I write hundreds of articles each year. Perhaps my favorite annually is this one. The reason is simple - it's so easy to write, and I have a near certainty of being right. See, my preview every year contains basically the same phrase - the Toronto Maple Leafs suck, and they are going to continue to suck this year. It's that easy - succinct and always right.
I have to admit, though, that I approach the new reality of this team with a great deal of sadness. For the first time ever the organization realizes just how broken they have been, and they have actually taken realistic and appropriate steps to remedy the problems. What a disappointment from where I sit. Hiring Brendan Shanahan was fine, but it really became impressive when it became obvious that he had the freedom to make real changes - and to actually rebuild. The moves were many and aggressive, and the team accepted that they are not at all going to be good this year. They weren't going to be no matter what, but at least now their struggles will be with a long-term goal in mind. A team this popular and with this many resources should not be in the slump for as long as they have been - though the Cubs and, previously, the Red Sox showed us just how possible it is. A few years from now it is actually realistic to think that they could at least have a chance of breaking that slump and being champions. Or at least actually competitive - and not the kind of delusional competitiveness that Toronto fans have bizarrely been willing to accept for far too long. Toronto is a truly great city, and it deserves so very much more from its hockey team than it has been getting.
Toronto Maple Leafs Offseason Moves
There is a lot of ground to cover - and much of it happened off the ice. The team emptied the vault to grab Mike Babcock from Detroit as their head coach. I never thought it would happen, and it is unquestionably a good hire. If he can't fix this team then no one can. The next huge splash came when, after 28 years as GM in New Jersey, Lou Lamoriello was convinced to take on the task of rebuilding this team. Huge - for credibility as much as anything.
On the ice there is one move that overshadows all others - and is a clear sign of a team moving in the right direction. Phil Kessel is very talented, but
his attitude just wasn't this team needed. I'll gently say that sometimes his hustle came at inconsistent levels. The return they got for him from
Pittsburgh wasn't great, and they retained some of his salary, but sometimes just turning the page is very valuable. Doing the same with Dion Phaneuf would
be even better, but that contract will be very tough to move. Nick Spaling is the immediate potential impact player in that deal. Along with new additions
like Daniel Winnik, P.A. Parenteau and Shawn Matthias, Spaling is a decent player but more of a bottom six type of forward than a true impact-maker. Right
before camp started the team moved several contracts of young players to the Islanders for Michal Grabner. He will carry an offensive burden - he did score
34 goals for the Islanders in 2010-11 in his first full season in the NHL. His production has dipped every year since, though, and he had just 20 goals in
98 games over the last two seasons, so his contribution is far from certain. Several players are also in camp on professional tryouts. Of those, Curtis
Glencross, seems the most likely to make an impact.
Toronto Maple Leafs NHL Outlook
The biggest cause for this concern for this team is that you have to be able to score to win. That wasn't a massive strength last year, and now by far their best offensive player plays for Boston. It will be offense by committee, and the problem is that no one on that committee is particularly explosive. Guys like James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul will have to step up their game if the team wants to be even remotely competitive. Lucky for them it is in their best interest at this stage in a rebuild for them not to be competitive.
Rebuilding means young guys get a chance to log lots of ice time. There is some decent talent to look forward to. William Nylander has the most upside, and Connor Brown, Brendan Leipsic, and others could get a long look, too. Babcock knows this year isn't about winning, so he will surely spend time seeing what he has in the prospect department and who is willing to do the work required to play under him.
Toronto Maple Leafs Schedule
Five of the first seven games are on the road, and the two that aren't are against bitter rivals and far superior teams Montreal and Ottawa. It would be very easy for this team to fall into a deep hole early on - to set the tone for the season. In a lot of ways that would be good - it would make it easier for the team to unapologetically and aggressively embrace the rebuild. The second game of the year is a trip to Detroit - a game that will surely have extra significance both for Babcock and for the fans in Detroit.
Toronto Maple Leafs NHL Futures Odds (from Bovada)
The oddsmakers don't like the chances of this team any more than I do. They sit at +7500 to win the Stanley Cup. That is better than just four teams - and is likely inflated because of how much of a public team this squad is no matter how bad they are. They are tied with Buffalo and Carolina at the bottom of the Eastern Conference pecking order at +5000, and at +2000 to win the Atlantic Division they are just slightly better off than Buffalo.
2015-16 Toronto Maple Leafs Predictions
I've pretty much summed it up - short-term painful incompetence with long-term improvement the finally realistic goal. I want nothing more than for this team to be decent eventually. I grew up hating them intensely, but the last several years (decades) the fun has been robbed of that because they are so misguided and underwhelming. A strong Toronto team is good for the NHL - and it may actually happen one day. Just not now. Really, really not now.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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