The concept of the Ultimate Leafs Fan website, blog and now Internet radio show (www.connectmeradio.com, SHOWS, ULF), is to preserve the wonderful history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. There are plenty of writers, bloggers and media coverage to dissect every sharpened skate donning a Maple Leaf uniform today. But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least comment on the tsunami that has flattened the current edition of our local heroes.
Bad coaching, players, scouting, GM, fans, media; those are the easy targets to attack and all have played a part in the destruction of this team. But that’s too simple and doesn’t go deep enough. No winning team can be put together without the use of the draft, first and foremost. Deep pockets will be required to fill in the pieces to push the team over the final hurdle. We all know the Leafs have struggled the last number years with the draft and have to no avail traded numerous picks away. So let’s look back in time when the Leafs did enjoy some success at the draft table. Pre-expansion doesn’t count because of the territorial rights enjoyed by the Original-Six, particularly, Toronto and Montreal. The 1970’s presented new challenges because it was now open season on players across Canada and double the teams to fill.
In 1970, Darryl Sittler started the ball rolling as a first round pick and soon would become the core catalyst for years to come. Over the next number of drafts, the Leafs would acquire George Ferguson, Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely, Ian Turnbull, Mike Palmateer, Tiger Williams, Rick Kehoe, Errol Thompson, Pat Boutette, Jack Valiquette, Doug Jarvis, Randy Carlyle to go along with earlier draft picks Brad Selwood, Jim Dorey, Mike Pelyk and Jim Mckenny. The emergence of the European player started to take hold and the Leafs landed the crown jewel of all in Borje Salming. In goal the Leafs had Jacques Plante, Bernie Parent and Doug Favell along with veterans Dave Keon, Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson up front. The makings of a solid contending team were all there and they did enjoy some mild successes high-lighted by Lanny McDonalds over-time winner in game 7 to eliminate the New York Islanders in 1978. But the team couldn’t move the needle and the frustrations that had been brewing for years before, now were boiling over.
The WHA started in the year 1972 and was an instant thorn in the side of the NHL, first targeting any NHL free agent and secondly signing under-age Junior Stars. The Summit Series in September 1972 changed hockey forever and shed a light on the skill of not only Russian Hockey players but also all European players.
While the rest of the hockey world quickly adapted to the new style of play, competition searching out the new stars from overseas, and trying to maintain what they already had, as a foolish, bitter and stubborn Harold Ballard refused to change with the times. He scorned anyone who uttered or even thought about leaving the Leafs, for the newfound riches of the WHA. He called Sittler a cancer, Keon washed up, the Russians, the enemy and watched young star players like Ley, Dorey, Selwood leave for the WHA and dismantle a up and coming solid defence, the necessity to any championship team.
His bitterness reached the pinnacle in 1978 when he fired Jim Gregory and replaced him with Punch Imlach who proceeded to break up and destroy a very solid hockey team, and the Leafs have never recovered to this day, 37-years later.
Steve Stavros in the 1990’s hired an inexperienced John Ferguson (well he hired the guys who did) to run the hockey club and refused to sign Wayne Gretzky, because the building is already full; why spend 8-million a year on him? The team did get to the final four twice but again couldn’t get it done and sacrificed the future by trading away numerous draft picks. He claimed he couldn’t afford to sign top free agents, thus it was by way of the trade to improve the team.
Currently, 2-major telecom companies own the Leafs; money is not the issue. Corporate culture is the mantra for any management member involved in the running of the team today. It was not only a personality clash but also a hockey-like attitude that foolishly cost Brian Burke his job. Tim Leiweke was brought in to run MLSE, so was now in charge of the Leafs. Leiweke had little or no hockey experience and was only in Toronto on a short-term basis. In his short-term, he hired Brendan Shanahan to run the hockey operations with no previous experience in such a position. He has a good hockey man in Dave Nonis as GM but he appears more comfortable in the role as the number two guy, like he had under Burke.
When Brian Burke first spoke to the Leafs about running the team, he was so taken aback by the lack of foresight or direction, which is why he asked for total autonomy in acceptance of the position.
Doug Armstrong who has built the St. Louis Blues into a powerful contender for the Stanley Cup was also at one time considered for the role to run the Leafs. But very much like Burke, he was aghast at the lack of focus or insights on how to build a hockey team and after a preliminary phone conference politely declined and took the Blues job.
While these examples are a bit vague, they certainly point the finger in the right direction. The most successful franchises in sports usually have one thing in common, exceptional ownership and leadership. I don’t want to rain on the parade and diminish the impact of a Connor McDavid, but remember he can’t do it himself. Any draft pick is a gamble, but strong scouting can more times than not find pieces to fit the needs of a team. The top picks are easy to select as the whole league does all the work. It’s what’s done after the picks that count and how the rest of the team is then put together.
This is the real challenge for any team not just the Leafs, but it starts at the top. I’m afraid even if the Leafs win the lottery this year, the 2-bickering owners, inexperienced President of hockey operations, an under the microscope GM, no coach, questionable scouting will still be calling the shots. It’s why winning is so difficult, a combination of strong ownership, good drafting and deep pockets. We as long time suffering Leaf fans have had a taste of both. but never together and until we do, the Leafs will continue to spin there wheels.