Joffrey Lupul

Joffrey Lupul

Maple Leafs ’15-16 Outlook

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After finishing with a 30-44-8 record last season, the Maple Leafs have undergone substantial changes, but none of the decisions made were about getting back into the playoffs in the short-term. When the Maple Leafs dealt Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, it was a clear sign that they were embracing a rebuild and its 2015-16 roster will reflects the early stages of that transition.

Toronto isn’t likely to enter the season with a lot of promising youngsters on its squad, but that will come later. For now, the Maple Leafs have signed veterans that can serve as placeholders like Shawn Matthias and P.A. Parenteau to give the top prospects time to develop properly. Matthias and Parenteau are only inked for one season and both might be traded at the deadline for picks or prospects to continue the Maple Leafs’ long-term goals.

Other veterans like Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, and Tyler Bozak might also end up being dealt either before the season or at the deadline. In addition to providing the Maple Leafs with more assets, moving them would also increase Toronto’s chances of ending up with projected 2016 top pick Auston Matthews.

Meanwhile, Toronto has undergone a massive transformation on the management side as president Brendan Shanahan is now supported by GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock, which provides the franchise with the experience to see this rebuild through to the end. That’s a new thing for Toronto because while the franchise has barely seen any playoff actions since the start of the salary cap era, that hasn’t previously led to the Maple Leafs fully embracing a long-term rebuilding effort.

In fact, trading Kessel is the perfect symbol of the philosophical shift, not just because of what he represented now, but also due to the context of his acquisition. When Toronto got him back in 2009 for two first-round draft picks, it was a sign that then GM Brian Burke wanted to move forward without a traditional rebuild. That didn’t work, so now a new group is trying a different, more patient approach.

Maple Leafs’ biggest question: Who will follow Kessel out the door?

2012 Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Skills Competition
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When Phil Kessel was traded, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan called it a “recognition” that “what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.”

But for all that Kessel was criticized during his time in Toronto, he was only one piece of the core that “wasn’t good enough.” Hence, the trade speculation that continues to surround Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, and many others.

Basically, if you played for the Leafs last year and your name isn’t Morgan Rielly, if you’re still on the roster, you may not be for long.

Unfortunately for the Leafs, it’s not a great time to be dumping salaries. They had to eat part of Kessel’s contract to move him to Pittsburgh. They’d likely be asked to do the same in any swap involving Phaneuf, Bozak, or Lupul, the latter of whom may be untradeable, period.

And remember that a team can only retain the salaries of three players. Kessel is on the books through 2022. Carl Gunnarsson is on there (for a paltry $200,000) through next season.

In addition to the veterans, there’s the younger guys like Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, and Jonathan Bernier. They still have to show management that they can be part of the long-term solution.

To illustrate, here’s what Mike Babcock said when Kadri re-signed for one year: “I expect him to be an elite player. He gets to come in and have a heck of a year and put the screws to us.”

Gauntlet: thrown down.

A youngish player like James van Riemsdyk isn’t safe either, even after leading the Leafs with 27 goals last season. The 26-year-old has three years left before he can become an unrestricted free agent. So, do the Leafs envision him re-signing? Because the way they’re talking, he’ll be closing on 30 when the team is ready to start contending.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that,” said Shanahan.

“We’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

In the meantime, expect the Leafs to be active on the trade front, as it’s out with old core and in with the new.

Related: Wings reportedly no longer interested in Phaneuf

With Lamoriello hire, Leafs hammer home their culture change

Lou Lamoriello
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If it wasn’t abundantly clear before, it is now.

In introducing Lou Lamoriello as the 16th general manager of the Maple Leafs on Thursday, both team president Brendan Shanahan and Lamoriello himself said this is all about a major offseason theme:

Changing the culture in Toronto.

“We are trying to create [an environment] where the players are willing to give up their own identity for that logo on the front,” Lamoriello explained. “Never mixing what’s on the back of the jersey with what’s on the front — that has to be transmitted to each and every player, no matter what their abilities are.

“Success doesn’t come unless each and every one of these individuals are committed to each other.”

