turn my entire life.

My childhood Saturday nights were spent with one grandfather or the other, quietly watching HNIC, listening closely to what they had to say. Neither man wasted many words. Careful wisdom was what I took away with me on the way home, sitting on my Dad’s lap pretending to drive home after the game.

And those Saturday nights weren’t spent putting up with Dick Irvin or that ridiculous helmet of Bob Gainey’s. (C’mon Bob, you were a pretty good player. You couldn’t have got yourself a decent lid? Looked like the “Great Gazoo” out there, man…) Nope. Nothing but the Leafs for us. The Saturday nights I recall were the ones like when Wendel got the decision over Probert after getting the jump on him off the draw. And I’ll never forget “Motor-City Smitty” flying down the runway to celebrate being named 3rd star.

I tell you about my upbringing not to pump my family’s tires, though it is something I take great pride in. It’s so you know where I come from. So you have an idea what type of stories you’ll get from me. I write from the perspective of a guy in the locker room. Here at LeafsHub.com we want to bring some of that mentality to the blogosphere. You put on a Leafs jersey you’re a teammate. You are part of the brass, I’ll support you respectfully. In saying that though, I speak my mind and have never shied away from that. Harsh evaluations are imperative if we truly are going to get to the bottom of our struggles. One promise I won’t waiver from, I’ll always write from the heart on here, even if it’s not the flavor of the month. I believe what I believe and that won’t change. At the Hub we are proud of our principles.

Thinking back on those Leafs teams, those were the days, eh? Terrible teams but we loved those crazy fools. We loved them unconditionally and the organization did eventually grow into something that captured us. I’ll always be thankful for Pat Burns’ time here. We were blue collar. That team filled our Blue Hearts. We sure weren’t the prettiest team, but that group was easy to adore. What’s happened to that ideology? More and more I see less importance put on heart and soul. They’ve become punchlines as opposed to the essential characteristics necessary to become champions of men.

Bobby Orr said, “Skill is nothing but potential without effort.” This is what troubles me about our present day Leafs. I’ll conclude my introduction to you all on that note, and I will now assess the state of the franchise from the point of view of a Blue Hearted fan like all of you.

So let’s jump to why we are here. I wanted my first story here to be an honest assessment of where we are as a franchise. Without rose colored glasses or total despair. No problem, right? Unfortunately, I’m convinced that even Columbo couldn’t figure out the mystery that is the Leafs.

[quote font=”0″]I wanted my first story here to be an honest assessment of where we are as a franchise. Without rose colored glasses or total despair. No problem, right? Unfortunately, I’m convinced that even Columbo couldn’t figure out the mystery that is the Leafs.[/quote]

After the disappointment of Saturday night it would be easy to tear this team apart. But the worst evaluations and decisions are made in times like these. There are real assets here. Together we are going to take a breath, sit back and have a long look in the mirror. Let’s see what’s looking back in the reflection. The Leafs have certain pieces in place. The next steps will be crucial in defining who we will be for the remainder of the decade. Is the right man in place to make those decisions? Can we win with Dion and Phil leading the charge? Is Randy Carlyle’s time done? Do we pull the trigger and unload valuable youth to fill our needs? These are the challenging choices that await. To make such calls we must look at the organization top to bottom and there’s no time like the present.

I suppose it’s fitting that we start with the position that Brian Burke, the man responsible for much of the good and bad we are dealing with, said we had to build from. We’ll start in the net.

Goaltending

Quick and painless here. Jonathan Bernier has the pedigree and youth that brings confidence at the position moving forward. Contract status is the lone question mark for me and I don’t foresee any issues when the time comes for an extension. Just behind him in the depth chart is James Reimer. Reimer does not boast the skill set of Bernier but has proven that he can be a solid NHL goaltender. He’s showed early that last year is forgotten and Reimer could also serve as a trade chip in the future. All in all, goaltending should be considered a strength. Add to that the emergence of prospect Antoine Bibeau and this becomes even less of an area for concern. So we’ll skip ahead with the understanding that goaltending is intact and the situation does not need immediate attention. If only the rest were so simple.

Centers

I’m not tip-toeing around this one. Up the middle we are an absolute tire fire. I’m a fan of Tyler Bozak. Not in reference to his size, but my assessment here has always been and remains, he’s a “good little player”. I know, I know, he’s an analytic nightmare. You’ll soon notice how much stock I put into that, but in this case it’s something that should be noted. This an area of alarming concern and it’s quantified by the next man in line, Nazem Kadri.

