I’m sure eventually a time is going to come when the sting of last season is long forgotten. If remembered, due to the scorch marks, it might even be regarded as being all for the best. Wear the scars of yesterday, don’t hide behind them. Yes, Babcock may have promised pain, but it is going to pale in comparison to what 2014/15 was like from the standpoint of a tried and true fan. As hard as it was for you and I to endure, can you imagine being a proud Maple Leafs Alumni, a former captain no less, barring to witness your alma mater seemingly mail it in night-after-night down the stretch. Devoid of any sense of honour for the crest they were representing. For Rick Vaive, this was his reality just a few short months ago.
When I got started at LeafsHub.com last fall, I had a decent idea of the type of work I was hoping to do, and with whom. I was and remain interested in expressing my own hockey opinions here at the site, but more than that I like trying to sharing some of the knowledge of individuals who are, will be, or have been, a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. That’s what makes it worthwhile, knowing you guys are taking a few moments to listen to what these guys who’ve lived it have to say. For my own selfish enjoyment and hopefully yours, I sincerely wanted to find men who know how it goes, who tell the Maple Leafs story best. After all, they are in it.
I remember it was getting close to the holidays and at LeafsHub.com we were starting to get our feet underneath us a little bit. The feeling was one where we were ready, without rushing, to take things up a notch and reach out to someone with not only a high profile, but a strong connection to the Maple Leaf. Several names were suggested and it kept going back to making sure we did our first real big piece with a Leaf who not only played for the organization, it had to be a guy who could come at the game from all angles and provide us with not only stories from the past, but give good solid hockey analysis of today’s Toronto Maple Leafs. If you start stacking up resumes, there was one name that stood out above the others because he checked all the boxes. A star player, a captain, a coach, and an analyst. That’s when I called no. 22, former Maple Leafs captain, Rick Vaive.
Not only did Vaive wear the “C” in Toronto, score 50 goals in three consecutive seasons (only Bossy and Gretzky had more total goals during that stretch), and tally more goals in a single season than anyone in Maple Leafs history, it was his work off the ice that intrigued LeafsHub.com. A championship winning general manager and coach in the ECHL, a head coach at the AHL and OHL level, and during his time at LeafsTV was considered by many, myself included, to be one of if not the top analysts in this market. After we did the story (which ended up being a two parter) our similar views on the game, how it should be played and our Maritime roots, paved the way for an accelerated kinship over the Blue & White. We would talk after pretty much every Leafs game (predominantly losses) about what we saw, or didn’t see, during the abysmal second half of 2014/15.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe the stark contrast in tone of our conversations between then and now. Toronto have new management, new motto’s and a brand new start. A chance to do it right, as they say. The one thing I’ve learned about Rick Vaive in the talks we have had is there is nothing he’s as vocal or as passionate about in hockey than proper development. If you read our first story, Vaive spoke at length about the right way to build a team and grow players within your organization. The Prince Edward Island native felt the wrath of rushing guys to the NHL first hand with the Maple Leafs clubs he was a part of. So many young players, specifically defenseman, rushed into the league when they just weren’t prepared. I’m sure that’s a big part of why Rick is so adamant that a certain blueprint be followed. Call it the Detroit model, the Hab’s of the 70’s, whatever label you choose, it boils down to building with your own pieces and without shortcuts. In essence, what we are seeing now for possibly the first time in Toronto.
It is with great pleasure I tell you Rick has agreed to once again share with you some of his thoughts on the present day Leafs, as well as an outlook on the future.”Vaive’s Voice” is one that should be heard from and it will be from now on here at LeafsHub.com.
Let’s get warmed up and start with the area no. 22 feels is should be the number one priority addressed in the steps moving forward and his thoughts on Jonathan Bernier’s assignment with the Toronto Marlies.
“The Leafs did exactly right thing with Bernier by sending him on this conditioning stint. I don’t like to use the phrase “lost his confidence” because I don’t think it’s as much that as an NHLer he’s lost belief in himself, it’s more about having a better feeling in the net. Getting back to the point where you aren’t thinking about this goal or that goal going in from a certain area, you are just focused on stopping the puck with no second guessing. I guess it’s confidence but for me he needs to find his feel. A rough start, an injury, he just has to get back into a groove. Jonathan Bernier could very well go down, find his game, come back up and finish the year as the no. 1 goalie. Through this experience you are going to have a better idea of what you have in him. Does this mean I think Bernier is the answer as Toronto’s no. 1 going forward? I’m not so sure, to be honest. I look around the league, and I know that he was road blocked by Jonathan Quick, but how many top tier goalies are back-ups picked up by another team and end up being a franchise type goalie? Bishop comes to mind off the top, but I really think you have to look to the draft or to unrestricted free agency. Chances are though if a team has a goalie like that he’ll never see UFA status before they lock him up. There is a strong possibility that Sparks and Bibeau could become NHL goaltenders but they’re young and I believe that they need more depth in net, as I don’t feel there’s a true no. 1 unless one of those two emerges. It’s an area I’d focus on possibly in the draft. Target a goaltender you like with a high ceiling and do whatever it takes to acquire him. I still think you build from the net out, so the next place I’d look at is the defence. Toronto has itself right where it wants to be as far as having all options open. Let’s say they do happen to get the first pick overall this year. Maybe you pick up the phone and call Don Maloney in Arizona, who would likely covet hometown boy Auston Matthews? Perhaps flip picks and grab a high end asset while you still walk away with a top end defenceman from the draft? You also have the opportunity to trade up or down using your Pittsburgh’s pick, so long as they get in. Or who knows, they could have a third first by then. We can speculate but I think you’ll see Toronto try and sure up the quality of those two positions throughout the organization. Management knows what is needed and I have no doubt they will continue strengthening the prospect pool.”
Now that last seasons debacle is done and gone, how does Vaive feel about the response shown from some of the roster returnees? What is his opinion of the 2015/16 Toronto Maple Leafs up to this point?
“I have to say that overall I am very happy with not just the direction of the team, but with the effort of this year’s group. As an Alumni who is still regularly involved with Maple Leafs, I won’t lie, last year was tough to watch. As for now, I can’t help but like the way they are playing and consistently approaching the game. I absolutely love that the Leafs finally have themselves on track. Patience is the key and it will be tested as we go. That being said, I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with some of the men who will be making the decisions around here and what excites me more than anything is that everyone is preaching the same thing. What I mean by that is, to a man, the message does not change. There will be no deviation from the plan and everybody is on the same page. Management and coaching will continue to cultivate a culture and create a mindset of what is expected if you are a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A style of play has been implemented so that when the guys in the pipeline are ready they can be plugged into a system that has already been established. Right now, the talent just isn’t quite there. When you watch them play though, they really do remind me of the Red Wings teams under Babcock. It’s “D to D,” hit the centre coming through the middle, and bang you are out. In the offensive zone you are seeing the defense actively pinching because they have strong support. There is no more “one and done” and you also see much less time being spent hemmed in their own end. Another aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is Toronto’s success in the faceoff circle. I don’t believe they have a centre of the four playing now who are under 53 percent. To go from a poor faceoff team to where they are now is nice to see. Starting with the puck more often than the opponent from the puck drop can make a big difference in who controls the play.”
Rick will go into much further detail on who he feels will go and who will stay in our mid-season special, where he will assess each member of the roster, staff included, as we gear up for the trade deadline in Toronto. But until then, LeafsHub.com asked Vaive for an overview of who has impressed him, his thoughts on the the style of play the coach has implemented, and how the organization is set up to take the steps necessary to build a winner.
“As they head into the next stage of the season, Toronto really have put themselves in a good position, mainly due to the structure they are playing with. The assets on their roster are looking pretty good, to the point that teams will have interest in acquiring them. Even some who they previously may have had trouble moving. Will guys be dealt? I would say there’s little question, but the guys are playing much better hockey than I would have expected. I would go so far as saying that not one guy isn’t going out out there and trying their hardest to win their battles. For a few, that might be out of their comfort zone and still they have bought into the system and what’s expected. P.A.Paranteau is a prime example of a player working his tail off and in doing so has probably made himself more attractive to others come the deadline. Another positive I’ve noted is Mike Babcock has not been shy to sit someone down if he doesn’t feel they are playing to their potential or giving him what he wants. Polak at the beginning, Winnik, Boyes, Holland, all have had their turn in the press box. With Babcock there is no grey area. This is what I want you to do. He provides clear direction, and I think that’s what players want more than anything.”
“Babcock lays out the plan for guys and it’s a lot easier to do your job when it’s been defined for you, when the players are aware of what’s expected and why. Like Dion Phaneuf, for example. I’m sure Babcock, knowing he’s gotten a little older, went to Dion before the season about his usage and laid it out for him. Mike has reduced his minutes against the other teams top lines and he’s not out killing penalties on the first unit as often. The effect on his physical play is evident. He’s still playing on the PP and you are seeing his all around game, more like when he started. You are getting quality minutes over quantity. Personally, I think the improvement in his game has been huge. I guess based on the great start he had to his career, I feel he’s been asked to do way too much and has been unfairly judged when he hasn’t been able to carry the load. I have a great deal of respect for the fact that last year of all the older players he did not give up. As bad as things got, Dion was out there playing hard. Now he’s in a perfect situation to succeed and has been a very good partner for Jake Gardiner. I think they’ve benefited from playing together under the right circumstances.”
“So further to the point about putting people in a defined role, none of this is possible without Babcock doing so for Matt Hunwick. His job is clear. Play sound fundamental hockey, take care of you own end and be a responsible, reliable player for us. No expectation of offense, just do your best to contain the other team’s top players through sound positioning. In Babcock’s words, “be a good pro.” It’s allowed Phaneuf to slide into a suitable spot, as well as showing Morgan Rielly the right way to defend and hopefully in turn help his development into a top two-way defender. But if I’m going to mention individuals, I must say that of the guys who are still here, all of them are playing much better hockey. One of the standouts for me has definitely been Nazem Kadri.”
“I have been impressed with the strides everyone has made, but maybe none have surprised me more than Kadri. I’ve been critical of him before and I have no problem saying he deserves a ton of credit. I think he has played extremely well. He could possibly take a few less wristers on net for my liking, but he has stepped up his overall game in a big way. Honestly, versus St.Louis the other night he could have had a career defining moment. Dropping the gloves with David Backes was a major statement, as was the two goals he scored that same night against a team that has usually been a little too heavy for him to handle. He’s winning his battles on the walls, he’s playing with all he has to offer and that’s all you’ve ever wanted to see from Nazem. For me, it would be between him and Leo Komarov in terms of who has been the best Maple Leaf forward so far. Another example of player who has raised not only their level, but their stock as well.”
“Joffrey Lupul may not necessarily be in the future plans but hopefully he can stay relatively healthy and continue to score. Tyler Bozak has actually made a bit of a case to maybe hang around as the team builds. He could slot into the 3rd line centre role as the young guys mature, and it’s clear that Babcock is satisfied with his play. It may be a lot of money to pay a bottom-six centre, but when the team is ready to contend and gets deeper there could be a use for him. We’ll see. Players are still going to be moved out and the Leafs will remain sellers. But they are facing some tricky decisions and many question marks. The best part in all of this is that the men who are in place are more than capable of making the right calls with the team’s future in mind. Tough choices will be made and I have full confidence that the management group in Toronto is equipped to do what’s right for the organization for the years ahead.”
Rick Vaive has been wishing for this for a very long time. Now, in 2015, he’s finally getting his wish.
“They have a real plan in place here. A plan that revolves around drafting, development, and internal growth. Continue laying the foundation of structured play style and slowly add the top end talent as you bring it along. That is the plan. And you know what? The plan is working.”
LeafsHub.com hopes you enjoyed the debut of “Vaive’s Voice.” We will be back at the halfway point for another installment to go over and rate the team from top to bottom. We’ll also look into Toronto’s future stars, who will still be around after the trade deadline, and what surprising names might not be.