What An Exciting Off-season So Far (And It Is Not Over Yet)
How long has it been since I last wrote a post. Three months? It doesn't matter, because I'm back baby!
With that little introduction out of the way, let's get to the main focus of this article. As you may already know, the Leafs did not have a very good season this year. After a huge collapse from a playoff position in December, the firing of Carlyle, and trading Clarkson to the Blue Jackets (I still can't believe it), everyone in Leaf Land knew that changes were going to be made to right the ship. And this ship has been sinking for over four years now, yet no one seems to know why it was so or how to fix it. It seems that the Leafs will never win a Cup again at this rate.
Fortunately, there is a sheriff in charge and has been making huge changes for the Leafs future. Yes, the team of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and Mark Hunter have been sending shock waves throughout the organization and the city with their management changes in preparations for the rebuild. While some of them were small, most of the ones done so far have been exciting to hear, some of which were long overdue. The best part about this is that there is still more things to be decided.
So without further ado, lets take a look at what has been going on in Hogtown in this crucial offseason.
What has happened so far
One day after ending their season with a 4-3 shootout loss to the Canadiens, Shanahan announced that a large number of people in management were fired. These include general manager Dave Nonis, the coaching staff of Peter Horachek, Steve Spott, Chris Dennis, and Rick St. Croix, pro scouting director Steve Kasper, and player development director Jim Hughes.
At the time, this came as a complete shock to me because most people, including myself, thought that Shanahan would take a few days to assess his management team and decide the best course of action. Doing it the day after the season ended was mind blowing to me, but it made perfect sense why it had to be done. Nonis was responsible for assembling the core that failed year after year (although he is not the sole GM to blame), Horachek coached the worst stretch in franchise history, and the rest of the management were from the Burke era that was holding the team back of success.
Less than a week later, the Leafs, and all the hockey world, were shown live on TV during the draft lottery that the Oilers won the right to draft Connor McDavid. This left the Leafs with the number 4 pick in the draft as well as speculation as to who they should take (Strome, Hanifin, or Marner).
However, Dubas told the media that his focus was not on the fourth overall pick, but on the Nashville pick. As he said, "The focus, I think for us - and where we have to really become a great organization is on the second pick. [...] We have to make a good pick and hit on that one." That pick has become the 24th overall pick after the Predators were eliminated by the eventual Western Conference Champs, the Blackhawks. That pick, like the fourth, has been the cause of speculation as to who they should pick (It will be determined by who Arizona picks and who the Leafs pick as a result).
Then, news from the Leafs went quite for nearly a month. Sure they hired some minor positions here and there, but nothing significant occurred (Especially since the Marlies were eliminated in 5 by the Rapids). That changed, however, in mid May when it was announced by Dubas that the Leafs had relieved the Marlies coaching staff (Gord Dineen, Derek King, and Ben Simon) of their duties. While Simon was offered another position in the organization, The reason for the firing, according to Dubas, was that it was part of "a big organizational shift in philosophy," and that the club wants to "bring on an elite young coach that we can groom along here."
This kind of thinking has Jon Cooper, current head coach of the Lighting, in mind as he was the man responsible for turning the team from a lottery team to a Cup contender within two years. As a result, the Leafs interviewed Sault St. Marie Greyhounds coach Sheldon Kreefe as a replacement for Marlies coach. As of June 1st 2015, there is no news as to if he has been hired or not.
May 20th was a huge day for Leaf fans, with the so-called #Babwatch coming to a dramatic conclusion. With fans and hockey insiders making predictions as to where he was going to land (some thought Buffalo and others thought Detroit), Mike Babcock shocked the hockey world by signing with the Leafs to an eight year deal worth approximately $50 million. Honestly, I thought that the Leafs were out of the race as I kept thinking "Man, I don't think Babcock will want to come to a rebuilding franchise. And because Buffalo offered so much money, there's no way." Yet, it happened, and I remember being in school getting really excited about the news. A Triple Gold Winner, a Stanley Cup champion, and 11 playoff appearances, there was many reasons to get excited over the hire.
The following day, Babcock was introduced to the media and officially named head coach (as shown in the first picture). During the over 30 minute press conference, Babcock talked about "the process," patience in the rebuild, excitement in coming to Toronto, and calling the Leafs "Canada's team." While the Buffalo media criticized and accused him of lying to the Sabres, he said all the right things and got everyone anxious for the new season to begin. It was revealed by Shanahan on this day that the Leafs were heavily considering Guy Boucher as an alternative for the coaching position had Babcock not signed.
