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President and CEO of MLSE Tim Leiweke during a press conference to introduce newest players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley (not pictured) at Real Sports Bar and Grill. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)
President and CEO of MLSE Tim Leiweke during a press conference to introduce newest players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley (not pictured) at Real Sports Bar and Grill. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

Mirtle: Can Leiweke fix what ails the Maple Leafs? Add to ...

They were two big, bold moves and all it took was a chequebook and some of MLSE’s vast wealth to pull them off.

And there’s no question president Tim Leiweke would love to have a TFC-like solution for the Toronto Maple Leafs right now: Back the truck up to the top free agent, pile money in his lap and (presumably) enjoy success in the standings.

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As we know, the NHL doesn’t work like that. Rebuilding can be painstakingly slow, especially with so many stars staying with the teams that drafted them, and there are few shortcuts to the top.

Leiweke did a mini-media blitz on Monday after signing Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe to MLSE’s soccer team for a huge chunk of cash, and inevitably as it does in this city, the conversations turned to the Leafs.

Some of what he said was reassuring to what’s become an increasingly surly fan base: GM Dave Nonis won’t be selling off young assets or draft picks in a bid to get immediately better, no matter how much they slide in the standings.

“What we will not do, I promise you, is we’re not going to knee-jerk,” Leiweke told the Fan 590. “We will not give away our good kids, we’re not going to give away all of our draft picks. This is a long-term vision. And what we’re not going to do is panic and do a bad deal…

“This organization in the past has had a bad track record of knee-jerking and doing deals that were bad deals and using good young assets. We won’t do that anymore.”

That’s good news, especially with some of those “young assets” having their names bandied about in trade rumours by well-connected folks (here and here, among others) who would know such things.

The more troubling talk out of MLSE of late is what they think of the Leafs recent play. Since a 10-4 October, Toronto has really struggled, posting a 12-16-5 record thanks to a run of seven shootout wins in that span.

That’s only a 72-point pace over 82 games, which is good for a lottery pick, but it’s the way they’ve put up that record that has been so ugly – with several recent blowouts against weak Eastern teams – that has raised several red flags.

The Leafs have been outscored by an average of 3.24 to 2.21 a game since the end of October and outshot by an average of nine shots a night, a span of 11 weeks of futility in a 25-week season.

And there haven’t been many losses in there that should have been wins.

While Leiweke made the argument more than once on Monday that October wasn’t “a fluke,” the numbers tell a very different story. The Leafs first 14 games looked similar in that they were outshot badly (by nearly 10 per game) but had sky high shooting and save percentages (12.7 per cent and .937) that were highly unsustainable.

Since that point, the offence and goaltending has come back to slightly below average (8 per cent and .911), just under where it probably belongs.

This team isn’t as good as their hot start; they’re also not quite as bad as they’ve been for 33 games.

But the reality is that, in order to make the playoffs, Toronto is now probably going to need to get into the 90-point range. In order to do that, they’ll need a record in the neighbourhood of 19-13-3 over their last 35 games, an incredibly tall order given their woes of late and how tough the upcoming schedule is.

“I’m 100 per cent supportive of Dave Nonis, and I think he spoke very loud and clear this weekend that the issue’s not the coach,” Leiweke said. “The issue is our players have to understand October wasn’t a fluke. We got to get back to playing how we were then.”

Since they’ve deemed Randy Carlyle untouchable, the right play here for Nonis is to see how his team performs in the two weeks before deciding on a course of action. The Leafs have a tough Western road swing coming up, and if they continue to pile up losses, they’re not coming out of this.

That’s when management needs to give up the idea they’re going to rediscover their October magic and start looking at (a) getting something for free agents they don’t intend to bring back and (b) moving any dead weight they can foist on other teams.

If the Leafs aren’t going to make the postseason, this is a franchise that should be a seller, at least in some sense. They’re going to need whatever cap space can be freed up for another pivotal off-season, and getting a decent draft pick is still very important given how relatively thin the Leafs prospect base is.

The problem comes if the Leafs – from Leiweke to Nonis and on down – can’t get over this notion that this team is somehow a whole lot more than it’s been the last 2.5 months and that Dave Bolland’s return (perhaps by the end of the month) is going to completely transform their play.

It’s now at the point where there are some hard questions that have to be asked about this roster and its coaching staff, and the only way that can happen is if those at the top aren’t in denial over what they really have here.

Can they do that?

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