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.
The Leafs came up short on Stamkos and they came up short on Vesey. Maybe front office aren’t the perfect pitchmen they’re claimed to be?
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) August 19, 2016
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.