A couple of constant themes that have circulated around the Toronto Maple Leafs this season are: heart and leadership. Specifically, a lack of when it comes the blue and white in 2013-14. Lately these themes have obviously become more prominent as the wheels have fallen off the Leafs’ train. With post-season elimination now only a formality, one must really ask why the Leafs have lacked such an identity and intensity on the ice this season? According to management the Leafs were missing these elements due to the absence of Dave Bolland. However, can one really be the main identity and driving force of a team even though they only played 15 games in that teams’ sweater? For the sake of argument though, let’s say Bolland was such a factor for the Leafs. If that is the case, why has the organization repeatedly brought up the success experienced in 2012-13 when defending their play this season? Bolland wasn’t in the Leafs’ lineup that year. Which begs the question: were Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Leo Komarov bigger factors to this team, both on and off the ice, then they were given credit for?
I haven’t brought up Grabovski and MacArthur this season. I thought letting both players go was a mistake (MacArthur especially), but what was done was done. I’ve seen many players leave this organization over the years and have learned to not fuss over the past, it doesn’t change anything. Yet, when looking to see why this team has been unable to become engaged on the ice for the majority of this season (highlighted by their most recent 8 game season destroying losing streak), it makes me curious as to whether those three players were bigger factors than the organization thought they were. Other than Nikolai Kulemin, Grabovski was the longest serving of the Leafs team. He was a two time 50 point centre and played against the oppositions’ toughest forwards every night. This season the Leafs have struggled to replace him. Bolland may have been a superior or inferior replacement, but he was (as he has been many times throughout his career) unable to stay in the lineup. Jay McClement was then thrust into that role and it was a position that nobody (other than Randy Carlyle) really expected him to be able to survive in. Would things have been different with Grabovski? I have absolutely no idea. What I do know, is how Grabovski played his ass off every time he stepped onto the ice. Can we really say that about many Leaf players this season?
As for MacArthur and Komarov, they were deemed expensive and easily replaceable depth wingers. The argument can be made that MacArthur was replaced by Mason Raymond and Komarov by Troy Bodie. I don’t think the current Leafs deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the two former Leafs, but to each their own. MacArthur is a player whom I believe can be a very valuable 2nd (maybe even 1st) line player in the NHL. Time will tell if I’m out to lunch in believing that. The truth is: with David Clarkson coming aboard the Leafs could not afford either MacArthur or Komarov.
Having brought up Clarkson, isn’t it odd that some of Toronto’s biggest flaws this season (leadership and heart) are two main selling points management used after investing $36.75 million in the 29 year old winger last summer? Clarkson has 0 points in his last 16 games for the Leafs and has recorded just 2 in his past 27. Wasn’t this supposed to be the guy that the Leafs brought in to inspire, motivate and lead during the trying times? Is the biggest mark on the 2013-14 Leafs’ season the fact that players such as Grabovski and MacArthur were never going to be able to come back and play for Carlyle and they made an absolutely horrendous miscalculation in what Clarkson was able to contribute? Komarov was let go because the Leafs felt they couldn’t match the money he was being offered abroad, yet they felt totally comfortable paying more than double what Komarov was seeking (reportedly $2 million a season) for an inferior player in Clarkson.
I have said on this site many many times that coaches are not more valuable than the players in the current NHL. That may not be something that people agree with, but that is the reality of the league right now. Carlyle chose Jason Blake over Joffrey Lupul in Anaheim. Carlyle attempted to run Bobby Ryan out of town in Anaheim as well which led to his subsequent dismissal. In Toronto, Carlyle has forced both Grabovski and MacArthur out of town. According to many well paid and often accurate NHL insiders, if Carlyle remains the Leafs will also part with young players like Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri because they do not fit with what the head coach wants. Where do we draw the line? This season proved that Carlyle’s feuds hurt the team and arranging the roster for him is detrimental to success. I said above that fussing over the past doesn’t accomplish anything, the time has arrived for the Leafs to learn from their mistakes last season and find a way to inject some life (once again) into their dying team.