#TBT: An abridged history of the Leafs’ future saviours

When Mike Babcock was ultimately introduced as the Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, many pointed to the former Stanley Cup winner and two-time Olympic Gold Medallist as the Leafs’ saviour.

Some excited, some wary, and some just wondering how exactly Mike Babcock became a Maple Leaf, you’d better bet that the pressure couldn’t be higher for him.

But as a presumed reader of the Toronto media, you’ve probably heard that line before. There’s an odd obsession that one individual person in a team sport should be tasked with bringing the success. Unless you’re LeBron James, it’s not exactly an easy task to do. Yet the story is almost always the exact same when the new guy comes into town.

All of the following names have been hailed at one time or another the saviour of the Leafs from fans, media, or both. Why is that? What’s with this city and this team’s weird obsession of finding “the right guy” instead of “the right guys”? 

Mike Babcock

Babcock COULD eventually be the most succesful coach in recent Leaf history, but he’s still got a long ways to go of course. From the National Post’s Eric Koreen:

For all of the would-be post-lockout saviours that have come to the Maple Leafs, ego has always been part of the draw: win in Toronto, and you’ll dine with the gods. And sure, that is true. However, the process that comes with that has so often been lost. The negatives that surround the job usually focus on the atmosphere around the team — the five-deep media scrums, the amateur psychology, the unyielding thirst for a winner.
Perhaps the allure for Babcock is not just succeeding where others have failed. Perhaps it is the chance to try differently, too. 

Brendan Shanahan

The man who hired Babcock, Shanahan has recieved mostly positive reviews so far despite a rather poor 2014-15 season. 

From the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger at the time of his hiring:

The impression left by Shanahan after his public indoctrination: Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day. And the Maple Leafs won’t be either.

“I’m not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations,” Shanahan said.

“None of that matters. Wins do.”
No promises of future success.
No guarantees of championship celebrations down Bay St.
No timetables.
No vows of a two-year plan.
In essence, no B.S.
And that’s a good thing.
Because both the media and the public in this city have too often been fleeced by shallow words uttered by one so-called franchise saviour after another who ends up falling flat on his face.
Been there.
Done that.
Heard that.
Enough of the lip service. Show us the results.

(It’s kind of odd how Zeisberger mentions not getting fleeced by words, yet appearing to be in incredibly high praise of Shanahan for… words.)

Dion Phaneuf

Still the captain of the franchise (for now), Phaneuf is paid like one of the league’s best defencemen, but recently has been anything but. From a 2012 article from the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle:

Phaneuf is being asked to do a lot on this team. Leafs GM Brian Burke basically has him positioned to (a) be the face and voice of the team, as captain, (b) face other team’s top lines and play the most minutes, (c) produce points and (d) hit, fight and be one of the few Leafs to actually deliver on Burke’s promise of a “truculent” team.

The question is: How well suited is he really to fill all of those roles? How many players can fill all four on a good team?

At best, Phaneuf should likely be asked to provide only (c) and (d), letting more experienced and, frankly, personable players handle (a) and better defensive players to handle (b).

But Burke, and former coach Ron Wilson, have always played Phaneuf up to be this team’s top player and a kind of answer to the Leafs’ prayers – a do-it-all saviour for what has long ailed the franchise.

Stephane Robidas

In an interview with CTV, Robidas deemed himself as the saviour. 

“I want to be the same player as I was before,” Robidas said. “I’m not the saviour, I’m not going to change this whole organization upside-down.

Wait, nevermind. No one ever thought Stephane Robidas would be the saviour.

James Reimer

It may be hard to remember, but there was a time where Reimer was near-universally respected in Leafs Nation. While Reimer was the only Leafs goalie of the past ten years to make the playoffs with the Leafs, the chances of Reimer being the long-term goalie of the Leafs future doesn’t exactly look promising right now.

James Reimer: The Leafs next Saviour? (Video) 

Phil Kessel

Perhaps the closest thing to a saviour the Leafs have had on this list, Kessel’s been tasked a few times to carry the team almost all by himself. From the National Post

The idea that Toronto fans all expect Phil Kessel to be the saviour of their Maple Leafs is a popular one among the media. Quite popular, in fact.

This despite the fact that you would have to be out of your mind to think that a 22-year-old coming off shoulder surgery — a 22-year-old who has never scored more than 60 points in a season — can single-handedly turn around a team that has lost 11 of its first 12 games. Really, to believe this, Leafs fans would have to be clinically insane.
Note: I am not ruling this out.
“One guy isn’t going to turn things around for a team,” said Matt Stajan, who will serve as Kessel’s setup centre. “Hopefully he doesn’t get that pressure from people.”
He will, of course.

