Standing pat isn’t an option.
That’s the sense coming out of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization these days, something that’s been magnified in recent days given two more losses were added to the pile that’s been the team’s late-season collapse.
In all, the Leafs have won just three of their past 14 games, free-falling from third in the Eastern Conference to 11th in less than a month, the kind of incredible meltdown that would make any franchise reassess what it has and what it wants to be.
And that goes doubly so for one with ownership and a president in Tim Leiweke who has talked a big game (including having a parade) from Day 1.
Could that mean they opt for drastic measures?
It’s not out of the question, although just where that starts and ends contains a lot of moving parts at this point. Up until last week, you’ll recall, the Leafs still had a slim shot at qualifying for the postseason, something that would have made it far more palatable for Leiweke and Co. to sell the status quo.
Now the unease is deep enough that that won’t happen.
But who pays the price?
What follows is a quick rundown of those involved and how vulnerable they may be once the season wraps up on Saturday:
The head coach
This was not a good year for Randy Carlyle. After an off-season where GM Dave Nonis did his best to tailor the roster to his coach’s wishes – adding several so-called Carlyle-type players and shuttling out perceived misfits – the Leafs were less cohesive and effective than last year’s team right from the beginning of the season.
Toronto’s defensive issues under Carlyle are already well documented, but the biggest problem is there’s a long-standing pattern here, one that stretches back to his final few years with the Anaheim Ducks (after Chris Pronger was traded). Every indication is that he’s been unable to adapt to the changing NHL now for a while, and his unwillingness to trust and develop some of the Leafs’ young players this season has been another huge red flag for a young team that needs more contributions from its depth.
It’s hard to imagine he stays, especially with some high-profile candidates potentially available.
The general manager and front office
From a five-year extension last summer to now sitting on the hot seat. That’s the reality for Nonis here, and by extension, the rest of the management team, led by assistant GM Claude Loiselle and vice-president of hockey operations, Dave Poulin.
Nonis’s biggest miscue may well have been letting his coach dictate too much of the off-season game plan, although he does deserve credit for not unloading any of the kids. There are also concerns Leiweke was overly involved in deciding what pieces to add, with his mantra to think big in free agency – just as he did with an entirely different animal in Toronto FC – proving disastrous when it came to the David Clarkson signing.
Managing up will probably always be part of the job description with this organization.
Now the latest MLSE scuttlebutt is that Leiweke is on the hunt for a Leafs president to sit in the top hockey job, with NHL senior VP Brendan Shanahan already contacted about the role. Adding to the intrigue, Wayne Gretzky is believed to be favoured by some on the board, and there could be a power struggle if such a high-level change is made.
Nothing’s decided here, but if they made an add like that, either Nonis’s influence will be greatly diminished or they clean house altogether.
Some pieces aren’t going anywhere.
Phil Kessel, with a new eight-year deal and 214 points in the past three seasons (only Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux has more), is one piece to build around.
So is 20-year-old defenceman Morgan Rielly and so, too, despite all the trade rumours stemming from a personality clash with Carlyle, is Jake Gardiner, who emerged as the team’s best defenceman during the home stretch when almost no one played well.
Other than that, only Jonathan Bernier and James van Riemsdyk are untouchables, which means key cogs such as Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri could be exposed to a trade if the right fit is found.
All of that is obviously dependant on who is calling the shots.
The rest of the roster
Everyone else is expendable, with some obvious candidates walking the plank for sure.
Gone will be backup netminder James Reimer, who’s looking for an opportunity to start elsewhere, and likely only one or two of the unrestricted free agents (Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Mason Raymond, Jay McClement and Paul Ranger) is back.
The main roster-related priority will be reworking the Leafs’ blueline, and the top candidates there to be shipped out will be Cody Franson and Tim Gleason, both of whom had their fair share of mistakes and will be costly against the cap.
Whoever’s in charge will need to be creative, as the Leafs’ cap situation isn’t all that forgiving with all the long-term deals and no-trade clauses.
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