Leafs Nation Moves the Needle in West Coast Swing; Three Thoughts before Leafs/Oilers

Never short on entertainment, the Toronto Maple Leafs look to start a new streak of solid play against the surging Edmonton Oilers. Here are three thoughts heading into the Battle of the Rebuilds.

Leafs Nation Moves the Needle

Ahh, Saturday night with the Leafs on TV. Maybe you’ll grab some wings or pizza, pour a beer or rye, and sit down to watch some HNIC Leafs action. Seven o’clock – right on time.

Nothing is better than making a team play at 5:00 pm local time just because you’re fanbase is bigger and gets a better pull, right? It’s something that is almost exclusive to Leafs Nation, and it infuriates the other, lesser than, Canadian fanbases.

Toronto is the hockey Mecca so it makes sense. The team is arguably the most exciting to watch across the country with Calgary and Winnipeg closely behind. The national media focuses on the team that caters to the sports needs of nearly 2.7 million people.

Don’t get me wrong, Edmonton is fun to watch and a good team too, but, they’re no Maple Leafs

Forget about Matthews vs. McDavid

Matthews vs. McDavid tends to get all of the attention from the media, and rightfully so. They were both #1 draft selections in back-to-back years, both are sensational center’s and franchise players on their teams, and both are recognizable across Canada and the United States for star power.

But before we get too carried away with these dynamic players the better matchup may come between the “secondary” scorers. Yup, I’m talking about Marner vs. Draisaitl.

They probably won’t see much if any of each other on the ice but an end-of-game stat comparison between Mitch Marner and Leon Draisaitl may be more interesting than their first-time compatriots.

In the past week, Marner has ticked over the 80 point mark and Draisaitl surged past 40 goals. Both players are line drivers in their own right and deserve to be the marquee players in this matchup.

Defense the Difference-maker?

In Toronto’s last game, both goals came from defenseman. Sure, Hainsey’s was on an unlikely odd-man short handed rush off of a ridiculous feed from Marner, but the stay at home Dman got the job done.

Toronto would go on to lose the game in overtime on a benign shot from range by opposing defenseman, Alex Edler. With the Leaf’s defense hurting from the Gardiner and Dermott absence, it will need to be a tight-knit effort from a makeshift top-6 core.

Reilly needs to steer the shit, Muzzin needs to stay more compact and gamble less, and the bottom pairing need to go unnoticed for the Buds to escape with all the points in this one.

It’s a good measuring stick game against the Oilers D who are often criticized for their own poor defensive play. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are the top dogs in Oil Town and offer some offensive upside from the back end.

The second pairing is the one worth noting however, as Darnell Nurse is the sparkplug on the backend. He is backed up by Kris Russell who lets him play his offense and hitting-first style of gameplay.

If the offence of the Leafs can press this shaky core then Toronto shouldn’t have any problems, but McDavid and Draisaitl offer more than a handful for Toronto’s own unpredicatable back end to deal with


Leafs Fans see “What Could Have Been” as Edmonton visits Toronto

The Edmonton Oilers got a year head start on their rebuild, but have continously failed to take the next step towards success. Maple Leaf fans, on the other hand, have felt progressive success and with the Oilers in town tonight will be reminded that the rebuild could have gone much worse.

It felt like the Leafs missed the boat when the Edmonton Oilers card was pulled in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. A year later they would get their long-term superstar center in Auston Matthews and the race was on; who would win the battle of the rebuilds, Toronto vs. Edmonton.

Since then, the Leafs have made the NHL playoffs in two consecutive seasons, both first-round exits, with a third all but confirmed for this season. Edmonton? Well, they lost out in the second round in 2016/17 and haven’t been back, with the 2018/19 playoffs a long shot.

What’s happened and what’s been the difference? Two organizational systems show the different, one built for the long term and the other a simplistic and idealist system destined for failure.

Why Toronto Succeeded Organizationally

The Leafs were ready to take everything down to the studs and start over, the foreman for the project? Brenden Shanahan. The Leafs brought in the NHL Hall of Famer to run their team as the President, overseeing all hockey operations moving forward. He brought with him NHL experience on both the playing and business side.

Immediately, Kyle Dubas was hired as assistant GM, Mark Hunter was brought in to lead the scouting team, Brandon Pridham was hired as a cap specialist, Lou Lamoriello was brought in as the GM, and eventually, Mike Babcock was wooed to be the coach.

