NHL Fix It Series: 4 Ways to Fix the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Offseason

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2020

NHL Fix It Series: 4 Ways to Fix the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Offseason

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    Molly Riley/Associated Press

    It should be Mardi Gras, Toronto style.

    The NHL playoffs are in town at Scotiabank Arena and the Eastern Conference field will soon be whittled from four teams to two, with just one more best-of-seven series to clear before a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

    Instead, it's full-on torture for Maple Leafs fans.

    Though the pandemic has turned downtown into a 24/7 hockey district, the host team hasn't been a part of the revelry since an inglorious qualifying-round elimination by the Columbus Blue Jackets 22 days ago.

    Which means the drought since the last banner in the hockey-mad city has now reached 53 years.

    The New York Jets have won since then. The Chicago Cubs have won since then. Heck, both the Toronto Blue Jays and Raptors—neither of whom even existed in 1967—have won since then.

    So it's no surprise that yet another offseason without a parade is warranting yet another episode of angst among Maple Leafs fans. But instead of simply joining the latest "fire the coach, fire the GM, trade the players" chorus, we on the B/R ice hockey team have taken another tack.

    We come not to bury the Leafs, but to praise them. Or, well, to at least make a few suggestions on how they might turn things around in time to make the 2020-21 playoffs a little more relevant.

    Read on to check out our ideas and see how closely they jibe with your own. And even if things don't work out, don't panic. Only eight months or so until the Argonauts open training camp.

Find Some Grit

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Few would argue that the Maple Leafs have a talented roster.

    In fact, with recent first-round picks such as Auston Matthews (2016), Mitch Marner (2015), William Nylander (2014) and Morgan Rielly (2012)—not to mention 2018 free-agent prize John Tavares—you're more likely to hear arguments that their roster is among the more enviable in the league.

    After all, Matthews (80 points) and Marner (67 points) were averaging better than a point a game when the regular season screeched to a halt in March, Tavares was barely off that pace with 60 points in 63 contests and Nylander's 31 goals were the most he's scored since becoming a full-timer in the blue and white in 2016-17.

    So why then has no one in that group won a playoff series in a Toronto uniform?

    We suggest it comes down to grit.

    Though the Maple Leafs consistently light up scoreboards in fall and winter, their game appears less-suited for the postseason because they lack the perpetually grinding presence of players able to either inspire the group to overcome adversity or settle the bench in times of significant stress.

    Exhibit A: a blown 3-0 lead against the Blue Jackets in a Game 3 that could have changed the trajectory of the series in a positive way. Instead, it became a 4-3 loss in overtime.

    "This group needs to dig in more," defenseman Jake Muzzin said at the team's season-ending press conference. "Yeah, we have lots of skill, talent and speed, but when it comes to playoff hockey, the will to win has to burn a little hotter compared to the other stuff. Once we find that, then we'll be dangerous."

    Naturally, saying grit is necessary is far easier than finding it.

    But that's the job of the scouts and the others in the realm of player personnel. Digest what they've seen from their team and others, and make the transactions—often not big-ticket items—necessary to tweak the makeup of the unit as a whole. And once you acquire it, it'll spread throughout the locker room.

Lock Down the Defense

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    OK, the first one sounded easy. The second one won't be.

    Particularly not where general manager Kyle Dubas and team president Brendan Shanahan are concerned.

    Though the Maple Leafs have been far from a defensive sieve under the auspices of Sheldon Keefe, who was brought in as head coach after Mike Babcock was shown the door in November, they also don't have the thoroughbred defender for whom locking down an opponent's top line is a formality.

    Can recent first-rounder Rasmus Sandin be that guy? Maybe. But he's only 20 years old and has still played more than twice as many games for the team's AHL affiliate (65) than he has for the big club (28). So relying on him to change things in the near term is a fool's errand at best.

    And each time Columbus center Pierre Luc-Dubois made an impact in the qualifying round—particularly the hat trick he scored in the Game 3 disaster—the clock ticked louder.

    In the interim, it's up to the brass upstairs to get something done. Toronto is projected to have slightly less than $8 million in cap space for 2020-21, so it may mean dealing from a position of strength, namely offensive depth, in order to boost an area of weakness.

    Nylander is 24, coming off his best season and stands to make $6,962,366 for each of the next four seasons. That could be enough to wedge a blue-line stopper away from a team on the hunt for firepower, which means he ought to be a conversation starter each time Dubas picks up the phone.

Browse for a Goalie

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The weeks after a playoff loss are never easy for a goalie.

    And in a hockey-crazy town like Toronto, it's hardly shocking that a post-elimination refrain would suggest the team would be better off without its incumbent.

    Thirty-year-old Danish import Frederik Andersen is that man in the crosshairs for the Maple Leafs after a regular season in which he won a respectable 29 games in 52 starts but was slightly less laudable in terms of goals-against average (2.85) and save percentage (.909).

    Ironically, in spite of the loss to the Blue Jackets, Andersen was statistically far better in the playoffs with a 1.84 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage in five games.

    So what does it all mean?

    The truth is that Andersen has been a consistent commodity as a full-timer in the NHL, winning at least 33 games in four of the past five seasons before notching the aforementioned 29 in this year's abbreviated run—which suggests he's hardly the first thing that needs to change at the team's Bay Street headquarters.

    Unless, that is, something far better and/or far cheaper comes along.

    Andersen will make $5 million in his final season before becoming a free agent in 2021-22, and with a bumper crop of impending free agents ready to mingle at the end of these playoffs, it wouldn't be a bad thing to kick the tires and see what might be doable.

    But if nothing of the "offer we can't refuse" ilk arrives, it's better to stand pat.

Be Patient with Leadership...for Now

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    Darren Calabrese/Associated Press

    As six-year plans go, this hasn't yielded desirable results.

    The Maple Leafs haven't won a playoff series since Shanahan took over as team president in 2014, and the 10-15 record posted on the way to four postseason exits doesn't exactly ease the frustration.

    He ditched then-GM Lou Lamoriello in favor of Kyle Dubas in 2018 and has since watched his former employee lead the New York Islanders to the second round of the playoffs last season and within a win of the Eastern Conference Final this season.

    But while it's easy to call for administrative heads, it's not always the best course of action.

    The upheaval created by the pandemic was unprecedented in its scope and ought to give the front office and its since-hired coach a pass for at least one more season, particularly considering the salary-cap trouble they're in is at least partially traceable back to Lamoriello.

    Not to mention the franchise was on the verge of a multiyear playoff drought when Shanahan arrived and he's overseen a process that's transformed the team into a perennial postseason participant with a hugely talented core. So while the progress toward a first title since 1967 doesn't seem so significant quite yet, the Maple Leafs are far closer to the promised land than they had been when the "Shanaplan" was put into action.

    And if the leadership team is able to make some or all of the fixes suggested, it'll get there soon enough.