On curiosity, trust, making excuses, and the fine lines

Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SPORTS

The sky isn’t falling because the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t sign Jimmy Vesey. We’ve been saying here for weeks that Toronto weren’t a particularly great fit for him, and as we outlined literally seconds after he signed (I was prepared), he wasn’t a particularly necessary piece in the Leafs’ perspective puzzle.

But there are two ways to look at the situation. There’s not getting Jimmy Vesey, and there’s not getting Jimmy Vesey. With that in mind, I went to Twitter after his announcement and floated this thought.

It was not well received. Lots of “why are you trying to mimic (reporter I don’t like)”, lots of accusations of being negative for the sake of being negative, lots of general name calling and anger. So it was no surprise when the responses were similar to Ryan’s article yesterday, which carried a similar train of thought.

Since Brendan Shanahan was hired as Team President back in the Spring of 2014, the aura around Leafs Nation has been altered significantly. Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for that, in the sense that he’s said all the right things on the public platforms. He’s preached patience, he’s preached pain, he’s preached history, he’s preached a long, winding road that with the right minds, will lead to success.

Two years and change later, the team is in significantly better shape than they were when he got here. Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle have been replaced with Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock. The Leafs have rocked the draft podium, starting off by drafting William Nylander when nobody thought they had the guts to for a skilled forward and following that off with drafts there they took risks on what appear to be areas of undervaluation by other teams. Under the watch of young up and comers Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe, the Marlies have become the strongest development team in the game. 

The team accepted bottoming out years, parachuted out of David Clarkson and Dion Phaneuf’s contracts, took a calculated risk to move on from Phil Kessel, managed to pump and dump Daniel Winnik for the second consecutive year to get both a leadership piece in Brooks Laich and a legitimate prospect in Connor Carrick. They’ve accepted data as part of the player evaluation process, they’ve mended burned bridges with past players, and they’ve let their quickly amassed prospect pool have some opportunities to show themselves off.

The big picture shows an organization that, generally speaking, is heading in the right direction. Don’t get me wrong, after years of dark, stormy nights, there’s a ray of sun that’s been unfamiliar to hockey fans in this city for quite some time. We’ve convinced ourselves a few times over the past few years that we saw it, but quite often, it was actually just an aggressively-presented lightbulb deceiving us.

But being better isn’t the same as being perfect, and I think that’s where a lot of these arguments break down. It’s not impossible to simultaneously feel that the Leafs are largely making the right decisions while still being skeptical of other ones. It’s not treasonous to suggest that when something looks a little strange, that it might be strange?

When the Leafs landed Babcock, the narrative was that Shanahan and his group were pitch-perfect, able to get whoever they wanted to join forces with them. Lamoriello is often cited as an example, and when “what about the players?” comes up, fingers are pointed to spring signing Nikita Zaitsev.

Mention that Lamoriello (who was pushed to the side earlier than he wanted New Jersey and nobody was really trying to pry away) and Zaitsev (who specifically wanted to come to Toronto the whole time unless they didn’t want him), weren’t exactly tooth-and-nail bidding wars, though, and you get eye rolls. Mention that the Leafs’ massive pitch to Steven Stamkos went awry enough that he ended the negotiation window early to get a deal done with a shocked Steve Yzerman, and you get paragraphs of “they didn’t really want him anyway”. While Vesey and the Leafs weren’t a great fit, the team that can recruit anyone still tried to recruit him, flew Auston Matthews into Boston to help them talk to him, had his father and brother’s employment rights in tow, and still lost. Tell that to someone and you get “well, he didn’t matter much anyway”. It’s not wrong, but it still misses the core point.

It goes beyond the pitch work too. Under previous regimes, it was fine to call out a questionable draft pick. Last year, people were cool with saying the Leafs owned the podium. Wonder why the Leafs used a pick this year on a guy who scored 7 OHL points, though? “We don’t know what draft picks look like for five years, you should keep your mouth shut until we know for sure”. Heading into free agency, Matt Martin was considered a “don’t touch” by the very same sections of the fanbase who are now arguing that they’re not worried about years 3 and 4, that he will protect the kids, and that he’ll be great in the room (I think we’ve heard this argument before…). 