Shanahan had a precise plan-of-action and he executed it well from the start. He built an organizational base that includes the successors of each position within it, and focused on drafting new talent and developing existing and incumbent players correctly.

In 2016 Auston Matthews was drafted and the wheels were in motion. Toronto had previously drafted William Nylander and Mitch Marner as well, so Matthews wasn’t forced to pull the wagon alone. With strategic and reasonable dipping into the free agent market and internal promotion through a revamped minors system, Shanahan’s plan for a deep and directed team were well underway.

Edmonton on the other hand…

Listen, I’m not going to tell you that I know everything about the Edmonton Oilers and their organizational depth and structure. What I, and just about every other hockey fan in the world knows, is that the owner is the problem with Edmonton and shit rolls downhill.

His influence on the board of directors has had a hand in the appointing of Todd McLellan, who alone is a terrific coach, as well as Peter Chiarelli as the GM. Both men have winning pedigree’s in the NHL so in the surface they were good hires, but McLellans success was through managing experienced talent, and Chiarelli’s was through an aging hockey mindset.

Where Edmonton went wrong was in their building of the system before Connor McDavid was drafted. There were plenty of prospects and young players in the system – Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle, to name a few, but all are/were undervalued by the team’s front office.

Rather than deciding how players fit into the long-term plans for the team, they gambled some of their best talents (Hall and Eberle specifically) for whatever return they could get. The sacrifice of stability for lucky success did not pay off. As we now know Hall has set New Jersey on fire while his return Adam Larsson has struggled to show his elite status. Oh, and Eberle was turned into Sam Gagner (who was on the Marlies via an AHL loan this season). Enough said.

The result?

Toronto boasts a deep lineup built on speed and skill opposed to Edmonton who boasts a skillful and speedy player who drags a sluggish and ill-conceived lineup with him.

Originally, the bite of missing hometown McDavid was brutal. Leafs fans, myself included, were preparing for the incredible with him and were heartbroken when Edmonton was seemingly rewarded for their perennial failure.

The most prized player in the NHL since Sidney Crosby would report to the team where prospects seem to stagnate. A year later, however, the Leafs happily accepted their “consolation” prize as Auston Matthews was drafted. He’s brought him McDavid level of play and excitement ever since.

Unlike Edmonton, Toronto’s rebuild didn’t start when their generational talent was draft, but years prior. There was a foundation and plan in motion when Matthews put on the Blue and White for the first time. He is a cog in the machine that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not the only piece to the puzzle, just the biggest and most important one.

His presence has directly contributed to John Tavares signing here, William Nylander signing long-term, and Mitch Marner having so much success early on in his career (that goes both ways). Indirectly, the likes of Nazem Kadri, Morgan Reilly, and Frederick Anderson all committing long term to the Leafs also committed to this team after decades of failure due to the Matthews forecast.

Larry Tanenbaum, the owner of the MLSE and the Leafs ownership group made the important decision to empower Brenden Shanahan to kick-start this franchise, and he’s done just that.

The two teams who paralleled each other for so long have taken vastly different approaches to the rebuild and thus have had differing results. Rejoice, Toronto fans, your team made the right decision and are years ahead of where Edmonton currently are.

What Went Wrong With Alberta’s NHL Teams in 2018?

Two teams, different in build had the same outset at the beginning of the 2017/18 NHL season – playoffs or bust. Well chalk it up as a double bust because the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames both missed the playoffs. Two teams with disappointing seasons so, the question must be asked – What went wrong with Alberta’s NHL teams?

Edmonton Oilers

Lets set the scene- its September 2017 and all across Canadian sports media the tantalizing idea of Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers matching up against Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup finals is not-so-secretly being talked about as a real possibility. Fast forward eight months later and the Edmonton Oilers are in the draft lottery, while the Leafs are deadlocked and struggling in a tough series with the Bruins. Not what we wanted, right?

For Leaf’s fans it’s status quo – the team made the playoffs last year and they made them this year. The rebuild has happened and now it’s about tweaking the team to find playoff success.

Edmonton fans are at a loss of words I’m sure, at least safe for work words. Despite having the best player in the league, the Oilers missed a divisional playoff spot by 22 points, and a wildcard spot by 17 points. It’s laughable really, but the Edmonton Oilers will be in the 2018 draft lottery.

