TORONTO — What the Maple Leafs are in the market for right now is leadership.
Internally, that trait was identified by top members of the organization as a glaring need following a meltdown finish to the year — the third in succession if you link Brian Burke’s “18-wheeler off a cliff” to the blown 4-1 lead with 12 minutes to play in Boston to losses in 12 of 14 games down the stretch this March and April.
There is no question that a little more internal guidance and fortitude could help. However, determining which players can actually bring that element to Toronto while also contributing on the ice is no easy matter.
It must be remembered that the notion of leadership doesn’t necessarily change addresses with a player. One of the reasons the Leafs went after David Clarkson so aggressively in free agency last summer is because he was thought to come with intangible qualities like character. There was no chance to even test that line of thinking during his disastrous first season here.
Perhaps the area where this change in off-season approach will be seen most is the average age of the roster. Toronto iced one of the NHL’s youngest groups the last couple years and has set its sights on some older targets this summer — with 42-year-old goaltender Martin Brodeur and soon-to-be-38-year-old defenceman Dan Boyle among the players the Leafs have spoken with ahead of the opening of Tuesday’s free agency period.
Even the proposed deal for Josh Gorges — one the Montreal Canadiens defenceman held up by refusing to waive his no-trade clause — falls in line with the approach. Some might view a 30-year-old with a $3.9-million cap hit over the next four seasons as a declining asset, but Toronto sees a player with heart and soul to spare.
While there’s little evidence to suggest anything to the contrary, his reaction to the potential trade suggested that he wasn’t eager to bring those qualities to the Leafs. In fact, Gorges was said to be heartbroken by the news. He told the Journal de Montreal on Monday afternoon that he was “in shock.”
With or without him, the Leafs will charge on.
Dave Nonis has certainly signalled his desire to actively alter the roster. The GM’s decision to use an ordinary-course buyout on veteran defenceman Tim Gleason leaves him with almost $24-million in cap space, albeit with only 11 NHL players under contract for the coming season.
One of the organization’s biggest failings over the last decade is its severe lack of homegrown players. The Leafs have either been too impatient with prospects or failed to develop young talent into meaningful contributors — both cardinal sins under the constrictions of a salary cap.
Consider that Toronto counted just five draftees among its regulars last season. Of that group, one is already gone (Carl Gunnarsson), two others are very likely on their way out the door (Nikolai Kulemin and James Reimer) and one (Nazem Kadri) has heard his name mentioned in trade rumours for almost a year.
Still, more external changes are to come. The Leafs will further alter their look at forward, defence and in goal before training camp opens in September and most of the important decisions are expected to be made in the next few days.
The one thread likely to run the impending moves?
Players who bring experience and the ability to lead: The organization believes that it’s the best way to avoid another collapse next season.