Of course, they all love each other to bits. Mention Patrick Marleau or Jake Gardiner to any of their Toronto Maple Leafs teammates and the bottom lip trembles, the eyes water. After all those years of going around in circles under the leadership of Dion Phaneuf and crew when a sense that a new strain of ‘blue and white disease’ had crept into the dressing room, the Maple Leafs seem to have succeeded in creating a toast, comfy environment.
Thing is, after back to back eliminations by the Boston Bruins, that no longer matters. This is too good a mini-crisis for general manager Kyle Dubas not to take advantage in much the same way as a guy whose team is still playing – Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Ujiri took advantage of last year’s elimination by the Cleveland Cavaliers to dynamite his roster and locker-room, firing head coach Dwane Casey and rolling the dice by trading the much-beloved DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for potential free-agent Kawhi Leonard.
I know there are differences here. Bobby Webster is the Raptors GM but it’s Ujiri who did the deed with Casey and DeRozan – not to mention the news conference. Do we know yet where the delineation of power is between Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Dubas? Should we read anything into the fact that Shanahan has run away from the detritus of the elimination by the Bruins? Does that mean Dubas has gradually claimed more power or is Shanahan – I don’t know – on cruise control?
Beyond that, not being able to beat another team is different from not being able to beat one single player and the nature of the games themselves are different: no one player in an NHL game is on the ice long enough to control the way a game is played or – more importantly – officiated than a player such as LeBron James is (was?) able to do in an NBA game. And the Leafs are at a different phase in their internal development than the Raptors: their core is much younger than the DeRozan/Kyle Lowry core Ujiri had built. They really don’t have a DeRozan; rather, Dubas is still trying to get all his DeRozans under contract.
In some ways, there’s not a great deal Dubas can do. Mitch Marner played the contract game perfectly and needs to get paid more than anybody else on the team. Uncle. There are vagaries created by the salary cap and I don’t have my first-round draft pick. So, there’s that. But in terms of personnel, I’m being as blood-thirsty as I can. I’m listening to my peers about anybody not named John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly or Marner. Anybody. I can’t conceive of not having Frederik Andersen back unless I have a replacement, obviously. Painted into a corner there. But I’ll move anybody else and I need to have a heart to heart with Marleau and tell him that for all the Christmas meals and fatherly advice, the best thing he can do for this team’s development is move on – gently, preferably. We’ll make it easy as possible for all concerned. Nazem Kadri is a hugely cost-effective player, but like Gardiner, he’s a holdover from the previous regime. He was chosen to lead the stretch at practice the morning after he was suspended for his hit on Jake DeBrusk. Then he was kept off the charter and didn’t travel with the team for Games 5 or 7. What the hell is that?
And then there’s Mr. Perfect: head coach Mike Babcock. I and a lot of other people didn’t like Ujiri’s decision to ditch Casey because it smacked of scape-goating and – yeah – because he was as likeable an individual as you meet in this business. Truth is, given Leonard and the absence of King James from this division, my guess is the results under Casey would pretty much mirror what we’ve seen under Nick Nurse. But that’s moot. Credit Ujiri for earning his money by making a tough call. Still, not being able to beat James and being out-coached twice by Bruce Cassidy in the first round of the playoffs are two different things. Casey has plenty of company; Babcock, er, not so much.
It’s true that Dubas has been GM for just one season but let’s get real: he’s been in the front office since 2014 so he’s had time to dig around in the dark corners and get a feel for what Babcock is or isn’t all about. If he feels it’s time to dump Babcock, have at it. (If it’s me, when the Ottawa Senators called to talk about D.J, Smith I would have said: ‘Sure, but how about the big guy?’) If not, then in the least force Babcock to add Sheldon Keefe to his staff, then stand back. Shake up as much as you can. Worked for the guy down the hallway; might even prevent another strain of blue and white disease from creeping in.
NOW TWEET THIS
In which we celebrate baseball’s youth movement … wonder if there are any officials on the planet capable of working this Rockets-Warriors series … question the intelligence of the Senators (I know, I know: take a number) … cry Wolves.
(*)The Raptors are two games away from a record set by the 1954-55 Pistons: eight consecutive playoff games in which they’ve held an opponent to .420 or under from the field and less than 100 points #defence
(*)Vladdy Jr.? Meet Griffin Canning, the 22-year-old who will make his debut Tuesday for the Angels against the Jays. Canning is the Angels’s top pitching prospect and was ranked 60th overall by MLB Pipeline #letthekidsplay
(*)Speaking of kids, the Nationals’ Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom all homered Sunday, marking the first time in Major League history that three teammates 21 or younger homered in the same game #Brycewho?
(*)Like James Harden, I’m concerned the officiating in the Warriors-Rockets series can’t keep up. One game, four Ts, an ejection and memories of Zaza Pachulia under-cutting Kawhi Leonard in 2017, a play that led to the re-writing of the rule-book to come down on defenders who don’t give shooters an area to land #nomansland
(*)My god but the Stars Miro Heiskanen is fun to watch: he has 14 goals combined in the regular-season and playoffs, and only two NHL defenceman have scored more before their 20th birthday: Phil Housley (22) in 1982-83 and Ray Bourque (19) in 1979-80 #starryeyed
(*)All five assists recorded by Wolves’ Diogo Jota have been on goals by Raul Jiminez this season, which according to Opta Stats is the most of any one teammate to another in Premier League history #relationship
(*)Let’s see: the Leafs penalty kill did them in in the playoffs; D.J. Smith ran it; that embarrassing Uber ride involving Senators players featured jokes about the team’s PK coach. So, of course, the Sens would want to interview Smith for their head coaching job #rinseandrepeat
I’m going to just enjoy Vladimir Guerrero Jr., thank you very much. I’ll let everybody else wonder when the discussion turns to giving him a long-term contract a la Ronald Acuna and Eloy Jimenez – with the predilection in some media quarters to view Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins as sleeper agents. I give it another three days or until the kid hits his first home run before it becomes a full-blown crisis. Nor am I much bothered by the fact that ticket sales for the first three days of Vladapalooza (69,499 or an average of 23,166) were less than the 30,000 average I heard being bandied about; the walk-up for his first game, I’m told, was about 14,000. I’ve never believed one player would be the anti-dote for attendance issues. Carlos Delgado wasn’t. Roy Halladay wasn’t. Vladdy Jr., won’t mean nightly sellouts, either. Back to back post-season appearances changed the dynamic of this fan-base, a point lost on those who wanted a rebuild immediately after 2016 but not lost on those who did market research for the team. Sellouts will only return when the team wins and – besides – you can’t read anything into April attendance figures. Let’s see the impact on television ratings and let’s see the difference in attendance in the summer months with the roof open and Vladdy in the lineup. In the meantime, I’m not going to worry about much more than enjoying the kid. You’ll have to get your angst elsewhere.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 a.m. and Baseball Central from 11-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan