Leafs Can Right Previous Wrongs

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a grand opportunity in the next few weeks to start righting some of the wrongs they’ve displayed the last several years.

The team practically has a blank canvas to begin retooling and reshaping the entire organization. In fact they can start taking small steps to correcting decades of mismanagement, misguided direction and futility by making some key moves in the next few weeks and months.

Its going to take time and patience on everyone’s part, from ownership, to management, to the coaching staff and even from the fans in order to see something good over the next little while.

Five years out of the playoffs and 42 years of losing however has led to patience being worn thin. But in very short order, the team can start the process of doing what it takes to build a successful franchise.

It all starts at the draft. This is something the Leafs have not done very well. They’ve frittered away picks, they’ve made poor selections, they’ve rushed players too soon to the NHL only to ruin them as players.

The team is starting to get a bit better. There are 11 draft picks who have been semi-regulars this season for the blue and white.

1996 – Tomas Kaberle
1998 – Nik Antropov, Alex Ponikarovsky
2002 – Matt Stajan, Ian White
2003 – Jeremy Williams, John Mitchell
2005 – Anton Stralman
2006 – Jiri Tlusty, Nikolai Kulemin
2008 – Luke Schenn

Schenn so far is their key building block for the future. Long time Leafs Kaberle, Antropov and Ponikarovsky are the players expected to be moved in the near future, hopefully bringing in what the team sorely needs: more draft picks and prospects.

Years of going for the quick fix, trying to win in the short term has cost them dearly. Combining this with poor cap management and wasting away assets has left the team in the state they are right now.

Its forced them to try and fill holes via free agency: Jeff Finger, Nik Hagman, Jason Blake, Jonas Frogren, Dominic Moore (waivers), Pavel Kubina, Curtis Joseph have like many of their predecessors come outside the organization to be key cogs. The likes of Kubina, Blake, Finger came with a big cost and many are still wonder for what reason?

The team only has 2 of their last 11 first round picks on the roster. Sure, the team has had success in later rounds, but even that continued expectation is questionable considering they’ve moved picks out like hot cakes.

The team moved a 3rd, 5th and 6th pick for Jamal Mayers, Ryan Hollweg and Brad May. These 3 players are of the same ilk. If they get it wrong the 1st time, maybe that’s acceptable. But to do the same thing 3 times over is excessive. Chronically making the same mistakes over and over will be unacceptable going forward.

The team also included a 4th in 2010 so that the Panthers would take Bryan Mccabe off their hands getting Mike Van Ryn in return and moved their 2nd rounder in that draft to get Mikail Grabovski. These moves would be ok, if the team wasn’t rebuilding and could afford to do this. And it would be ok if their draft record wasnt so atrocious. The saving grace is at least Grabovski is a young player with potential.

But much of the focus has been what the team has done with their 1st rounders.

1995 and 1999 – Jeff Ware and Luca Cereda were major busts

1997 – The infamous Roberto Luongo pick that the Leafs traded with a then young Kenny Jonsson to Long Island for Mathieu Schnieder and Wendel Clark. (The Leafs at least have one player to show for this deal, one more than the Isles. The Leafs moved Schneider for Alex Karpovtsev who later was moved for Mccabe who of course was traded for Van Ryn)

2000 and 2003 – The Leafs have nothing to show for the Owen Nolan trade that cost them Brad Boyes and their first in 03 which turned into Steve Bernier for the Sharks.

2001 and 2002 – There is still a ways to go before a final verdict can be placed on the deal that sent Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen for Lee Stempniak. But suffice to say the team once again mismanaged assets here either by keeping them around too long, or not getting more or more of what they needed.

2004 – This pick went in the Brian Leetch trade that turned out to be Lauri Korpikoski. Leetch played a grand total of 28 games.

2005 – Perhaps the deal that defined John Ferguson’s ineptness. Ferguson traded Tukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. Raycroft lasted a year before he was replaced while Rask is a top goalie prospect.

2007 – To further the point of Ferguson’s stupidity, he traded the 1st and 2nd picks in this draft for Vesa Toskala to make up for his mistake in getting Raycroft. Toskala has struggled while Logan Couture is the best prospect on the NHL’s best team.

Really, any of the Leaf picks still active were practically given away.
-Adam Mair (97) and a 2nd (Mike Cammellari) went for Aki Berg
-Fred Modin (94) went for Cory Cross
-They Leafs have little to show for Shawn Thornton (97), Brendan Bell (01), Mikael Tellqvist (00) and Kyle Wellwood (01)

Hopefully now the pain has ended and a new era starts with a focus on the draft.