It’s looking at the team’s cap situation and saying “don’t worry about it, they’ll be fine” while a team that just finished in 30th sits within $50,000 of the salary cap with millions in rookie performance bonuses likely to spill into 2017/18. It’s saying Loophole Lou can do anything while the Jared Cowen buyout, which Lamoriello publicly announced four months before the paperwork was filed, sits in court while an arbitrator decides whether it’s even logistically possible two months after the fact. It’s repeating the echo that this team has an expertise for cherry picking the undervalued, and being the first to lose the game of chicken and give up assets for a goaltender in the summer. 

None of these things individually mean that Leafs management are doing a bad job. In fact, even if you combine them all and stack them against what else has happened in the last couple of years, that group is still doing an overwhelming amount of good. But being mostly good doesn’t mean that we should brush the curious off as “they know better than us”. That creates a yes-man scenario where people start to buy into themselves too much and start making mistakes because nobody’s there to second-guess them.

You might roll your eyes at that, but Dean Lombardi both won two Stanley Cups and also signed Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick to albatross contracts, and only got out of the Mike Richards infinite rental because he used a player’s drug charges to get out of his cap struggle. The Chicago Blackhawks are a modern dynasty thanks to Stan Bowman, but they just had to give up one of their best prospects in Teuvo Teravainen because Bryan Bickell was good for three weeks once and it came back to haunt them. Marc Bergevin was beloved and blindly trusted in Montreal; he just made one of the most insane 1-for-1 trades in NHL history and everyone knows it. The Detroit Red Wings under Ken Holland were a well-oiled machine for years, but giving Ken Holland free reign and believing that their model would be unmatchable forever has them heading towards slightly worse than mediocrity with no prospects to bail them out. Nobody wants to talk about this here, but that same thing happened to Lamoriello in New Jersey too.

It obviously gets worse once you get look at the teams that haven’t found success. After all, literally doing nothing would have yielded better results than the last year and change of the Nonis era, and wisdom of the crowds likely would have found the Leafs more success than what they had in generations prior. I don’t doubt for a second that the Leafs are presently aware of this; they’re constantly hiring new people into their front office and are known for absorbing as much outside information as they can. That’s what you want to maintain, though, and defaulting to “they know what they’re doing” every time doesn’t do much to help anyone.

When one says to not blindly trust the doings of the Leafs’ front office, it’s not the same as demanding a torch-and-pitchfork march to 50 Bay Street. The greater reality is that you should always have questions, opinions, concerns, and criticisms for any minds in control of your interests. Solutions are never found if you don’t identify problems, and the process is never refined if you settle at good enough. 

In a thing as complicated and fluid as professional sports, perfection is, for lack of a better term, straight up impossible. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to know which side of an argument is even the right one. The Leafs have the best prospect pool they’ve had in the modern era and are arguably now better suited to be a long-term powerhouse than they’ve been in over 50 years, but it’s too early to call this an accomplished mission. While the “Shanaplan” has provided more good decisions than harmful ones, why not talk about the things that appear, at least from our side of the window, to be hiccups? It’s the best way to ensure that the pressure to be thorough keeps flowing, and not to mention, it makes for some good mid-summer entertainment, which is why we all care about sports to begin with.

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  • MacTwoTimes

    One of the better written articles i’ve read on here…

    Claiming that the Leafs are doing everything right.. is about as silly as saying they’re doing everything wrong.

    • Appreciate that.

      This is honestly the long form of what I’ve wanted to write in response to just about every comment we were getting on here throughout July, but I was so overwhelmed with other work.

      As it turns out, Draglikepull and I were both writing the exact same piece this morning, so I backed off and decided today was the day to get this thought out there.

      This team’s in great shape. Just think the end game should be to always be better than good enough.

