Leafs’ Lupul skeptical of scorched earth rebuild: ‘Who are we going to put on the ice next year? A bunch of draft picks?’

The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to be open to shedding salary, accumulating future assets, and trading away every player who isn’t nailed down to the floor (by a bloated bulletproof contract). 

As actual trades and reports of potential deals mount, what’s becoming clear is that management isn’t willing to keep rolling the dice on the flawed core assembled by Brian Burke and his successor and current Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. That means that everyone from Phil Kessel, to Dion Phaneuf, to Tyler Bozak, to Jonathan Bernier could be on the block over the next week, or in the offseason.

For the most part Maple Leafs fans seem willing and eager to see the club dramatically overhaul the roster. On Saturday, brittle Maple Leafs scoring winger Joffrey Lupul, who is set to return from his latest injury, warned that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of a teardown.

“You can’t just throw out a team of young guys and say ‘Well we’re going to get our ass kicked this year but then we’ll be better the year after because there’s no saying you will be and it could hurt guys’ development big-time I think,” Lupul told TSN’s Jonas Siegel on Saturday.

“What are we going to just restart with a whole complete group with four guys next year and just try and finish last? I haven’t spoken to management at all but I’m sure that’s not their idea,” Lupul continued. “You can play a bunch of young guys and lose all year, but who’s to say that those young guys are going to develop? I don’t know. I think [the tear-down idea is] maybe more of a media-driven thing.

“There’s trade rumours on every guy in here so who are we going to put on the ice next year? A bunch of draft picks?”

In Lupul’s estimation the Maple Leafs’ future assets need veteran guidance. They need mentors who can handle defensive responsibility and – and this might be especially important in a high-pressure market like Toronto – soak up media criticism.

“You need Roman Polaks. You need [Stephane] Robidas’s,” Lupul argued.

In recent years we’ve seen a variety of approaches pay dividends when it comes to roster reconstruction. The Tampa Bay Lightning reloaded on talent while sticking with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis for as long as that was tenable. The Nashville Predators didn’t intentionally bottom out, and restocked by making a series of smart gambles on the trade market (Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg, Patric Hornqvist for James Neal) and in free agency (Mike Ribiero). The Calgary Flames sold off the likes of Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, but they also extended key veterans like Matt Stajan and brought in Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman in free agency even as they were accumulating high-end prospects. 

Meanwhile the Edmonton Oilers remain in the woods, and who knows how Tim Murray’s diabolical experiment will pan out just across the border in Buffalo. 

In other words, Lupul’s warning isn’t without merit. This Maple Leafs club employs a handful of useful players and even some bona fide star-level talent. Selling on everybody is an extreme proposition, and there’s nothing we’ve seen so far from Maple Leafs brass which would suggest that they have already opted to pursue this route

In the meantime it would appear that the Maple Leafs players know the score, and are already auditioning for their next jobs.

“I don’t know if I’m part of the plan here going forward or not and you want to show that you’re a good player,” Lupul told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

“There is no player in here that is going to say we want that 1st overall pick because that means less job security for someone,” added Peter Holland, according to Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie.

NHL players don’t tank. They have too much at stake personally. Organization though, well, that’s another matter. Which is why, over the next 10 days, it will be on the folks in the Air Canada Centre executive suite to weaken this team in order to maximize their chances of a draft lottery miracle. 

While a trade of big names might make for an emotionally satisfying proposition from the perspective of a beleaguered fan base, Lupul’s take – that a more methodical approach to the reconstruction of the Leafs may be in order – is compelling. 

  • Jeremy Ian

    I agree with Lupul, though his voice would have more credibility if he weren’t so injury-prone.

    The veterans on the team have to understand their role, which is to play solid hockey while the future core develops. It’s up to management to gauge which of these guys is able — and committed — to playing that role. Is Lupul willing/able to do what Polak does?

    But some of the tear-down is the result of Nonis mismanaging the cap. What Lupul does not address is the fact that this incumbent core is too large and too expensive to allow for development. Some of the players have to be moved out just to manage the cap. Franson was the first to go. More have to go before the team has the capacity to develop.

    I don’t know what can be done about Clarkson; I suspect he’d like to play the mentor role, but leads the wrong way (ill-considered fights is just dumb), and his contract is such a cramp on the payroll.

  • The Russian Rocket

    Lupal’s right, we can’t sell off everyone and depend on a bunch of kids to figure out the NHL (ahem Oilers plans) but who do we keep?

    Who the hell could be a good leader and mentor for the new kids?

    The core is so used to collapsing they can’t even lead themselves. They have talent, but they can’t lead.