In recent days, news has been light. Sam Carrick was resigned to a one year deal a few days later, most of the the Red Wings coaching staff was brought over at the request of Babcock, and some of the management positions were filled up by junior hockey executives. And just today, the Leafs hired Dr. Jeremy Bettle for, get this, the director of sports science and performance. Not going to lie, I did not know that such a position existed, but if this will help the team long term, then I'm all for it.
What still needs to be done
While the Leafs have done a lot of moves in this offseason so far, there is still a number of things left to do. For starters, the Leafs have yet to name a new general manager for reasons that have not been available to the public. While the possible candidate pool is starting to run dry (Shero is in New Jersey while Chiarelli runs the show in Edmonton), the list of potential replacements is reportedly starting to wind down.
According to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet, "With Julien BriseBois out, and my belief Gorton is out, that leaves Mike Futa, Mark Hunter and George McPhee as the known candidates for Toronto’s GM, although it would not be a surprise if there are possibilities we haven’t discovered yet. But, people have to stop thinking about this as a traditional manager position. The power rests with Brendan Shanahan and Babcock, with Kyle Dubas, Hunter (especially in amateur scouting) and Brandon Pridham in major roles. What the GM is going to do is have a voice, then take the plan and find ways to implement it. Dave Nonis did a lot of this last season, using his connections and knowledge to lay the groundwork for trades. Scott Howson would be another person who fits this mold. So, if it takes awhile, such as after the draft (which would be the case with Futa), it’s not the biggest deal, since Hunter would run that anyway."
There was also reports that the Leafs interviewed Kelly McCrimmon: owner, GM and head coach of the WHL Brandon Wheat Kings for a position. While initially thought of as a replacement for Hunter should he move to the GM spot, it is reported that they are interested in him regardless. There are connections here, as Kelly’s late brother Brad coached with Babcock in Detroit and the two share a friendship with Tim Speltz, GM of the Spokane Chiefs. McCrimmon’s next team in Brandon is supposed to be loaded, though, so it may be tough decision.
As mentioned before, the Leafs still need to make a decision as to who they will draft with the 4th and 24th pick in this years draft. When it all comes down to it, whomever they pick will be because of who Arizona selects as that will affect the course of who is picked where. If they select Hanifin, then it will most likely be Strome at 4th and a defenseman like Jeremy Roy or Ryan Pilon at 24th. If it is Strome that gets picked 3rd, then it will most likely be either Marner or Hanifin, while the 24th pick will be either a defenseman (if Marner) or a center man (if Hanifin).
There is also the rumours of whether or not the Leafs should trade one of their core members during the draft to get some picks. With Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul, and Bozak all rumoured to be traded either this year or next, the idea of trading away these players to pile up on the prospect pool would be enticing to the Leafs. Could the Leafs trade Kessel to the Devils for the 6th, Lupul for a second rounder, or Bozak for prospects? We shall see.
Once the draft is done, all that is left to do is the free agency period. The Leafs still need to sign players on the team, including RFAs Kadri, Bernier, Panik, and Erixon, as well as UFAs such as Booth, Kozun, Sill, and Brennan. After that, focus will shift to July 1st. While this year's free agents aren't as exciting and talented as years past, this may provide the Leafs an opportunity to gear up for the rebuilding year and to sign some veterans as the rookies prepare for the big time. Among the potential signings include Matt Belesky, Michael Frolik, Carl Soderberg, Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, and Jeff Petry.
The only concern here with the Leafs is that they repeat the same mistakes made with the Clarkson contract and overpay a player for their service. The biggest candidate for this is Belesky, who's Ducks were recently eliminated from the playoffs. Although he had his best season statistically, he has not had much success in the past. There is fear that he may never recapture the success he had this year and will turn into a bust. If Belesky is signed onto the team at the right price and term, then it would make sense. Otherwise, stay away.
Finally, the Leafs should keep an eye on the rookie UFA market and sign some young prospects to entry level deals. Similar to how they brought on Bailey, there is a number of college free agents available, including Mike Reilly, Zach Hyman, and Robbie Russo. While it will not be known if these players will become successful or have any interest in joining the Leafs, but it is clear that the team will be on the look out for some prospects.
This offseason is a little over a month old, and a lot has happened with many more still to be determined. While the rumours continue to pile up with many players potentially being shown the door, it is clear that the Leafs have many decisions still left to make as they prepare for the rebuilding 2015-16 season. Will these moves pan out, will Babcock save the franchise, and who will the Leafs pick at 4th overall?
With so many questions still left to answer among the ones already solved, and it is no wonder that this offseason has been an exciting one. Just don't get over excited when the next news occurs guys.