Why I Gave Up on the Toronto Maple Leafs

So I’m in Toronto and was watching the Grill Room and they were talking about Brian Burke’s decisions so far as GM as well as the Phil Kessel trade. I’m passionate about hockey and the discussion prompted me to share my thoughts as to the key mistakes this organization makes over, and over again in the salary capped NHL. There was one trade in particular that sent me over the edge. It involved a young goalie prospect named Tukka Rask who is now playing for the Boston Bruins after they fleeced the Leafs by getting rid of a back up goalie, Andrew Raycroft, in return for a bona fide, top notch prospect. At the time, the Leafs were in a position of power with two solid young prospects in goal, with Justin Pogge and Rask. I always felt Rask was clearly the better of the two, but they traded him anyway. Pogge was later shipped to Anaheim for a bag of pucks and Rask is playing great for the Bruins and will be one of the best goalies in the NHL for years to come. Back then, John Ferguson Jr. was at the helm and he had better options available to him, but he goofed. He could have signed a free agent goalie like Curtis Joseph and kept both young goalies. That would have allowed him to flip one of the goalies for either a defensive prospect or a scoring forward. Instead, we lost Rask, Raycroft was awful, bounced to Colorado, and now backs up Luongo in Vancouver. Ferguson made a whole host of blunders that made it impossible to correctly blow up the team and start the rebuilding process. He signed too many players to no trade clauses, and the Leafs were stuck with nothing of value at the trading deadline. The Flyers, for example, when they had that one awful year, were able to flip Peter Forsberg and others and made a quick turnaround just one year later by committing to a fire sale. Moving to the present: the Phil Kessel trade. It excited a lot of fans in Toronto, but to me, I saw yet another foolish attempt to make this team close to mediocre without committing to a necessary long term rebuilding plan. Kessel, is a great player, but this isn’t about that. With or without Kessel, this Leaf team is a long way from being a contender, so what exactly was the point? The Leafs traded TWO first round picks AND a second round pick for Kessel. Not too steep a price for a team in contention for a cup, but the Leafs? Is Kessel NOW, more valuable then a potential core of young studs to build around? The Leafs have Nazeem Kadri, Luke Schenn and other young players to build around, but it will be a couple of years before they come around. Now, the Leafs are poised to challenge for the worst record in the NHL, and that wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that they handed their first overall pick over to Boston! In the next two years, they could have added two top five picks and a pick in the mid thirties to the young squad in the hopes of building a dynasty from within, kind of EXACTLY like the way the Penguins, Blackhawks, and Capitals were built, and how the Islanders and Kings are looking to build. It is the ONLY way to build a great team in the NHL today. This is not baseball. You can’t buy a championship anymore. You MUST build through the draft, it’s the only way. Now here is the kicker with Kessel: by the time (if it even happens) the Leafs become a better young team, guess what? Kessel will be a free agent! That would mean that in three years, Kessel, who we gave up three high picks for so that we’d finish 12th in the division instead of 14th, could be long gone, and the Leafs would be without those picks, and without Kessel. Nice job. I’ve heard the foolish argument, “With Kessel you know you are getting a bona fide goalscorer, but with draft picks, you never know what you are going to get.” That would be a valid argument, um, er, if it weren’t for facts and statistics. The truth is, in the last 10 years or so, a very small percentage of top 5 picks have turned out to be duds. It happens, but I’d love to bet that in 5 years from now, whoever the Bruins draft with those Leaf picks will far outweigh the value of one man, especially when you consider the fact that Kessel can NOT make the Leafs a contender right now. His value to the team now is essentially useless, unless of course, finishing 11th in the division excites you. All this, without mentioning the fact that Kessel was out with a shoulder injury at the time of the trade. In fact, a smart GM would take things a step further and trade Thomas Kaberle while his value is still high. The best rebuilding strategy consists of letting young players gel together, and filling the rest of the roster with journeymen veterans who are respected in the league and will be good role models and teachers. For example, a guy like Chris Chelios, while his skills have long been gone, would be a good guy to have in a dressing room full of aspiring rookies. If your team sucks, get rid of assets in their prime and trade them in for younger prospects. That’s the quickest way to build a solid youth movement. So here is the thing: I get why teams in Phoenix and Columbus can’t quite afford to be patient and commit completely to a youth movement. They aren’t exactly hockey hotbeds and if the teams don’t win, fan support dwindles. That’s what gets me the most! If the Leafs are horrendous and suck for three years, the building will still be packed to the rafters! The Leafs have the best opportunity out of any team in the league to build a dynasty for two core reasons: 1) The fans are desperately loyal, and 2) players like playing in Toronto. It’s not hard to convince free agents to join the Leafs. So that’s why I can’t support and endorse the team. I’m too practical and logical, and I don’t get excited by mediocrity. I’d much rather watch a team like the Islanders even. An awful team last year, they pick up John Tavares to go along with Kyle Okposo and Josh Baley, and all of a sudden they have something to build on. Not saying the Leafs don’t have building blocks- they do. They have lots of young guys who have potential, but they should have MORE and they should be further along then this after so many consecutive years golfing in May instead of playing for the cup. I want to root for the Leafs. It’s my home town and I grew up a fan, but I can’t sit by and watch the organization put band aids on a team that’s in need of a triple bypass surgery. If I ever get silly rich, I will show a city how it’s done. I will show them how a patient strategy that relies on great scouting is the ONLY real way to build a championship team these days.