    • SEER

      This is one of the better written articles? Wow, I got to “perspective puzzle” in the 2nd sentence and knew I would be in for a real winner. The author didn’t point to a single tangible mistake that was made by management, but the whole article is based on holding management accountable for their poor decisions. It makes no sense whatsoever, he pretends that management failed by not getting a couple of free agents to sign on the dotted line? Well I guess reigning Stanley Cup holder and executive of the year Jim Rutherford made a mistake by missing on Vesey as well. Ken Holland in Detroit must really stink because Vesey wouldn’t even meet with Detroit. The logic used is so simple minded, even if the point he’s making about blindly accepting Lou’s kool aid is a valid one.

  • Tommy Cat

    Zatisev? There were many teams interested. He came to Toronto like a year before he signed and was so wowed that he didn’t listen to other teams following that. Although they reportedly still tried. He told the Leafs he had a obligation to stay in the K another year and try to win a championship. The guy was good to his word and signed here a year later.

    As for Detroit and NJ their decline is just natural evolution. Finishing high means drafting low. No real high end prospects. Detroit ran it a long time, they deserve a ton of credit. But I’m predicting no playoffs this year and a less than stellar year from Larkin.

    Up against the cap? That was the cost of getting some return on players like Dion. Hell, just for being able to shed Dion. Those contract are expiring after this year and the Leafs will be in fine shape.

    Nice spin though. You must be dizzy.

  • Brent Wisken

    Amusing that you spin a narrative depicting your critics as not being able to acknowledge that Leafs’ management can make mistakes. Not so. They have made mistakes. Strawman argument on your part. Rather, your critics have simply argued that you and Ryan took two UFA scenarios and exaggerated their losses when those free agents had good reasons to sign elsewhere.

  • Muskoka's Own

    I agree with most of what you’re saying here. I think that management has done some questionable things this off-season, particularly the draft and especially free agency. Many people, myself included, have been vocal about not liking those decisions, because, as you say, it’s unwise to blindly trust something. But regarding missing out on Stamkos and Vesey, the criticism is unwarranted. Vesey shouldn’t have, and likely wasn’t, even guaranteed an NHL spot on the leafs next year. Other teams probably did make that guarantee… What would you choose? As for Stamkos, that hurt a little, but there were so many factors in TBay’s favour that losing to them is far from an indictment of the Leafs’ ability to get free agents.

  • Trevor5555

    I agree that we should question the teams moves. We should hold managment to a high standard.

    Where I disagree is the Vesey and Stamkos negotiations specifically being a failure by our managment team. Nobody knows what were the deciding factors that led to their decisions but the most likely factors were things that our managment group couldnt control.

    Important factors for free agents are contract, role, team quality(skill/personality/play style), coaching/managment staff, city, facility and amenities. Most of these factors are static and I really doubt our managment group is so inept that they fail to show what our city/team has to offer in a favorable light.

    It really comes down to money which Toronto can match anyone and team quality and trajectory and the qualities of Toronto as a city. Stamkos wants a Cup right now and Tampa is a better choice, hes settled there and happy with the situation as you can see by the discount deal he signed compared to what was reported to be on the table. To look over those factors and conclude that it was Torontos managments approach that caused Stamkos to choose Tampa shows a bias against Torontos managment that has been on display in certain peoples writing for months now. Its a clear bias masquerading as honest critique.

    Vesey is more of the same American kid picks major US city ahead of a canadian team that has tougher competition for spots. And he picked the most iconic US city to boot. Patriotism?

    The fact that a 30th place team got to sit down with Stamkos and was on Veseys short list shows the respect our managment group has built up for our team. It doesnt give them a free pass but it is a good sign that the teams run by smart and respected people.