Sure, Kadri’s a #1 centre. If this were a skills competition held on Fan Appreciation Day. He’s a gifted young man but he lacks the strength and consistency to be the go-to guy here. Fitness issues and commitment have followed the young player during his tenure here, whether fair or not. Kadri is 24 years old. This is what he is bringing. He’ll put up points and make the highlight reel, but his 200 foot game doesn’t do it for me. He’s a bright center but this is a man’s game in a man’s league. I don’t have a problem with Kadri being a part of this team, but the thought that he will be our 1C needs to end. The sooner we are realistic about this the sooner we can make the necessary moves to address the void.

Mike Santorelli has added speed and smarts to the third line but is on a one year deal and not someone I consider an important part of our future. As for Peter Holland, this is a player I like. However I’ve been disappointed with his game in minimal use this year. I’d like to see him get more of an opportunity with skilled players, though in fairness he hasn’t earned it as of yet.

Final thought here is that with this group up the middle the Leafs will never be anything above mediocre. It is our number one area of concern and I have to believe that management will do all they can to address this situation, sooner rather than later.

Wingers

On the outside, the Leafs have a decent crop of wingers. James Van Riemsdyk is an elite power forward, and Joffrey Lupul plays with fire and can be a true difference maker. The problem with those two is there work in coverage. It’s not great. Couple that with our existing problems at center and it means lots of nights that the Zamboni only needs to do one half of the ice at intermission. You can have these guys but they can’t make up the entire portion of the top end of your forward group. If that comes across harsh I will say that like both players, just not great defenders.

Daniel Winnik, David Clarkson and Leo Komarov have brought the lunch-pail mentality that will help re-instill some pride back in our jersey. I’ll guarantee you Pat Burns would have welcomed any of these guys to his dressing room. I am however taking salary out of the equation and two of the three carry a hefty ticket for their roles. Winnik is on a one year and could only find a 1.3 million dollar deal. So we need to realize what he is. Serviceable but can’t be considered part of the core group for various reasons. Quite frankly though, I’m not concerned with the contracts of Clarkson/Komarov. If they continue to play as hard as they are now I’d toss them an extra million on the way out the door after their exit interviews. These are the type of guys we’ll need to lean on if we ever want to win 16 playoff games. Hockey is about battles and I’d bring these guys to war with me every time.

Rounding out the bottom 6, Panik is a big body and I see potential there. Matt Frattin has played his way out of the lineup and Carter Ashton will soon have to start paying for his tickets if he sits much longer. The Leafs brass have abandoned the enforcer in the hope of becoming a four-line team. That’s all wonderful for most teams, but when I look at the make-up of this roster I see a lot of players who aren’t exactly the bravest guys I’ve ever seen. Intimidation is alive and well and will never not be a part of the game in some form. Am I lobbying for a return of Colton Orr? Not exactly, no. I’ll tell you what though, a little infusion of some old time hockey wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen around here. I’m all for 4 lines but there must be a purpose. Montreal and LA are two teams that come to mind who have what I want in there bottom 6. I guess it goes back to identity, and as it stands currently, we are without one once again.

Forgetting anyone? Of course I am….David Booth. Oh, yeah, and some guy named Phil.

From my bio and evaluation you’re probably expecting me to rip into Kessel about his soft play and tubby frame. Quite the opposite. Phil Kessel is a gamebreaker. Phil Kessel has more God given ability than likely any Leaf I’ve seen. When Phil isn’t scoring can he be frustrating? You bet. But he can take that all away with one snapper. Number 81 is not the problem here. He creates and every team needs someone who is dangerous. Not many out there that brings fear into opposing net-minders and defenseman like Phil. Is he my kind of player? No. Do I respect his ability and want him to be part of this team for many years? Absolutely. Kessel wants to win. I can see that in him.

Looking at the group, I have zero doubt that there are major deficiencies that need addressing. Is it beyond repair? No way. We have good players but we all can agree that the mix is off. I think the Leafs are monitoring this closely and are ready to make a move to balance out our strengths and weaknesses. Right now the glaring issue with our forwards are puck strength and defensive acumen among our top end forwards

Defense

Massive question marks fill this portion of our assessment. I can’t think of any aspects of our defense you can hang your hat on. Morgan Rielly’s potential perhaps is our lone definite bright spot. He is an All-Star in waiting, but it’s looking like we will have to hold on for a while. Rielly is in the midst of a typical sophomore campaign. I’m not concerned there.

