Under The Bleachers: Making Sense Of The Maple Leafs Struggles

Above: The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle had coached 40 games this season before he was fired on January 6th
Above: The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle had coached 40 games this season before he was fired on January 6th

How do you solve a problem like the Toronto Maple Leafs?

For those that haven’t heard, the Leafs just fired their coach, Randy Carlyle. They’re fifth in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference, riding a three-fight losing streak. They’re riddled with injuries, sweating in the spotlight and while they certainly could get things salted away for this season and make the playoffs, there aren’t many people that look at Toronto and think, “There’s a team that is close.”

Because they’re not and what should be most concerning is that the way to fix things is something that seems completely foreign to this organization.

The Leafs have made the playoffs just once since the 2004-05 season was scuttled by the lockout and the current roster features only six players drafted by the organization in the last 10 years. By comparison, the Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs every year since the 1990-91 season and have 11 players on the roster that they’ve drafted in the last decade. Go back a few more years and that number jumps to 15, plus the team’s top two forwards – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – are homegrown products.

The best homegrown product on the Leafs roster right now is Nazem Kadri.

This is a franchise that needs to take two steps back in order to take a step forward in the future. They need to tear things down, build from the back-end out and replenish the farm system so that every off season doesn’t feature the front office looking to fill holes with middling free agents that are given far too much money to play in the pressure cooker that is Toronto.

Hi David Clarkson!

Obviously, drafting can be a crap shoot – Zetterberg went in the seventh round and Datsyuk in the sixth, well behind innumerable noteworthy failures and countless other “never made it” guys no one has heard of at all – but the Leafs just seem to have this way of making the wrong moves all the damn time and you have to wonder how much of that comes from this misguided notion that every year is going to be their year?

The one All-Star they’ve drafted in the last decade went on to win the Vezina Trophy last year… for Boston… after being traded for Andrew Raycroft because Justin Pogge was going to be the “Goalie of the Future” in Toronto.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Rebuilding it a challenging process too – ask the Edmonton Oilers – but doesn’t bottoming out and starting fresh make more sense than repeatedly being just good enough to narrowly miss making the playoffs?

At least the Oilers have a bunch of young talent they can auction off in their neverending quest for improvement; the Leafs, on the other hand, have three players in the Top 50 in scoring and then a plethora of third and fourth line talent up front. They have a couple solid pieces on the blue line in Cody Franson and the not-yet-21 Morgan Rielly, but they also have a whack of cash committed to Dion Phaneuf, who has managed to reach double digits in goals just once in Toronto after doing so in each of the parts of five seasons he spent in Calgary.

This is a franchise that needs to take a cue from the people that help pay the rent at the Air Canada Centre.

After Chris Bosh skipped town for South Beach, the Toronto Raptors went into rebuilding mode. They drafted well, made some savvy moves in free agency and on the trade market and not even two full years into the Masai Ujiri Era, they’re one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and feature one of the most complete rosters in the league.

The only way the Leafs are ever going to be great is if they allow themselves to start over and be awful for a couple seasons first.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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