  • G2

    lol everybody, for 40 years ive watched the good, the bad and the ugly Toronto Maple Leafs. Every year people have their opinions, good and bad about decisions made by the management team of our beloved leafs,from good old Mr.Ballard forward. Please somebody enlighten me or argue that Mr.Babcock Lou and Shanny are not the Best threesome that have hooked up in a very long time, and they are ours. To have played the game, good goalie, good d,and people to put the puck in the net, no kitty cats allowed, team game. The “plan” Evolves year to year depends on whats available. Vessey 23 year old college kid finishing a degree from Harverd no brainer Kudos for him. Picking the Rangers again shows hes smart, he would off spent the year with the Marlies fighting for a callup. We have tough leaf team built into the plan. We our going to squeak into the playoffs,Because of MR BABCOCK no kittycats allowed. True leaf fans dont question the decisions, we crucify the makers when they turn out to be crap in the end.Best team on paper in over 10 years.Positve thoughts only please, get on board or become a Habs fan. ps decent article to read, thanks for your thoughts(not really) i trust babs to coach, lou to swindle, shanny to balance everything, and so far wow 40 years in the making the gods have aliagned 2 years in, wow sit back and enjoy the ride. yes thiers a cup or a rope at the end of the tunnel, for those 3, ill bet its a cup.

  • Muskoka's Own

    What the writer’s on this blog are missing is that the readers are giving you valuable feedback. The overwhelming tone in the comments is stop exaggerating, sensationalizing, blowing everything out of proportion.
    Or, continue to dismiss your readers and risk losing interested Leaf fans to other, more sensible sites.

    • G2

      Yes exactly to the above. No one posting a comment has said the Leafs have done everything perfectly. They’ve said they find the doom and gloom and rending of garments ridiculous. Stamkos and Vesey had decisions to make and they made them, that is not a black mark on the Leafs management it’s just what happened. Stamkos and Vesey decided their interests were better served elsewhere. I for one am happy that neither is a Leaf but that doesn’t mean the Leafs are Asters of Hockey. If you are so convinced of your dispassionate even handednaess you might take a moment to ask why some many who come here are not, rather than tell everyone they are wrong.
      And mocking commenters over what was likely an autocomplete error in word choice is still a punk play. If Ryan were to look it up drivel pretty much means dribble in any case.

  • Tommy Cat

    Hey Jeff

    This entire article seems perfunctory.

    It goes without saying that no sports organization is perfect. Despite his lack of executive experience, Shanahan seems have used simple rationality to go about his business.

    As for Vesey ad Stamkos – Stevie couldn’t resist the far lower tax rate and extremely low media coverage in Tampa Bay. He can walk down the streets of that city without being recognized. There’s value in that many pro athletes.

    Vesey? As you pointed put, it wasn’t a great fit from the beginning. It’ll be great to watch Nylander, Matthews et al, dance around Vesey when the Leafs play the Rangers.

  • SEER

    A while back the veteran pontificator for the leafs nation pointed out that he was the only scribe that was alive when leaping Lou became the G.M. of the Devils. Now that really gave me a clue about the sentiments, style and knowledge of the leafs of the other young pontificators. As 90% of the responders have pointed out this is a fabricated August doldrums story created, well to create interest. Sorry Jeff and Ryan you are being barbecued to a crisp by the majority of wise leaf followers, whether 10 years, 20years, 30 years, 40 years, 50years, 60 years or plus 60 years such as myself and Gary.

    Bottome line Gary and I have seen it all from the Ballard era of his poor stat man Stan who on his funeral day had Ballard have one of his henchman demand the car keys from the statsman’s wife as she stood over his grave, to the Stravos era, to Ontario teachers union who could squeeze blood out of a stone, to the three amigos, of Larry, Bell and Uncle Ted.

    Now after leaf fans of stinking 50 years of garbage rebelled when flying Phil and company decided to give the finger to leaf fans, get this revenue decreased rapidly. Well, well, quelle surprise, the grey haired honchos, by the way I have grey hair, blue suit old farts realized they were losing gazillions. Presto, competent leaders such as Shanahan, leaping Lou, Babcock and others were brouht in to right the good ship Maple Leaf.

