No surprise that Maple Leafs didn’t make major or risky deadline move

Lou Lamoriello talks about a quite deadline for the Toronto Maple Leafs, adding Brian Boyle and staying the course.

For more than a decade, the Toronto Maple Leafs were the gang who couldn’t shoot straight, couldn’t organize a one car parade.

After making the NHL’s Final Four in 2002, constant organizational upheaval made long-term planning nearly impossible. A general manager would barely get started putting a long-term vision in place and he’d be out the door to make room for the next fellow.

Now, here we are in 2017, and the Leafs have gradually become over the past three years one of the most disciplined, controversy-free, buttoned down clubs in the sport. That focussed, unwavering, take-the-pain approach netted them one of the game’s next great stars in Auston Matthews – maybe you can put Mitch Marner into that category as well – and even this season with the club greatly improved and in a playoff position, nothing appears to be changing with the overall approach.

So, in that light, it was no surprise that at the trade deadline Wednesday, and over the past week, the Leafs didn’t go out and do something major or risky. Other Toronto management teams in other years might have, but not this group. Instead, the Leafs spent a second round pick to bring in Brian Boyle, and then executed a surprisingly complex trade with Pittsburgh in the hours approaching today’s 3 p.m. deadline to acquire veteran forward Eric Fehr.

Fehr isn’t an impact player. But he may help the team make the playoffs, could be useful in the expansion draft process if Las Vegas likes him and allows the Leafs to retain another player, and showed again the team’s ability to use its salary cap flexibility to add a draft pick, in this case a fourth rounder, by helping another team clear salary.

Whether it’s the David Clarkson-Nathan Horton transaction or the Dion Phaneuf deal, the Leafs have become one of the NHL’s better teams at using all the rules and regulations of the salary cap system to their advantage. They have buried expensive players in the minors (Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening), traded away unneeded contracts (Jonathan Bernier), traded players then borrowed them back for minor-league use (Matt Frattin) and sent players to ill-defined injury exile (Stephane Robidas, Joffrey Lupul). This summer, the Leafs will emerge with not only a good young roster, but one with an enviable cap position moving forward.

That Brendan Shanahan has been able to keep this team moving in a straight line may not be impressive to observers in other cities where that kind of discipline is well-established. But when you’ve been an observer of the Toronto hockey scene for three decades and seen just how difficult it has been to develop a plan and stick with it because of shifting ownership priorities, competing internal agendas and the ear-splitting white noise that goes with the task of running Toronto’s NHL franchise, it’s downright extraordinary.

Tim Leiweke’s hiring of Shanahan was inspired, and so too, it appears, was Shanahan’s hiring of GM Lou Lamoriello. Since Lamoriello arrived, a quiet has descended upon the Toronto hockey operation that is completely foreign to a team that had grown accustomed to near constant controversy and players becoming big stars even when the team was grinding its gears and going nowhere.

Shanahan had the vision, and Lamoriello has executed it. Others have been involved – don’t forget Dave Nonis swung the Clarkson deal with Columbus – and executives like Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter are influential players in the inventive moves the club has executed.

But Lamoriello has brought the disciplined approach. For the most part, only he and head coach Mike Babcock speak for the organization. And so, even in a season like this in which it would have been easy to get over-excited, think winning is back in town and start making aggressive, short-term moves, the Leafs have stubbornly stuck to the plan.

Curtis McElhinney was plucked off waivers, and then so too was Alexey Marchenko. Now Boyle and Fehr have been added.


But none of this has cost much, or risked anything. The Leafs may or may not make the playoffs, but Lamoriello was never going to aggressively make moves to make sure the playoffs were reached. Indeed, he declined to even try to add blue line help because he didn’t want to risk having incoming veterans take away ice time from youngsters like Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner.

There will come a time when the Leafs do decide it is time to try and win, or perhaps when they decide, like Edmonton did last summer with Taylor Hall, choose to move a key young piece to improve in another area. Right now, however, they’re still in the process of understanding what Matthews, Marner and William Nylander may become, and also in the process of adding depth to the team’s prospect chart.

The game against San Jose on Tuesday night showed just how far the surprising Leafs have to go to really compete with the best teams in the league. The Sharks are a nice mix of experience and youth, and got to the Stanley Cup final last year. For the most part, they were the better team, and when the game was on the line, it was 37-year-old Patrick Marleau who lured three Leaf defenders towards him before feeding Tomas Hertl for the game-winning goal late in the third period.

It was a night that showed just how much growing the Leafs have to do, even their impressive young players led by Matthews. They were, to some degree, taken to school by the Sharks, and nothing that could have been acquired over the past few weeks would have substantially altered that reality.

Instead, by adding Boyle and Fehr, Lamoriello gave his young team a little shot in the arm without deviating from the plan. This summer, the Leafs will add another first round pick, clear upwards of $16 million from their cap and look to make additions that will fit the timeline of the next three to five years when the club may be in a position to challenge.

Like a lot of teams, the Leafs were quiet at the deadline. But, unlike other cities, quiet continues to be news around this hockey club. It got a little noisy last summer when the team made big pitches to free agents Steven Stamkos and Jimmy Vesey, but otherwise it’s been about a slow, gradual approach to, it’s hoped, future excellence and sustainability.

With the Leafs, not making news has become the most important news. At least for now.

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