After making a solid run in the playoff in 2016/17, the Oilers were poised to add to their team and develop a more well rounded squad to strengthen their Stanley Cup dreams. Instead what happened was a team propped up by their super star failed to take the next step, despite McDavid’s best attempt to drag his team up (108 points in 82 games).

The problem is that they Oilers don’t have suitable wingers to play with McDavid. He is the fastest player with the puck on his stick, and most dynamic play making forward in the league – that is why should be third line centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Ty Rattie should not be on a line with him.  I suppose those players were better than Mark Letestu and Patrick Maroon earlier this season, but better doesn’t mean ideal.

The solution? Spend some money.

A couple free agents could line up nicely for McDavid’s benefit. Firstly, a slow winger who is deadly in front of the net – James van Riemsdyk. Despite his top speed being not nearly as high as McDavid’s, JVR on the left wing can boost production with net front presence, power play acumen, and clean up abilities for 30+ goals a season.

Right wing provides some more options to play with. Josh Bailey from the Islanders could step in and be the right hand man to McDavid like he was to Tavares. He can play at that top elite level and the fact that he can produce regularly (57 points last season) bodes well for a nice contract year.

Two wild card pick for McDavid’s should-be vacant wings are Michael Grabner and Ilya Kovalchuk. Grabner seems like a long shot, but Peter Chiarelli may want to have a look at the speedy winger. 30 years old, Grabner is a breakaway specialist and valuable body on the PK. The downside, he thrives on bottom-6 matchups. If he played with McDavid he would draw the best defensive coverage available. Regardless, he should be on Pete’s radar not just for McDavid suitablity – a fast player, solid penalty killer, and player with pace to match McDavid’s speed. Think Kunitz and Dupuis for Crosby.

Kovalchuk is a bit of a shot in the dark. The Russian winger is reportedly coming back to the league after jumping ship on New Jersey years ago, but despite his awful loyalty the man can score. It looks likely that he’ll go to the Rangers for some ungodly reason, but Chiarelli is in hot water in Edmonton and this may be the necessary shot he needs to take to try and win over the fans or go down swinging.

The real problem, as I see it, in Edmonton is the front office. Peter Chiarelli has earned all of the scrutiny he is currently getting. If he didn’t have a Stanley Cup to his name he would undoubtedly be out of a job right now, but his resume has earned him some extra time. The problem is that he has great pieces to work with – Todd McLellan (coach), Conner McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl but has failed at maximizing their potential with surrounding pieces. Stuck in the old Bruins format, Chiarelli is looking to build a bruising, big team showing he is not adapting to the new, faster NHL.

Calgary Flames

Surprisingly enough Calgary seems to be in a better spot than Edmonton, something I didn’t think I would be saying at this point in time. A well balanced top line, and a strong defensive core support this statement. What really happened with the Flames this season was crucial injuries that just picked away at the team, ultimately causing them to miss the playoffs with 84 points accumulated.

For Calgary their talent would have been enough to carry the team to the playoffs, but injuries to first line centre Sean Monahan, bruiser winger Matthew Tkachuk, and stalwart defensemen T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic hamstrung their season.

Calgary has fired their head coach Glen Gulutzan so the chief team strategist position is vacant. With a few viable options out there, Calgary can actually allow for a more offensive-minded coach to take the reigns with their strong D-core. I shudder as I say this but… Lindy Ruff?

For the Flames, once they get a new coach they can go all in on a playoff season by splashing some cash for a marquee signing to push them over the top. It isn’t entirely necessary but hey have a lot of bit-piece players and could use some superstar power to push their offense over the top. Top free agent John Tavares would be a legit pick up for the team, allowing their top two lines to roll and split heavy minutes. If not, veteran wingers James Neal, Rick Nash, and Patric Hornqvist would all beef up the lineup for production, while Paul Stastny could be a good option if Tavares goes somewhere else.

Despite being in a better position as it stands, Calgary is really neck and neck with Edmonton in the “who is ready to compete” argument. McDavid is such a major factor in his team’s success that the Oilers can never be counted out. As for Calgary, it is just a matter of getting healthy and staying healthy… and adding some elite scoring talent cant hurt. Either way look for both teams to have bounce back years, if not the front offices of both organizations will be looking for new General Managers, especially in Edmonton.