    To suggest a guy who suffered a broken leg, a serious blood clot, hello Chris Bosh whose career is likely finished after a second blood clot and a kid that turned up his nose on his favourite team the Bruins and told his brother and dad that he was going to Madison avenue for the advertising dollars makes the leaf management weak is piss poor journalism.

    Seriously on behalf of 90% of the posters in here GET YOUR FREAKING ACT TOGETHER.

      • Kanuunankuula

        Gary the kid handled it brilliantly as over the years there have been a number of can’t miss four year college graduates who were busts. Madison avenue advertising here he comes. I hear several accounts have opened up from some U.S.A. swimmer with the first name Ryan losing contracts with big time advertisers.

        Personally I hope this intelligent youngster has a great career with the Rangers at least till he can become a free agent. But you are absolutely right, Vesey and his agent were the only apple dangling from the tree. Hopefully for the sake of the talent lacking league that there wasn’t a snake in the grass close by urging the Rangers to take a bite of the apple.

        As others have pointed out the leafs have several youngsters who shall either match or excede young Mr. Vesey’s potential. I do wonder how long his brother and dad stay in the leaf organization?

  • Gary Empey

    Here is what the Leaf fans are really interested in.

    Back on Mar. 8 Bob MacKenzie predicted this year’s 2017 Leaf Line up:

    How close was he?

    Nikita Soshnikov – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov

    J van Riemsdyk – Auston Matthews – William Nylander

    Leipsic / Leivo – Tyler Bozak – Zack Hyman

    Milan Michalek – Brooks Laich – Holland / Brown

    Matt Hunwick – Morgan Rielly

    Jake Gardiner – Nikita Zaitsev

    Martin Marincin – UFA

    ========= Frank Corrado

    Jonathan Bernier – Garret Sparks/ UFA

  • SEER

    Here’s what I don’t get. Jeff gets what, 3 negative comments on here? Most comments are ‘good points, but’.

    So instead of going online and offering a realistic look at what the comments are, he cherry picks the most negative ones and paints himself as some sort of martyr. He complains about negative comments when he’s getting 90 percent positive ones. What? There’s a logic miss here.

    Jeff, not everyone will agree with you, and that’s ok because your not always going to be right, but man, the constant need to troll negative comments amazes me.

    Instead of celebrating the 90 percent of those who agree to an extent, you talk about the 10 percent on twitter as if they are the rule. How can you tweet about needing positive comments about bloggers, as if your only surrounded by negativity on here, how about you paint a realistic portrait of the feedback? Could that be positive, or are you just creating your own narrative?

  • Martin TO

    Over-speculation and making a big deal out of nothing. Personally those are my biggest problems with the Toronto media, and two things you guys have been guilty of quite a bit recently. There’s a massive difference between questioning the management’s decisions and making grand assumptions on why things are going right/wrong. Articles titled “WHY ARE THE LEAFS SCARING OFF FREE AGENTS?” after a situation like this represents everything wrong with Toronto sports media. MAYBE Stamkos was always going to stay in Tampa and just wanted to try to squeeze out more money from Yzerman, and MAYBE Vesey just always wanted to play in a big US city. Instead of thoughtful and unbiased analysis of the situation we just get fed whatever can create the most buzz from attention grabbing titles and forced controversy.