Top Rookies/Prospects:

Luke Schenn – The big debate has been whether Schenn should have stayed or been returned to junior. He has certainly not looked out of place in the NHL and is one of the rookie leaders in minutes played. He is their one cornerstone player so far. A strong case can be made that he should have returned to junior to hon his offensive game.

Jiri Tlusty – He has yet to score this season and his inconsistency and lack of production is a concern. But he is still young and the kind of player the team needs to be patient with, not throw out with yesterday’s trash. There is potential with his speed and skillset.

Nikolai Kulemin – He started well, but has faded since. The adjustment to North America has taken a bit longer than expected but there isnt any doubt about his abilities. He has a great shot, a quick release and good hockey sense. He seriously needs though a big time offensive player to play with to maximize his talents.

Justin Pogge – He has had a couple of cups of coffee with the team with varying results. Time. Thats what Pogge needs. He was fed to the wolves in his last game and hopefully thats something he can learn from. They’ve been pretty patient with this kid and they need to be if they hope he is the future in goal for the Leafs.

Anton Stralman
– Stralman has regressed after a decent debut last year. He has lacked confidence it seems and needs to get it back soon if he wishes to be part of the team’s plans. Who knows if he is as he does not appear to have the kind of makeup that fits a Brian Burke run team.

Others: Jimmy Hayes, Jamie Sifers, Chris Didomenico

Clearly the cupboard is bare. But that can change with a strong few months of roster shuffling.

Its a cast of thousands it seems on who will be available from the Leaf roster. Really only Schenn carries the tag of untouchable.

Who they move, who they can move and what they bring back is still up in the air. But if the Leafs can move their more prominent names available, they can certainly get something of value.

Its possible they could target upcoming free agents like Mike Cammellari or Jay Bouwmeester as rumours have suggested. But there isnt anything more valuable, especially in a cap world, than building your own cache of assets from within.

Some possibilities:

Antropov to Chicago for 1st round pick in 09, 2nd in 2010, Brent Sopel

The Hawks are looking to round out their top 9 forwards and add some size up fro
nt. They lack cap space, but, if they can get Toronto to take on Sopel and his contract that has 2 years, 2.3 mil per left, they could add a good player without removing a top forward like Havlat, one of their goalies or a top prospect. The Leafs get a 2nd 1st round pick plus replenish the 2nd lost in the Grabovski trade.

Alexei Ponikarovsky to Vancouver for 2nd round pick in 09, a 3rd in 2010

Pony adds another big forward with some offensive ability. His attraction is size, but also as someone familiar to Mats Sundin. They shared good chemistry as teammates and he would add good depth to the team. He is signed for another year and that would cover off Pyatt who is a pending UFA. The extra pick is not a grand price for someone under contract, making just 2 mil and a 20 goal scorer.

Pavel Kubina to Jersey for 2nd and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond

A missing piece to the surging Devils squad is another big minute blueliner. He offers a RH shot which the Devils do not have on D and a big shooter for the PP. He has cup experience and historically been a good teammate. The Leafs again get a pick but also add a big body in Leblond who is young, can skate and play physical. A Burke type player.

Lee Stempniak for Joffrey Lupul

This is all about cap relief for the Flyers. Stempniak is a 1.9 mil cap hit and has 1 yr left on his deal. Lupul is currently 2.9 but jumps to 4.5 the next 4 years. The Leafs have the cap room to do this, plus, he is a player Burke is quite familiar with from Anaheim. Points wise, Lupul has 4 more points so far this season so the dropoff isnt drastic. Briere is coming back at some point, they’re going to need room to sign a goalie for next year and could use any relief they can get to improve their team.

These series of moves provides help now, but moreso in the future. It also leaves the door open for the team to hold on to their most prized trade asset, Tomas Kaberle, until the right deal comes along. His age, status, skill level, contract, Kaberle is worth quite a bit and the Leafs can wait for a king’s ransom for him. Or they could keep him altogether. A win-win situation.

The right track for the Leafs is to be patient and build a strong foundation. The Habs are doing it, so are the Caps, Hawks, Coyotes, Sharks and Bruins. They’ve done so via the draft, allowing them the assets to acquire big pieces through trade, or supplement their talented picks via free agency.

Its a no brainer for the Leafs to go this route. They’ve seemingly tried everything else with no success. Its time for this organization to carve a new path and the time may be now to start paving the way to a stronger future.