Leafs not a depth piece away from contention, need to diversify core

HC's Elliotte Friedman on why he thinks the Maple Leafs organization changed their course based on Saturday’s embarrassing loss, says he doesn’t expect major surgery at the deadline, but believes they've decided not to bet on this team this year.

Back in the good old bad old days you could fill a half-hour of sports talk by asking the question: which of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays would be the next team to win a title. It was easy to pick the Leafs – history notwithstanding – because they had no LeBron James or Golden State Warriors standing in their way and unlike the Jays, played in a league where half the teams made the playoffs. Of course, the Raptors ruined that last season and on this trade deadline morning, there’s a different fact that must scare and also bemuse the folks at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment: honest to god, the Raptors have a better chance of repeating as champions than the Leafs do of becoming champions. Let that roll around your brain. OK, it’s unfair to put the Leafs and Raptors in the same paragraph after this weekend. The hoops guys recorded their biggest margin of victory ever 24 hours after the hockey guys suffered an embarrassing loss that as of 10 p.m. ET Sunday was No. 4 on the list of most-read sports stories in The Guardian, in among the footy and rugby and what-not. Think about that. That’s. A. Paper. In. The. U.K. (“42-year-old pulled out of crowd to make NHL debut … and wins game!”)

See, it’s not the lingering questions that ought to create consternation for the Leafs. Their calling-card has for three years now has been what my colleague Stephen Brunt refers to as “conscious-free, offensive hockey.” Hell, it’s what they’re designed to do. And for the longest time, those assumptions were slightly bemusing. Too easy to push around. Defensively irresponsible. Too clever by half when they have the puck — only going to go as far as Frederik Andersen and six goals a night would take them — something that would surely happen once they were freed from the shackles of an uncaring, old school coach. These are all assumptions that seemed relatively harmless, especially since they were made knowing that the team was going to add, add, add at the deadline knowing a playoff spot was in the bag. Somehow, it was going to work out.

No, the worst thing about where the Leafs find themselves right now is how close management must be to wondering about some of the assumptions they made about this team that gave them comfort during those periods when their team was giving up three goals against and their top players went walk-about. They’d planned to be the Chicago Blackhawks. It was only a matter of time. Instead, they look and sound a lot like the Edmonton Oilers of the last three years.

And here we are. Geezus. If I was general manager Kyle Dubas, I wouldn’t do a damned thing today other than offload Tyson Barrie for some draft pick because, well, I’m just not certain this group is ready to do anything other than fluke out one or two playoff wins in the first round and I don’t know how you plan for that. I’d let this group try to figure it out on their own and look ahead to the summer where there are five players I wouldn’t take calls on: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Rasmus Sandin and Morgan Reilly.

Everybody else? Put them in play. Try to collect a higher draft pick. Because this isn’t a team that’s a depth forward or defenceman away. Corporate sponsors might not want to hear this, but this team needs a better or at least more diverse core. Indeed, there are three things that need serious thought, three things that might have been taken for granted that ought to at least be given a deeper dive beyond simply getting rid of Kasperi Kapanen or William Nylander, who seem to be everybody’s favourite whipping boys.

First: what if Andersen isn’t the guy or, more precisely, what if he isn’t the guy for this particular team? There’s hill littered with Leafs GMs’ careers done in by goaltending misreads and you’re starting to hear the type of sotto voce criticism of the big Dane that you get whenever the wheels are being greased for a guy’s departure: that he’s a little high maintenance and might not know how to respond to having a legitimate NHL goaltender behind him. With one year left on a reasonable contract, the Leafs need to decide whether that makes him a bargain for their own purposes or a tradable commodity in the off-season. Either way, it feels like we’re nearing the end of the line with Andersen.

Second: what if Tavares’ contract wasn’t worth it? It’s sacrilege to think this of Johnny Toronto – I know, I know – and he seems form-fitted to be the captain of the Leafs, virtually impervious to the pressure that comes with wearing the “C.” But has he done enough? Or is that contract destined to be overkill? Is it the deal that will hamstring this franchise? Tavares is the second-highest paid player in the NHL and at the time of his signing, many of us suggested that it was a turning point for this franchise. That the Leafs had become a safer haven for local guys than it had been in the past. That whatever was keeping big-name free agents like Steven Stamkos away need not be terminal. Shoot, there were even suggestions that the wee hometown discount Tavares gave the Leafs might encourage other players to do the same. This has been one of the keys to the Boston Bruins’ success and it has been a defining characteristic of successful NBA teams. But Tavares’ deal sure didn’t pay dividends in that area when it came to Nylander and Marner’s demands. Hometown discount? Hell, Toronto’s own Marner held the Leafs’ feet to the fire for every last penny, and we haven’t even touched on the leadership stuff. I mean, at least Dion Phaneuf’s teams didn’t get beaten on home ice by a Zamboni driver.

