Tag: Toronto Maple Leafs

Vancouver Canucks ’15-16 Outlook


It was another eventful offseason in Vancouver, the second under GM Jim Benning, and it left both fans and media asking the same question:

What exactly are the Canucks doing?

To hear Benning explain it, the plan is simple in theory, yet difficult to execute — rebuild while staying competitive, giving young players a winning environment in which to grow.

“From the time I took the job (14 months ago) until 10 days ago, I went at it hard,” Benning explained, per the Vancouver Sun. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ll admit it — it’s been hard. I’ve had to make hard decisions to try to remain competitive while building for the future. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“But for the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish that this summer.”

Some will argue with that last remark.

This summer, Benning took heat for a variety of his moves, most notably his trade of popular (and relatively successful) backup goalie Eddie Lack to Carolina for a third-round pick, which many saw as a middling return. After tiring of the Zack Kassian experiment, the Canucks cut bait and got what they could in exchange — 31-year-old Habs tough guy Brandon Prust — then paid a tidy sum to acquire third-line Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter, paying him an even tidier sum to be their second-line center ($21.875 million over five years, specifically).

In the end, it’s tough to say the Canucks got any better this summer. It’s tough to say they stayed even. Most say they got worse.

And that makes next year’s outlook kinda bleak.

Sure, the same old suspects remain — the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Radim Vrbata, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler — but they’re all a year older, and now surrounded by kids. Bo Horvat, 20, projects to be the No. 3 center while winger Sven Baertschi, 22, will get a shot at the top-six. Former first-round pick Jake Virtanen (18) figures to get a long look in training camp, and Frank Corrado (22) will likely be in on defense. Other prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Jared McCann could all get looks, too.

Which makes for an odd dynamic, especially since the Canucks were competitive last year, registering 101 points and a playoff spot. But their opening-round loss to Calgary only confirmed what most suspected — Vancouver was a flawed team, nowhere close to contending.

Now, the club heads into this season minus the services of veteran contributors like Kevin Bieksa, Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson — jobs that will be filled by (the aforementioned) inexperienced players. And should injuries strike the team’s aging core, it could be grim; at no position is this more concerning than in goal, where 35-year-old Ryan Miller, who missed extensive time with a knee injury last season, is backed up by a total wildcard in Jacob Markstrom.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Canucks play in a tough Pacific Division in which the Ducks, Kings, Flames and Oilers all made significant upgrades this summer.

If you believe Benning, though, his moves weren’t designed to make the Canucks less competitive.

The way he sees it, the club is more versatile than ever.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can play whatever style the game dictates,” he explained. “So we’ve made some changes this summer. I thought maybe in the playoffs we didn’t play with the intensity and emotion to step up in a playoff series and win.

“We’ve got some good, young, skill players coming up. But we want to surround them with players who fit.”

Maple Leafs ’15-16 Outlook

Joffrey Lupul

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

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

Poll: What’s the best reason for optimism in Toronto?

Toronto Maple Leaf fans

For the last decade or so, Toronto Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to feel good about.

Some even called last season the worst in franchise history, which is saying something if you followed this team in the ’80s.

But after all the pain and shame, there’s hope that rock bottom has finally been hit.

A new management team lead by Brendan Shanahan now features Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello, who’s supported by young analytics whiz Kyle Dubas and well-regarded talent evaluator Mark Hunter.

And of course there’s a new coach in Mike Babcock. Assuming he didn’t just take the job for the money, if Babcock feels the Leafs are worth risking his reputation on, that has to be a good sign, no?

All that losing has also gifted the Leafs some blue-chip prospects. In the last four years, they’ve drafted defenseman Morgan Rielly fifth overall, forward William Nylander eighth overall, and forward Mitch Marner fourth overall. In June, Marner was one of nine Toronto selections, including five in the first three rounds.

Finally, the trading of Phil Kessel was clear-cut proof that the Leafs were serious about going in a new direction. More veterans are expected to follow Kessel out the door, as management dismantles the core that failed so famously in hopes of assembling one that can win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1967.

OK, time to vote:

Under Pressure: Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock

When you’re the highest-paid coach in the history of the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you take over the most valuable team in the league, there’s going to be pressure.

When you go to work under the most media scrutiny in the league, well, you get the point.

Mike Babcock is fully aware that the Toronto Maple Leafs represent the biggest challenge of his career.

“Whether you believe it or not, I believe this is Canada’s team, and we need to put Canada’s team back on the map,” he said upon his much-ballyhooed hiring.

“I love to win. I have a burning desire to win.”

Smartly, he also bought himself some time to accomplish that goal.

“If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming,” he said. “This is going to be a long process. This is going to be a massive, massive challenge.”

So it’s not like the Leafs have to compete for a Stanley Cup next year. They don’t even have to make the playoffs.

But there has to be some semblance of progress, whether it’s from younger players like Morgan Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, or simply in terms of how the Leafs go about their business.

“Anything that’s been going on is going to get cleaned up,” Babcock vowed at the draft. “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.”

In other words, the Leafs can’t be a big ol’ tire fire again.

And remember, even with a Stanley Cup and a pair of Olympic gold medals on his coaching resume, Babcock still has his doubters. Not that he’s a good coach — pretty much everyone agrees that he’s a good coach — but that he’s as good as advertised.

The doubters point to the Red Wings team he won with in 2008, headlined by Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg. They point to the loaded 2010 and 2014 editions of Team Canada. They say those teams could’ve won with just about any half-decent coach behind the bench.

And let’s face it, they’ve kind of got a point.

But if he can win with the Leafs?

“I’d like to be the best coach in my generation,” Babcock said in a magazine profile before he took the job in Toronto.

That’s pressure.