  • wallcrawler

    Good article Jeff.
    Ever since Stamkos wasn’t chosen for the Socchi Olympics, we started reading how he was leaving Tampa to come home. I was tired of reading all the Stamkos comments and lineups posted that had him a the number one center we didn’t have.
    Then during the trade deadline coverage it’s reported that Brian Lawton says to expect seeing more of Stamkos and the Stamkos frenzy picks up more steam.
    Next we have Jimmy Vesey telling Nashville he was going to free agency and he’s added to everyone’s posted lineups.
    So now with Stamkos and Vesey as sure bets the draft lottery comes up and against all odds we beat Edmonton for first overall pick.
    So now it’s Stamkos,Vesey and Matthews or Laine,( some had the crazy thought to trade Mathews to Arizona for players and picks).
    All of this to speed up the rebuild. I noticed that people were losing patience and seemed to forget that in Babcock’s first press conference, he said there would be pain. Apparently one year of pain was enough for them.
    So one week leading up to free agency everyone is salivating for the moment when Stamkos comes home. I even read on some other site one commenter saying his neighbours cousin who lives next door to Stamkos’s parents said Steve’s dad says he’s coming home.
    Well that never happened.
    So on July 1st Matthews is finally selected and not traded. Then there are reports come out saying there’s trouble with Matthews signing his elc (I think it was your least favourite reporter). So now there’s grumblings about how Lammorielo did not like giving bonuses preferring to put the team ahead of the player while running the Devils. All that angst while completely forgetting that Lammorielo signed Marner and giving him all the bonuses he was entitled to receive. Well Matthews was finally signed once other team business was taken care of.
    Which leaves us with Vesey, no back-up goalie and no cap space to sign one.
    So, since Jim Sr. works as a scout for the Leafs and his brother Nolan is a draft pick, we have Vesey signing with Toronto a sure thing.
    Now all these make believe GM’s are trading JVR to get a right handed top pairing dman to partner with Reilly. Now this would be a great idea if it weren’t for the fact you don’t trade your best leftwinger to make room for a third liner and at the same time making yourself weaker at one position to strengthen another.
    Well I’ve always said the Leaf’s didn’t need Stamkos, he needed them. And I’ve said we didn’t need a Hobey Baker winner since basically it is an award that is overhyped. Yes some winners have had very good careers in the NHL, but most were never heard of after winning it.
    So my point of this comment is that, yes there are a lot of unreal expectations put on this management group and how they will get it done as to their make believe rosters. I’ve also not mentioned the free agent signings they did our touched on all the Bozak trade wishes. This might be for another comment/rant.

  • Martin TO

    Jeff, just write your stories, and stop worrying about Criticism as it will always be there.
    write about the Leafs but don’t write articles in response to negative feedback, as you’re just fanning that flame.
    Steve Simmons is the worst but even he doesn’t write articles in response to who disagrees with him.
    Trying to create daily content in August is tough and you’re doing a good job, but don’t fight with your readers let them do the fighting amongst themselves in the comments section.
    Let your article speak for itself and leave it at that and enjoy the poop-storm lol

  • Newleafs

    Good article. About “pitches” to players:

    I’m not sure that the Leafs not getting players is because their pitches were not good. A pitch can still be good and the player will look at another option and feel it is a better fit for them. In other words the situation is more important than the pitch. Unless the pitch and situation are aligned. Babcock is a great example of this. Shanahan said he was worried his “pitch” would not entice him to join. it wasn’t a misleading pitch, it was the truthful plan as Shanahan explained. Shanahan may have explained his plan well but if Babcock didn’t like the plan he would not have joined the team. Same for Lou. Bottom line.

    So I think the idea that the pitch alone determines why players join the team is quite misleading because it ignores the specifics of the situation. Vesey probably felt the lack of young players was an advantage on NYR in his situation because he would have LESS competition than compared to the Leafs. A good pitch would not change that.

    I agree that the team should not be immune to criticism but a lot of criticism misses the point and leaves out the full picture. Ignoring the situation and saying that only the pitch is the reason why a player doesn’t come here is a good example of that.

  • MacTwoTimes

    With all of the coverage around the team i havent felt like management has been afforded a free pass on any moves that they’ve made. In fact everything to do with the Leafs gets dissected to the nth degree. I think Leaf fans are rightfully pleased with what this group has done and some trust or “benefit of the doubt” has been built up. And thats a good thing after the decade of negativity that just transpired. I’ve been happy overall with what the current regime has done except for one move that bothered me from the moment that they made it. Trading down in the 2015 draft while Travis Konecny was still on the board. That said, as Leaf fans if there is one concept that we understand it’s that you cant win em all.