Rebuild still a dirty word to Maple Leafs

April 14, 2014, 5:18 PM

The Toronto Raptors are a fantastic story in Toronto sports, but they aren’t a blue print for anything.

It was important to keep that in mind as MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke presided over the latest ‘saviour-in-a-suit’ moment at the Air Canada Centre Monday.

It is now newly-installed Leafs president Brendan Shanahan’s job to fix the on-going mess that has been sprawled at the crossroads of the centre of the hockey universe for nearly 50 years now, but as for how?

Who knows.

That’s the only honest answer anyone could have given, but Leiweke was exactly 33 seconds into his introduction of Shanahan as the Leafs new messiah when the MLSE president cited the transformation under his watch of the Toronto Raptors and TFC – the other, lesser lights in the MLSE portfolio – for inspiration on the Maple Leafs file.

“I spend a lot of time talking about culture and character. I’m very proud of the job [Raptors general manager] Masai Ujiri and his team have done with what’s happened with the Raptors and obviously with TFC. Although it’s a work in progress it’s a different soccer club today that it was last year,” said Leiweke. “A lot of that is a commitment we made to create the right environment, to hire the right people to create the right culture. I’m not sure the Leafs have it. … I definitely sense we lack an identity and right now we’re a team that lacks a direction and we want to change that.”

At first listen this sounds kind of reasonable. It sounds very leadership-ish. It smacks of bold strategies devised and executed. But that doesn’t make it accurate, and it almost certainly doesn’t make it repeatable or transferrable.

The Raptors have won their division and will almost certainly set a franchise record for wins before the regular season ends on Wednesday night. It is a happy time and it coincides nicely with Leiweke’s decision to fire Bryan Colangelo nearly a year ago and pursue Ujiri for the general manager’s job.

The only problem is that the Raptors success this season very much mirrors the Leafs playoff push this time a year ago: very fun and quite unexpected, but no one knows how sustainable it is. But can anything be learned from it?

Leiweke acknowledged Monday that the Leafs run last year may have blinded him to the deeper issues facing the hockey team.

“If I could have made this decision [to hire Shanahan] a year ago, I would have done it,” he said. “But the fact is, I was learning [about the team] and maybe there were some notions earlier, some assumptions that came from the playoff run that ultimately gave us a bit of a false sense of comfort here. And as we sit here today, guess what: false.”

Yet that lesson didn’t prevent Leiweke from pointing to the short-term success of the Raptors and TFC as an example for the Leafs to follow – this before they’ve won a playoff game, let alone a round.

Moreover, no one can honestly claim the Raptors success is the product of design, with the exception perhaps of head coach Dwane Casey who remains without a contract for next year.

The largest single factor in the Raptors turnaround was the trade of Rudy Gay for four bench players from a losing Sacramento Kings team. Moving Gay was a contract dump and a precursor to a total rebuild, pure and simple.

The second largest factor in the Raptors success has been the performance of pending free agent point guard Kyle Lowry, who Ujiri was about to trade to the New York Knicks for a future first-round draft pick in December. The deal was done until Knicks owner James Dolan pulled out, fearing a fleecing.

A cupboard full of picks and a total rebuild was precisely the pitch the Raptors were making to season ticket holders as recently Christmas, before their highly enjoyable run to the playoffs as the sum of more than their parts. MLSE’s sales department isn’t using that line any more.

As for TFC? Being a fan of that club this season as compared to a year ago must be what it’s like to wake up on a mattress stuffed with hundred dollar bills after eating ketchup for dinner, with Leiweke as Robin Hood carrying a money sack.

But here is the catch: The Toronto Maple Leafs can’t make the equivalent transformative free agent signings of players like Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley – arguably the two best at their position in the entire league. The MLS has a loophole allowing teams to sign three players over-and-above the league salary cap and TFC exploited it to the fullest.

I have every confidence that if that if there were no salary cap in the NHL Leiweke would spend whatever was needed to make the Leafs Stanley Cup contenders for the next decade.

But they can’t. The NHL has a hard cap; the Leafs are up against it at the moment and they have arrived there without the Norris Trophy caliber defensemen and an elite No.1 centre most Stanley Cup contenders claim as their foundation, a state of affairs unchanged for at least the last decade.

It’s understandable Leiweke cites the Raptors and TFC as proof the Leafs can quickly and easily be fixed – except to me it indicates that internal assessment remains a skill that somehow escapes those who stride through the ACC ordering their underlings to figure out how to win.

A decade ago the Maple Leafs under John Ferguson Jr. tried to squeeze one last playoff run out of a veteran club coming out of the 2003-04 lockout rather than rebuild and prepare for the new NHL and it’s new salary cap. They failed and set the franchise back years.

Five years later it was Brian Burke’s scoffing at the need for a long-term rebuilding project. The core of the team that he and his then right-hand man Nonis put together finished 23rd this past season, ninth last year and 26th, 22nd, and 29th before that.

But yet again the Leafs aren’t contemplating a step backward to move two steps forward.

“I don’t think anyone said rebuild,” Leiweke said when I asked him if ownership could stomach a longer horizon to craft a contender.

Pushing on isn’t without merit and maybe the Leafs are closer to success then it seems.

But the Leafs aren’t the Raptors and they aren’t TFC.

“Let’s admit: if TFC is the sail boat and the Raptors are the yacht, the Leafs are a massive cruiser and it takes a lot to move them around and it takes a lot to shift strategy,” said Leiweke. “It’s a not a task you take lightly and do without thought or consideration and I needed some time to understand what was right and wrong here.”

Make your own Titanic joke if you must. A year ago pushing the Boston Bruins to seven games seemed like the start of something big, but Leiweke now admits he – like others — was fooled until the club kept hitting icebergs.

It’s an admirable bit of introspection, but citing the short-term successes of the Raptors and TFC as proof the Leafs can be turned around just as quickly suggests the lessons haven’t quite taken root.

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