Dion Phaneuf, our Captain and leader on the blue-line could easily get 5 different evaluations from 5 bright hockey minds. Hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s not a great situation when your captain is likely the least popular player with your fans. As I’ve said many times, I like Dion’s game and winning will change perception of him very quickly. But the kicker is, can he ever get us there? He’s shown that he is not capable of carrying the team in any real way and what’s been worse is that his play has dropped at the most crucial times. Even his biggest fans must be honest. I still view him as part of the solution, but the more the narrative continues to push him out, mostly by his own doing, then a change could be on the horizon. Myself, I like his play early. His feet are still heavy but at least he’s been a mean piece of business.

And Jake Gardiner, the analytic poster boy, I really don’t know what to say. I guess that would depend on which Gardiner we are talking about. If you were a GM how could you possibly put a value on him? For myself, he could have the puck for the entire month of January and it wouldn’t excuse his refusal to take a hit or get to the puck first. His lack of commitment to defensive responsibility sends up red flags for me all over. I love the players skill set but we don’t know what we have in him. Great skater, lethal when playing with confidence but his on-ice IQ and effort level are stumbling blocks. And again, he’s 24. Pretty soon you are what you are.

Cody Franson is a UFA at seasons end. Another guy with a nice skill set with a propensity for loose plays. It’s hard to picture a long term future for Franson in Toronto. I think he’s looked stronger this year and I like his tool box. Can he fetch something of value?

I admit a personal fondness for Robidas and Polak. They are just my kind of players. Put on their work boots and go get it. Robidas will work himself into shape and add accountability to the room. Polak is a soldier, a full grown man. He has been even better than I expected. Yes, these guys will turn the puck over, but they’d rip their own arm off to get it back. Character. It matters and it matters in a big, big way. Don’t be fooled by the new wave of thinking, these are guys you can rely on when things get hard later in the year.

I think the defense has the potential to be good, but that won’t occur until we settle in to the groupings and personnel that are going to make up our 6. And until our forwards can defend to some degree, it will always be an uphill battle for our D-core.

The Pipeline

The Leafs are in okay shape here. Don’t want to delve too deep, but we have skill in Leivo, Nylander, Johnson, Brown and a few other bubble guys. We have role players like Broll and Carrick waiting in the wings. When you flip to the D we are in an even better position. I went down to London and watched Loov and Nilsson from the press box and filled three pages of notes on those two Generals. There are others as well. If you include recently demoted Stu Percy with Matt Finn, Petter Granberg and a couple wild cards we should produce five NHLers there if things project.

If we are spending time looking at this we have to start to think about how our assets line up for trade. Our talent assessment will be paramount in the coming months. The next series of plays by the Shanahan group can flip the script around here. The Leafs might be ready to be bold here. They also have the wherewithal to be patient. You know they are taking a much harder look at things than we are today. They want an improved product.

Coaching/Management

It feels as though I should slam these together and tackle it. Most that have read anything of mine previous or follow my Twitter know that I support Carlyle. Randy has a blueprint for what he expects and he’s not bending from that blueprint. That’s what we have today. It’s a standoff. Honestly, who is to blame is inconsequential for me because there is more than enough to go around for everyone. But what is the problem? Systems?

This isn’t about systems in Toronto. There’s a very real possibility that Randy Carlyle should be fired due to the atmosphere being to the point of no return, but this is 100% on the players. The inconsistent effort proves it. That can only fall on coaches to a degree. Toe Blake couldn’t get these guys going on a Tuesday night at home. If they get a new coach I’ll have his back too until I think he’s the problem. But I can’t in good conscience sit here and say that I believe coaching is the problem. He could be fired Wednesday but I think that Shanahan believes it’s on the players too. All said, even a staunch Carlyle guy like me knows the clock is ticking and rightfully so.

As for the management, it really is hard to know what’s what. I’ll say this, I trust Brendan Shanahan. If he says Nonis is the GM I take it as fact. I also trust Shanahan when it comes to the hiring of Kyle Dubas and his analytics team. It’s progressive and will prove useful in decision-making.

My gut is telling me that the brain-trust are sitting on a big deal. They’ve been waiting, biding their time. I believe they are ready to pull the trigger. Nobody is satisfied.

You know, I talk about trusting Shanahan but that’s not an easy thing to do, is it? We are completely fed up. We are angry. Sad even…our hearts are blue.

Well Brendan, our Blue Hearts are in your hands. We are allowing you to make the incision into the body that is the Leafs organization and find our heartbeat, caress it in your hand and pump that new solid Leaf blue blood back through this franchise.

I still believe in the crest. The Hub believes in the crest. You want to come talk hockey like we are sitting around the dressing room, we are always here. I can’t wait to crack a beer with you all at Leafs Hub.

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