Much to the delight of the Toronto Maple Leafs, one would presume, they’ve managed to stay out of the spotlight over the past week, as Brad Treliving has embarked on the mission of getting to his much-discussed “priority list.” That apparently includes meeting with Auston Matthews, and meeting with current head coach Sheldon Keefe, among other things.
As the behind-the-scenes work is being done, it leaves the Leafs (and their fans) in a period of limbo as they await what could either be earth-shattering changes (core pieces are getting traded!) or none at all (run it back!).
Frankly, I’m not sure which would upset them more.
Treliving’s initial conversations with the media about how he sees the Leafs and their roster were measured, careful, and came without any grand pronouncement. That was the smart way to handle things, as we sit here today with little expectations.
But if you comb through his early statements with a fine-toothed comb – as someone may do if they, say, hosted a daily Leafs-themed radio show – then you can find details on what to expect will happen to this Toronto Maple Leafs roster.
Let’s run through Treliving’s quotes to date, pull out the old front office decoder ring, and take some guesses.
Topic: Physical play
Real Treliving quote: “With our teams in Calgary, we felt that we could not just respond but initiate physical challenge.”
What it means in plain English: This seems to be one of the things Treliving really liked about his Flames teams, that he’ll no doubt try to replicate in Toronto. The Leafs have forechecked and defended hard as a group, but there’s no doubt the additions of guys such as Noel Acciari, Sam Lafferty and Jake McCabe helped the team gain much-needed pushback at the fringes. They were 25th in majors last season with 14 of them. I’d bet that’s a higher number next season.
Real Treliving quote: “Sometimes you need certain things that get you to the playoffs and get you through the regular season, and then there might be things you need to get through the playoffs.”
What it means in plain English: We’re talking about the same thing here, but it is reinforcing the idea they want some grit. That said, the first part implies he’s aware that the Leafs have been great in the regular season and you can’t look past that, or you’ll end up like his Flames team of this past season, who didn’t even get the chance to be more “gritty” in the playoffs.
Topic: Style of play
Real Treliving quote: “How do we check? We don’t defend. We check. To me, there is a difference. You are on your toes. You are aggressive.”
What it means in plain English: Last one on this topic. He wants to go at teams more. What remains to be seen is the question I’ve asked for years: does getting meaner outside the core matter if the guys who play 25 minutes a night in the playoffs don’t have that element?
Real Treliving quote: “In the playoffs, you have to be able to play in a number of different ways and be able to engage — not just accept — and be proactive in putting your game against an opponent. You have to be able to handle different styles of play. Do we look at our defence, and are there ways we can augment that?“
What it means in plain English: It’s the last line I’m interested in here, about “augmenting” the defence. The Leafs’ outlook at D, it ain’t great. If Mark Giordano is considering retiring, and Justin Holl isn’t coming back – both of which are just conjecture at this point – then things start to look awfully thin awfully fast on the back end. None of Morgan Rielly or T.J. Brodie or Timothy Liljegren (or Conor Timmins) are net-front defenders, so I’d expect any major adds to include help for the back-end that isn’t the skate-and-breakout variety, in the interest of “augmentation.”
Topic: The Leafs’ analytics
Real Treliving quote: “Each year, from the data we have looked at with this team, it was an elite team at five-on-five offensively. When you look at it in chances against … it was second in chances for and 14th in chances against, but their disrupt percentage — to me, that is checking — was second.
“Again, I point back to the coach. He has gotten top players to check. You can’t win until you check. You need talent. You need skill, but that skill has to play at both ends of the ice.“
What it means in plain English: That Treliving is aware of “disrupt percentage” should dissuade any notion that he’s going to be wildly different from Kyle Dubas in terms of “respecting analytics.” That he wants to make checking the priority as a means of bringing down chances against is the clear theme of Treliving’s Leafs view. He also mentioned the coach there, so let’s go deeper on that topic …
Topic: The coach
Real Treliving quote: “I have talked to Sheldon about it. It is a unique situation. Maybe there is some discomfort, but that is what happens in the business here.
“I look at Sheldon, and I told him I am not coming in with any preconceived notions.
“I come in here and I look at Sheldon’s record. It is a pretty good record. In the last two regular seasons, what has he been? 115 and 111 points.
“We haven’t had playoff success. OK. Sheldon has four or five years in the league as a younger coach. To me, if Sheldon Keefe is on the market right now, he is at or near the top of the list of any of these vacancies.
“I am really excited to get to know him. We have to move through this quickly. We are going to go pedal down here and move through things as fast as we can.
“I am coming in with no master plan other than that we want to get the very best coach for this team. I think we have a pretty damn good coach in place right now.“
What it means in plain English: I think this is the healthiest place to start. Treliving respects what Keefe has done and the biggest thing is, who would replace him? So, if the new GM thinks the coach has done a good job, it’s not all that unlikely that he’ll keep him until one of the few coaches Treliving wants most is available. Or hey, maybe Keefe ends up being the guy he wants most. Still, I do think it’s great Treliving left the door open to go either way here. If they disagree philosophically, then it could end before it starts. I’d expect an answer to this question within the week.
Topic: The Core Four
Real Treliving quote: “If you look at where these players are drafted, you just have to pick the number where they were drafted. There is a lot of pain to get good players.
“Having those players excites me. They are world-class players. We are going to review everything. I want to stress strongly I am not about coming in and making a statement. You can throw a body under the tarmac, and it might look good for a headline, but are you getting any better? At the end of the day, it is about getting better. Just being different doesn’t necessarily make you better.”
What it means in plain English: This is equally parts savvy and frustrating. It’s savvy because he’s right, the players are elite, and getting elite players is so hard to do. They’re the drivers in this league, the difference-makers. But those in Toronto have seen it play out so similarly so many times, that it’s tough to support doing nothing with the group.
What I actually take away here is the “getting better” part about the team, which doesn’t read to me like a guy who thinks he’s been handed a Stanley Cup favourite who just needs a few bounces. A few missteps with this roster and they could slide back to where his Flames team was this past season, so I think he sees how crucial it is that if he decides to do something, it’s to improve more generally (rather than looking for one splash to put them over the top). And since it’s hard to improve by trading the best player in a deal, I don’t see Treliving doing anything with his core pieces any time soon, if he can avoid it.
After reading and thinking about Treliving’s opening statements with the Leafs, it feels like they’re going to bring back everyone important, try to get tougher and defend more, and hope those elite guys finally break through (the Matthews situation is up to Matthews, and that’s the true wild card here). Dubas would’ve been buried for suggesting this group “run it back,” but it’s easy to see why this is where Treliving starts from, as he’d still have room to make changes in-season (with William Nylander anyway, who will have a 10-team no-trade list).
In a city where fans have been clamouring for change, we’ll see if simply moving on from the old GM is enough to satiate the masses, who’ve likely calmed down with another post-season disappointment growing distant in the rearview. But I think it’s safe to say that everyone is on edge, and the team is one failed trade or early-season slump from the temperature jumping right back up to scalding hot.