There is a large section of the Toronto Maple Leafs fanbase that loudly applauds every single decision made by the blue and white. These same fans will quickly attack anyone who objectively questions whether those moves were the right ones or not. I’m sure these fans were the same ones cheering loudly the day then General Manager Brian Burke signed defenseman Mike Komisarek. It leads one to wonder loudly about of individuals who aren’t capable of properly forming their own opinion on a decision made by their favourite team and who attack you for not sharing the same sentiment. You are allowed to disagree, it doesn’t make you any less of a fan. The point that I am making trickles down directly from the decision on Wednesday afternoon to hire former Kitchener Rangers and Canadian World Junior Champion Coach Steve Spott as the new bench boss of the Toronto Marlies. Spott had been the head coach of the Rangers since 2008 and has had some minor success in his time there. Spott is most recently remembered as the man who failed to end Canada’s Gold Medal drought at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships. Apparently questioning whether this was the right move makes me less of a Leafs fan. Personally, I am skeptical as to the hiring of Spott. I hope he does well. However, upon closer inspection it appears as if he heads into this without as strong of a reputation as some would like to think he has.
Struggles in Kitchener
The first thing that the (new) Spott fans point to is how good his record was during his time with the Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. In his four years in Kitchener Spott compiled a 148-101-23 record. The Rangers are one of the OHL’s premier franchises and one that carries large expectations in a major junior hockey market. Spott struggled mightily in his first season behind the bench as the Rangers finished last in their division and with the third worst record in the OHL. Things turned around in Spott’s second year as the Rangers finished with 91 points and entered the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Kitchener had a strong run as they went all the way to the Conference Final. In that final the Rangers stormed out to an impressive 3-0 series lead over the defending Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires. Spott’s team crumbled under the pressure though as the Spitfires came all the way back to win the series in 7 games. The Rangers disappointed once again in 2010-11 as Spott’s team was upset in the first round of the OHL playoffs after once again entering as the third seed. Three seasons so far for Spott in which the Rangers failed to meet expectations. Both the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 campaigns were similar for Spott as his team easily qualified for the post season (3rd and 4th seed respectively) only to see themselves be eliminated easily by the arch-rival London Knights by a combined 8 games to 1 in the two post seasons.
Considering the amount of praise and accolades Spott seems to be receiving by some Leaf fans you would think that the Rangers were a juggernaut. Looking at the facts though, one sees that Spott’s time in Kitchener was one of failure. Blowing a 3-0 series lead, being upset in the first round and getting embarrassed by your most hated rival two straight seasons strongly illustrates that fact. The (new) Spott fans also point to his success with young players and his record in providing talent to the NHL. That is a fair argument. Let’s look a little closer at it though. Since arriving in Kitchener Spott has seen five of his players drafted in the first round (John Moore 21st in 2009, Jeff Skinner 7th in 2010, Gabriel Landeskog 2nd and Ryan Murphy 12th in 2011 and Radek Faksa 13th in 2012). While some may look at that and think that it is an impressive number, keep in mind that over the same time the London Knights have had seven first round draft picks, the Plymouth Whalers have had five, the Windsor Spitfires four and the Barrie Colts, Niagra Ice Dogs, Oshawa Generals and Guelph Storm all have produced three. Spott’s five first round picks are nice, but the Rangers have produced first rounders at a similar rate to their fellow teams in the OHL. Spott’s team hasn’t been a factory for talent as some would have you believe.
If people are going to praise Spott for that high end talent then they should also question why Murphy’s stock dropped at the draft (was thought to be a top five pick entering his draft year)? Murphy (under Spott’s guidance) has also seen his point per game average go from 1.25 in his draft year to 1.10 last season and .89 this season. If the coach deserves credit for producing first round talent he deserves the blame when this talent begins to regress. Does Spott deserve any criticism for the plummeting stock of Matia Marcantuoni? Marcantuoni, as an OHL rookie at the age of 16, was touted as a potential 1st overall NHL pick. He subsequently struggled with the Rangers (under Spott’s guidance) eventually becoming a 4th round selection in 2012. As for Landeskog and Skinner, those two players are elite, high end talent. In my opinion talent like those two have is always going to succeed regardless of whomever is tapping their shoulder behind the bench. Landeskog is the best Swedish forward prospect since the Sedin twins and Skinner was the youngest player to ever play in the All-Star game (not to mention the fact that he has already amassed 131 points in 188 games before the age of 21) . Something tells me those two guys would have been ok with or without Spott.
Another red flag that pops up when looking into the track record of Spott is his failure with at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship. While many may say that just because Canada failed to win the gold medal doesn’t mean that the tournament was a failure. Of course, there can only be one winner and blaming the coach for failing to produce in such a short tournament isn’t necessarily fair. That sounds about right, no problem there. However, when one looks objectively, Spott’s failure looks a little worse for the wear. The 2013 WJC was held while the NHL was in the midst of a work stoppage. This meant that Spott (unlike many other Canadian coaches) had access to every single junior age Canadian player. The prior two times that this tournament was held during an NHL work stoppage the Canadian team steamrolled the competition on their way to easily capturing the gold medal. As the tournament began Spott’s team were the prohibitive favourite. At the time Canada had six current top 10 NHL draft picks on their roster. Conversely, Russia had only one and the United States two.
Despite this powerhouse team, the Canadians struggled with both Slovakia and the United States in the round robin before being embarrassed 5-1 by an inferior American team in the Semi-Finals. Many believe that the American victory was largely influenced by US coach Phil Housley outfoxing Spott. Throughout the tournament Spott oddly benched 17 year old (and future 1st overall pick) Nathan MacKinnon. There were times where MacKinnon would play only one or two shifts an entire period. While it is normal for a player of MacKinnon’s age to be cast aside during a tournament with older players, the fact that Spott played MacKinnon’s teammate (and fellow 17 year old) Jonathan Drouin heavy minutes led many to question how Spott was managing his loaded roster. Spott also preferred to play Murphy (his own player from Kitchener) over Leafs first rounder Morgan Rielly on the top power play unit and in offensive situations. This was also a widely controversial move as Rielly was the superior of the two players throughout the tournament. Canada losing, as easily as they did, after being such heavy favourites certainty took some bloom off of Spott’s rose.
The Right Choice?
Despite all these negatives, Spott may very well be the right man to guide the Marlies. The Marlies are in a stage of transition as they seem to be casting off AHL veterans in favour of the plethora of CHL talent that the Leafs have been accumulating over the past few years. Spott is familiar with many members of his new team and he may very well get the best out of the players that he has been provided. The Marlies aren’t about getting results, they are about developing pieces for the big club and that will be Spott’s priority. Is he capable? Maybe. Should he enter the job with a fanbase pumping his tires for him? Based on his record with both the Rangers and Canadian Junior team, I would think not. Questioning decisions isn’t a bad thing, it shows that you are capable of forming your own thoughts and opinions. I wish Spott all the best, his new position is a difficult and important one. I hope the Leafs made the right choice. Considering what Spott has accomplished so far though I am a little worried. That doesn’t make me any less of a Leaf fan.