Those are telling words in the wake of Toronto’s disastrous campaign. From Phil Kessel’s ongoing feud with the media to Nazem Kadri’s suspension to Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul threatening to sue TSN to accusations the team quit playing for interim bench boss Peter Horachek, the Leafs were considered one of the league’s most toxic teams.

So, enter the hazmat team. Shanahan cleaned house in the front office. Kessel, the team’s leading scorer, was traded.

At the draft, new head coach Mike Babcock laid down the law for those that remained, saying “anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up.”

“The number-one characteristic of a Toronto Maple Leaf is a good human being. Period.” Babcock said. “So if you don’t fit that, you’re not going to be here. We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

So the culture change started with Shanahan, continued with Babcock and will now be cemented by Lamoriello.

Few GMs are more adept at establishing culture, and no team in NHL history was defined more by an individual than the Devils were with LouLam. He oversaw nearly every aspect of the organization, right down to the little things — some say petty things — like banning facial hair outside of the playoffs, and not issuing the No. 13.

Lamoriello explained his logic in a February Q&A with the Star-Ledger.

“The word is called tradition,” he said. “That’s the identity of the Devils organization. Those are part of the systemic points that have given us our identity, like our home and away jerseys. Whether you look at the Yankees or the old Montreal Canadiens and their identity, this is the identity of the Devils.

“I look at it as something the players, and hopefully the fans, take pride in.”

As for working with Shanahan and Babcock, well, Lamoriello doesn’t figure to have many problems. The head coach has already praised the hire — “a home run for all of us,” is how he described it to NHL.com — and Shanahan, whose personal relationship with Lamoriello dates back to 1987, sees the 72-year-old as the ideal architect.

“There should be an appreciation and showing of enthusiasm that you’re enjoying being a Toronto Maple Leaf,” he explained. “We want to have enthusiasm, we want to have good people.

“Lou is a great fit for that.”

Kessel trade shows Leafs are trying to ‘build this thing the right way’

Official Announcement Of Mike Babcock As Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach
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In the words of Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, here’s why Phil Kessel was traded today:

“This is really about a recognition on our part that what we’ve been doing here, and the group that we’d assembled here, wasn’t getting the job done, and it wasn’t good enough.

“We are here to build a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. There are no shortcuts to go around doing that. We didn’t see that this group was going to get a whole lot better, in getting us toward that goal.

“Going out and hiring a coach like Mike Babcock was a huge bonus for us, so this was really about us saying, once again, we’ve got to build this thing the right way, through the draft, with prospects. Sometimes that might take a little bit longer.”

So basically the same thing Shanahan said in April, and the same thing Babcock said in May.

While Shanahan conceded today that they “gave up a heck of a player…a very, very productive player,” Kessel is also 27 years old. Theoretically, by the time the Leafs hit their sweet spot in terms of competing for the Cup (assuming they ever do), Kessel will be past his prime, if he’s not already. 

Going forward, expect the Leafs to continue dismantling their flawed core. Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, and maybe even James van Riemsdyk; they could all be traded.

And any others that don’t fit into the club’s long-term plans, them too.

Related: Babcock lays down the law — ‘Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up’

Babcock lays down the law — ‘Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up’

Mike Babcock
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SUNRISE — Mike Babcock has yet to meet in person with any of the Toronto Maple Leafs players. While he did speak to all of them over the phone, first he wanted to “get through the draft and see who was on our team.”

For now, Phil Kessel remains a Maple Leaf. As do Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer, and all the other Leafs who’ve had their names raised in trade speculation.

Whoever ends up staying, their new coach has a message for them.

“The number-one characteristic of a Toronto Maple Leaf is a good human being. Period,” Babcock said. “So if you don’t fit that, you’re not going to be here. Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up.

“We’re going to be a fit, fit team. We’re going to be a team that comes to the media everyday, after a win, after a loss, after practice, and owns their own stuff. Period.”

It should be noted that the media did not ask Babcock about the media. He was answering an open-ended question about his “expectations” for the players.

Related: Kessel admits ‘responsibility to talk’ to reporters…but ‘not every day’