Third: what if Matthews just scores goals? Now, I’m not suggesting for a second that dude should apologize for scoring 50 goals or having show-stopping, jaw-dropping, skills. Far from it. In fact, both in writing and on the air I’m squarely Team Matthews. It’s just that my friend Jeff Marek and others used to posit that when Leafs executives closed their eyes at night they likely envisioned Matthews as having a little Anze Kopitar in him. That maybe he’d be a guy capable of a two-way game and, I don’t know, getting mad every now and then instead of sitting on the bench looking forlorn. Matthews never seemed to be a guy who was going to drive somebody through the boards even before his shoulder injury and that’s OK: you don’t want him to channel his inner Tom Wilson. But 46 penalty minutes in three-and-a-half seasons is interesting.

So here we are, giving thanks for the Florida Panthers’ apparent lack of interest in much of anything and hoping this is the absolute low point, the Stanley Cup frankly seeming to be farther away than it was three years ago, hanging our hopes on a Raptors’ repeat instead. Wow.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Back to the Raptors: big deal here Tuesday night with the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the Scotiabank Centre. The Bucks lead the NBA in wins with a margin of victory 20 points or more (18) and have had a league-high 14 games in which they’ve never trailed. Yikes. Antetokounmpo has accounted for 12 of this season league-wide 22 games of 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, the most since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had 17 such games in 1975-76. He is also on pace to need the fewest minutes per game to average 30 points in NBA history: 30.9.

• Everton’s rebirth under Carlo Ancelotti has been remarkable, in particular the manner in which Dominic Calvert-Lewin has put together the kind of season that has staked a claim for a responsible role with England at this summer’s Euro, especially given the dodgy health of Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford. Calvert-Lewin recorded his 12th goal Sunday, his seventh in 20 games under Ancelotti. Coupled with Richarlison’s 10 goals, the Toffees are the only team in Europe’s top leagues to have two double-digit goal-scorers aged 22 years or younger. Nine players in total under the age of 22 have 10 goals across the five leagues.

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• Told the Major League Baseball Players Association has or will formally request added security for the Astros on the road this season after the sign-stealing scandal, both at hotels, in-transit and at the ballpark.

• Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., wasn’t the only Major Leaguer from Palenque, Dominican Republic, to be put on fitness watch by his organization. Franmil Reyes, who hung around with the Jays prodigy when they were kids and whom when he was with the Padres last season was treated to a home-cooked meal in Toronto by Guerrero’s family, reported to Indians camp 18 pounds lighter. “He has a chance to be a gamechanger for us,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti told MLB.com.

• This is a big spring for Canadian right-hander Nick Pivetta, who at 27 is vying for the Phillies’ fifth starters spot after a season in which he was lit up for 20 home runs and a 1.516 WHIP in 90 2/3 innings and was twice optioned to Triple-A. The Victoria, B.C., native was touched for three runs and five hits in his second inning of work Saturday during the Phillies’ first Grapefruit League game, but was happy with an altered delivery – much more compact – and a change-up that will be the focal point of his spring. He threw less than 20 change-ups all last season. Saturday, he threw seven circle change-ups.

• Two televised games into the Grapefruit League season and I’m already saying prayers every time a ball gets hit into the Blue Jays’ outfield.

• Great for David Ayres. I’m happy for him and laughed along like the rest of you before taking an intellectual shower and realized how idiotic it is that he was put in the position. I get you can’t account for a team losing two goaltenders in a game and that taking three on the roster is counterproductive, but you still need to plan for it and I’m sorry: it’s an embarrassment that a billion-dollar industry found itself in this position. Hey, I loved the story and was cheering for it as much as anybody and it certainly helped stir up stuff from the bottom of the tank ahead of the trade deadline. Chaos is good. Chaos is refreshing. But I’d like the chuckleheads out there to ask themselves: how would you feel if that was your team and you lost the game and missed the playoffs by a point? My guess is if that happened to the Leafs their fans would be even more pissed off this morning.

THE END GAME

They’re going to formally open the Toronto Blue Jays’ spiffy, re-designed TD Ballpark in Dunedin on Monday. It’s been a twisting road to this point for the organization, which has known no other spring training site since its inception, and is a feather in the cap of Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro, who finally dragged the process across the finish line. Next will be the opening of the team’s new training complex in the Fall, which I think will have a much more significant long-term impact because I think we’re about to experience a revolution in how teams develop players. It’s going to take some political arm-twisting and delicate manoeuvering, but I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of minor-league baseball as we know it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s approaches regarding the constriction of the minor leagues aren’t really based on concerns about the standards and conditions at some minor-league parks. Rather, it’s a calculation based on economics: is it really necessary for major-league teams to stock six or seven affiliates? Or does it make more sense to keep far fewer players in a high-performance centre in warm-weather locales and let them hone their skills in what is in effect a year-round Instructional League and maybe stock, say, one or two teams? Why should major league teams provide the labour to help minor league owners make money? Tradition? Every other sport has colleges or, in the case of hockey, junior leagues to provide the training. Baseball doesn’t have that luxury, but it doesn’t mean the system cannot be dramatically streamlined, especially at a time when 18- and 19-year-olds are playing in the Majors.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and Sportsnet 360. He’s ridden a Zamboni.

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