It all began on April 11th, 2014. After a decade of ineptitude, the Toronto Maple Leafs decided they could no longer spend to the cap year after year while constantly missing the playoffs and putting an almost unwatchable product out on the ice. At this point they hired Brendan Shanahan as the new President of Hockey Operations to try to help break the trend.
The next season was much of the same for the first half. It was then, in February of 2015, that Shanahan and team management met with several members of the board from MLSE and sold them on the idea of the “Shanaplan”. Shanahan insisted that if the board was willing to accept a few barren years, the future would be very bright and a competitive team would be on the ice.
After receiving board approval, Shanahan held a new conference announcing that Toronto was going to embrace a “scorched-earth” rebuild. Done were the days of minor tinkering of the bottom six and a full scale rebuild was on the horizon. After this announcement, they wasted no time making changes. Within the year they moved on from such core pieces as Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. They also moved out some senior players in Mike Santorelli, Cody Franson, and David Clarkson.
Trading these pieces for picks, prospects, a few bad contracts to hide in the minors, and one that is perpetual LTIR in Nathan Horton allowed the Leafs to begin a fresh new start. During this player movement the Leafs acquired future super star in Kasperi Kapanen and also used their depth of acquired picks to trade for the starter that had so desperately needed for years in Frederick Andersen. They also had a very succesful 2015 draft landing Mitch Marner in the 1st round and Travis Dermott in the 2nd. All was progressing as planned in Leaf-Land.
Then it happened. The Leafs won the Draft Lottery and generational super-star Auston Matthews fell into their lap. They went into the 2016-17 season with a roster of hungry young talent and everything came together. The Leafs scored seemingly at will and managed to eke out a playoff spot. They they proceeded to scare the Washington Capitals in a hard fought 6 game series. So far so good you would think but that was the beginning of the derailing of the Shanaplan.
In the off season, management decided that they were so far ahead of the original plan that they should try to land two 38 year old players in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. While only managing to get Marleau this was still the first move that was a huge shift away from the original vision. The Leafs had bought into their own press and had decided that they were a contender instead of realistically looking at what they had and continuing to address their weaknesses, particularly on the back end. While Marleau has been effective in a 3rd line role he will not likely be a Leaf when they are actually ready to contend. The question for the Leafs then is having his experience around the young players worth a 3 year $18 million dollar contract?
This season has shown with even more clarity that the Leafs are not ready to contend. Their issues with lack of depth on the back end is apparent and they are still displaying a large amount of inconsistency. A strong start however, has them clinging to a play off spot which has raised the topic of keeping assets such as JVR, Bozak, and Leo Komarov as “own rentals” for a playoff push. This would be a huge tangent off of the original plan and will be devastating to the future of the Leafs all for the over-hyped dream of “anyone can win if you just get in”
The smartest thing the Leafs could do at this point is sell, sell, sell. While it would seem to be counter intuitive for a team in a playoff spot to sell, it is the natural progression of the team development plan. At present JVR’s value has never been higher. Between him, Bozak, and Leo Komarov the Leafs could not only get a very good second pairing defenseman as well as picks and prospects that would be far more valueable going forward, they would also open up room for players like Kasperi Kapanen who has a higher upside than any of those three and Josh Leivo.
Besides those benefits it also opens up salary cap room for the inevitable extensions coming to Matthews, Marber, and Nylander and to be aggresive in the pursuit of any elite defensemen that may hit the market in the next two years. These defensemen that are potentially available are Drew Doughty, John Carlson, Erik Karlsson, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Holding onto assets to lose for nothing or to resign for dollar figures that hurt your long range plans all for the pipe dream of making a deep one for one year is foolishness. The Leafs are simply not good enough yet to win 7 game series against the likes of Tampa Bay, Boston, or Washington.
All Toronto fans should be praying that they don’t fall into this trap and move the assets.