Monday, January 12, 2015

Weekend wrap: What should the Maple Leafs do now?

A look back at the biggest games and emerging story lines of the NHL weekend.

Theme of the Week: Decision Day Looming for Maple Leafs

We saw our fourth coaching casualty of the year last week, and it was the one everyone had been expecting for seven months. The Maple Leafs finally fired Randy Carlyle, replacing him on an interim basis with Peter Horachek.

It was a move everyone assumed was coming last offseason, when newly appointed Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made the surprising decision to extend the beleaguered Carlyle instead. The move was widely panned at the time, and in the months since, I’d yet to find a single person in the hockey world who thought Carlyle would last past this season.

So yes, you can criticize the timing here. But Carlyle’s firing had become inevitable, and doing it now was a far better option than waiting until the offseason. That’s because Shanahan’s most important task over the next 40 games — more important than finding a new coach, more important even than making the playoffs — is to thoroughly evaluate the core of his roster. Can these players, properly supplemented with future acquisitions, form the foundation of a championship contender?

It’s a question that needs to be answered with clear eyes and none of the silly wishful thinking that’s pervaded the organization over the years. And it’s one that simply couldn’t be answered with Carlyle behind the bench, because there’s plenty of evidence the coach was a big part of the problem. In Carlyle’s nearly three years in Toronto, the phenomenon repeated itself over and over: players would arrive in Toronto and their performance would drop; they’d leave and their performance would improve. Maybe that was Carlyle’s fault, or maybe there’s some other factor at play. But Shanahan couldn’t move forward without knowing, and now he has half a season to find out.1

Over the next three months, the Maple Leafs might discover that their core, led by Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, really can grow into a winner — there have been encouraging sign over the first few games under Horachek, during which the team’s well-documented defensive woes haven’t been nearly as apparent. That would be good news for Toronto, considering that there’s little in the way of reinforcements coming from the team’s meager farm system and most of the roster’s top players (and a few beyond that) are locked into long-term contracts that have the Leafs straining the upper limits of the salary cap.

Of course, we’ve seen plenty of evidence over the years that the answer may be no; maybe it turns out that the core this franchise has spent several years and millions of dollars assembling just isn’t good enough and never will be. If that’s the case, then Shanahan has no choice but to tear it all down and start over. He’s preached patience since arriving in Toronto, and in some sense that’s been an admirable approach, but you can’t be patient with a wrecking ball. While it’s long been argued that Toronto fans would never accept a full-scale rebuild, Shanahan may have the résumé and the charisma to sell one. After a full decade without a playoff series win, he may not have much choice.

In either case, the good news is that this organization has finally given itself the chance to find out what it’s working with. The bad news is that it may not like the answer or what will have to come next.

Cup Watch: The League’s Five Best

The five teams that seem most likely to earn the league’s top prize: the Stanley Cup.

5. Anaheim Ducks (27-10-6, plus-3 goals differential): For weeks we’ve been saying “The Ducks’ numbers aren’t all that great,” while always having to add “but they’re still all alone in first place overall.” Now they’re merely tied for first place, so screw ’em.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning (27-12-4, plus-29): They return to our list after a three-week absence, thanks to winning seven of eight and moving into first in the East.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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