The NHL is packed with teams that constantly climb up and down the rankings, sign amazing talent and trade off star players. The Toronto Maple Leafs struggle year after year to put together a combination of talent that allows them to do anything more than fight for their lives when it comes down to the part that matters--the post-season.
Humming and hawing over all the changes that could be made would be a 25-page book that wouldn't sell, even if it came free with a Happy Meal. If we focus our efforts on what changes should be made in three key areas, this team would improve.
Rebuilding Front Office
It's easy to place blame on the players.
You watch them on TV and you get frustrated when they shoot the puck into the corner instead of at the goalie. You throw your hands up in the air and shout, "I can't believe that guy! Trade him--NOW!".
The real frustration, however, comes well before that play you so rightfully despised even started, before the game started and, in all likelihood, before the season even started.
The staff in the Maple Leafs organization is second to none when it comes to scouting and developing poor talent. They have some incredible knack for signing and overpaying sub-standard players.
Take the Grabovski contract. This is a huge contract with very little return on investment (ROI). The guy can skate and he can score goals from time to time, but for $5.5 million, you're comparing him with the likes of Marian Hossa, John Tavares, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Grabovski simply isn't at this level of play yet and will likely never get there. He's a good player, but for that kind of cap hit, you could get someone with more well-rounded talent and experience leading a team.
The scouting and minor league management is a part of the problem here, and revamping these programs will also be a key part of the solution as well. A strong minor league presence would help attract more young talent, which eventually loses the "young" qualifier and simply becomes "talent".
If you want a good team, like in football or baseball, get them as soon as you can, and program them properly.
Rebuilding the team
I mentioned Grabovski earlier simply to point out a contract flaw, which is no fault of his own. If someone offered me $5.5 million for this article I wouldn't turn it down. I mean, come on! It's millions of dollars to do what I love doing.
So, avoiding the issue of money, the real challenge in the team here is both locker room and on-ice performance.
Dion Phaneuf is not a strong leader on his own, and in a young locker room like Toronto, someone with more experience would be hugely beneficial. That isn't to say Phaneuf has no experience, but again, compare his skill set with that of the best, and you come up far short: Niewendyk, Crosby, Messier. I mean, we're talking true locker room leaders here.
On the ice, the team just needs to rebuild.
It's hard to say for sure, but it seems like that's something the team has been doing since the early 90s. It's about time they beefed up the core, put in some solid stay-at-home defencemen and grabbed a goalie who has already lead a team to some form of divisional victory.
A team full of second-string newbies won't win you a division, let alone a cup.
Most of the players on Toronto's first line would be lucky to play on the third or fourth line for many of the other teams in the league, and that is a direct result of both the lack of management talent mentioned above and a team that can't bring it together on the ice because of inexperience on and off the ice.
Rebuilding the image
Toronto players do a lot for their communities, but for many, this goes relatively unnoticed. Toronto is a very saturated market and a team that isn't winning, with relatively unknown players who just don't get recognized for what they do in the community.
Now, you probably don't think this matters much, but in the end, it's what attracts both fans and other players.
Players want to be as much a part of a family as they do a team. It's difficult in the NHL, with all the moving around and even more so in a Canadian market with all the undue attention.
When every mistake you make is analysed to death, you want every good thing you do to at least take a bite out of the bad press you receive. For the Maple Leafs, this will mean bolstering community efforts in key areas and promoting themselves.
Every corporation in the world does it, and with the right message—hopefully written and presented by a new staff in the front office—this can really make for an attractive corporation to work.
It's easy to see the trap this team has fallen into: a seemingly bottomless pit of fans, paying for the star of the day rather than shelling out over time to build the start of years, basking in a giant marketing machine income.
Why would you ever want to change this formula?
Well, many of us have seen firsthand a Toronto fan who has slipped away and started cheering for another team. The diehards call them deserters, but for most people, it's just about enjoying what you pay for.
Ultimately, this team is losing fans to younger, more exciting, more star-powered teams. Without some kind of change, this trend will continue, and Toronto will hover around eighth place in the east with record profits but nothing to show for it.