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The issue is not only the coach. The issue is the Leafs built their team around Kessel, Phaneuf and not much else (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
The issue is not only the coach. The issue is the Leafs built their team around Kessel, Phaneuf and not much else (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

LEAFS BEAT

Mirtle: The Maple Leafs’ core is fatally flawed Add to ...

When Phil Kessel landed in Toronto on Sept. 18, 2009, he came by way of the Boston Bruins, a team that had 116 points the year before to lead the Eastern Conference.

Not a strong defensive player, Kessel nonetheless led the team in goals (36), was fourth among forwards in ice time and had a 53-per-cent possession rating.

He brought those strengths – and flaws – to the Leafs.

When Dion Phaneuf landed in Toronto on Jan. 31, 2010, he came by way of the Calgary Flames, a team that had never missed the playoffs in his four years there.

Not a strong defensive player, Phaneuf nonetheless averaged 52 points a season, led the team in ice time and had a 53-per-cent possession rating.

He brought those strengths – and flaws – to the Leafs.

Five years later, not much has changed.

The Leafs had one of their worst games of the season on Saturday in Winnipeg, as the Jets embarrassed them 5-1 while heavily dominating the shot clock. It was the Leafs seventh regulation loss in their past nine games, and they face one of the most difficult stretches of their season here over the next two weeks, with road games in some of the toughest Western Conference cities.

More than anyone else, Kessel and Phaneuf have been blamed for the slide and, really, all of Toronto’s failings of the past few seasons.

On better coached teams, with more secondary talent, they fit in and filled a role.

On this one, where the systemic flaws are so immense and the supporting talent less, they’re continually asked to do too much and end up wearing their flaws more nights than not.

Beyond the coach and what’s obviously a possession-bereft style of play, what ails the Leafs remains the same as the day Mats Sundin left in 2008.

They don’t have a No. 1 centre.

They also lack a No. 1 defenceman.

And repeatedly asking Kessel and Phaneuf to be more than they are – to be something, in fact, they never were – without those pieces is as foolish as anything that’s gone on around the organization in the past decade.

Especially when the problems with the Leafs’ core go well beyond those two players. This is a team with Tyler Bozak playing 19 minutes a night as the top-line centre against top competition and getting outshot more than almost any player in the league.

Other key contributors lack defensive acumen – including James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner – and there’s a $5.25-million (U.S.) winger named David Clarkson playing third-line minutes who’s on pace for 27 points.

Stéphane Robidas, who signed a three-year deal for $9-million in July to play in the top four, has been a healthy scratch in favour of minor-leaguer Korbinian Holzer.

And on and on (and on).

The issue is not only the coach. The issue is the Leafs built their team around Kessel, Phaneuf and not much else because they were the impact players that former GM Brian Burke was able to get without going through the draft or free agency, routes he deemed too slow or too costly.

They were available because they had flaws; unsurprisingly, they still have them.

And you can blame those who have ignored that for too long for part of the Leafs’ downfall.

The tough part is how president Brendan Shanahan should go about fixing this roster. You can’t give away talent for nothing in this league, and freeing up cap space without anything to spend it on hardly makes sense unless it’s a total teardown, something he said last spring he wasn’t interested in.

Even so, getting younger makes sense, as does adding prospects that will mature with players such as Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly.

It’ll take some boldness from the brass to start selling now, but it’ll be long overdue.

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Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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