Not Nazem Kadri, according to Brian Burke

Kadri’s best stretch as a Leaf came during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, and it could be reasoned that without him, the Leafs may not have had the season that he did. But despite being a first round pick, Brian Burke didn’t see Kadri as a saviour when he was the GM.

From the Globe and Mail’s James’ Mirtle:

I told him, you’re not a saviour here. We brought you in to give us a spark and don’t carry the weight of the world. The group has to turn this around — 20 players have to fix this, not one player or two players. And I told Nazem and Keith Aulie the same thing. That they’re not saviours, just play your game.”

No one, according to Carl Gunnarsson

In a 2012 article from the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk:

It’s been suggested that the Leafs, one of the youngest teams in the league, desperately require the presence of veteran leadership. Dion Phaneuf, the captain, has appeared flummoxed by his club’s epic collapse, 19 losses in the past 24 games. But Carl Gunnarsson, the dependable defenceman, took issue with the suggestion of experienced additions.
“This is the group we’ve got. We can’t ask for anyone else to come in and be Jesus here,” Gunnarsson said. “It’s up to us, I think. We don’t need a saviour. We can do it on our own.”

Luke Schenn

Though Schenn didn’t quite work out long-term in Toronto, he definitely had high praise early on in his career. In an February 2015 article from the Toronto Star’s Kevin McGran: 

Schenn … watched in almost awestruck wonder as his former team collapsed magnificently in 2014 and again this season.
“I can only imagine what they’re going through,” Schenn said Wednesday after the Flyers held a practice at the Air Canada Centre in preparation for Thursday’s game against Toronto. “I’ve gone through it here. There’s no place to hide.”
Schenn was a fourth-year defenceman, a high pick who was deemed to be the franchise’s saviour. He was going through his own rough stretch when the team began its demise through January and February.

Brian Burke

Burke serves an odd role in Leafs history. Essentially assembling the majority of the 2013 playoff roster, Burke never really saw much success himself in Toronto, though he did tend to have a decent trading history. From the National Post, at the time of Burke’s hiring:

A red carpet had not been rolled out, a marching band was not hired and there was not a halo hovering just above Air Canada Centre on Saturday afternoon. But the Toronto Maple Leafs would-be saviour had arrived just the same. Brian Burke, the new president and general manager of the storied franchise at the centre of a hockey-mad market, in a city that has not celebrated a Stanley Cup championship in 41 years — and counting — was holding court at his introductory media conference just inside the main gate to the ACC. Burke talked about the Leafs job in near holy terms, saying Toronto was the Vatican of hockey cities — if one is a Catholic — and that running the team was “one of the most important jobs in hockey on the planet.” 

Justin Pogge

Pogge, of course, was never the Leafs saviour. From the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox:

Having Sidney Crosby burst through as an NHL superstar at age 19, of course, just wrecks it for every other prospect, particularly those projected as the next saviour of the NHL team that owns their playing rights.

Like Pogge, for example.

While Sid the Kid takes over the league, Leaf fans are just going to have to live with the reality that the 20-year-old Pogge, the object of worshipful chants at the 2006 world junior championship in Vancouver, probably won’t be making his first NHL appearance until the fall of 2008. At the earliest.

“Everyone’s different,” said Pogge in an interview this week. “Sidney’s an exception. He probably could have played in the league at 16. He’s just one of those players.

“A lot of guys, including myself, need a couple of years just to mature. The body’s gotta grow, and your head’s gotta grow too. You’ve got to be ready and mature enough to get to the next level.”

and the list goes on… that’s an abridged one, and only until 2008. Whoever the Leafs select at 4th this year (if they keep the pick, of course) better be ready for the loftiest of expectations.

  • The way Shanahan is building his team from the management side it appears that each individual is somewhat sheltered behind the “group facade”

    Within the media frenzy that follows the Toronto Maple Leafs, like a dog drooling after a treat, or Feschuk/Kessel in the dressing room, It is refreshing to see the team run behind closed doors without the constant Rumor mongering of past executives (Nonis, Burke et al)

    Once the Stanley Cup playoffs are done and the trophy awarded, I am excited for the possible trades, the draft and the promise of a new beginning and fresh start for the team and us fans, no Savior required, we have the Shanaplan.

  • Not to be a Debbie Downer here but the worst part about reading these article clippings was seeing reference to ‘this year’s epic collapse’ and realizing the article wasn’t referencing the 2015 epic collapse but one of the other epic collapses from the last 3 or 4 years :S

    WHEN we do eventually become a decent team (whether it’s in 3-5 years or more), I feel like a lot of people will look back on the last few years and think “Wow, how the hell did they collapse year after year after year…after year.”

    It still boggles my mind.