TORONTO – Two times in the past three seasons, the hockey team from Toronto has collapsed under city-rattling circumstances, including a rapid descent from near-certain playoff entry last season. In between was a valiant stab at the first Leaf post-season series win in years from a feisty, competitive group – albeit, one that probably benefited from the 48-game schedule.
Looking to recapture some of that magic, Leafs management made character, attitude, leadership and qualities of mental fortitude high priorities in their bid at roster reconstruction on July 1st. Led by president Brendan Shanahan and incumbent general manager Dave Nonis, the club reacquired two players from that 2013 squad – Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin – also adding 37-year-old Stephane Robidas to a defence that recently replaced the steady Carl Gunnarsson with edgy-type Roman Polak.
“Part of it is always about character,” said Nonis, shortly after 5pm et, when the Leafs' first crack at free agency ended. “I don't think that we have a character issue with our team or our players, but I think adding people like Leo and Robidas to [the roster] only strengthens it. The compete level that we had two years ago, I think was at or near the top of the league. We got more out of our players – the coaches did – the players, themselves, did in terms of pushing each other, than we did last year. No question about it.”
Randy Carlyle couldn't summon much in the way of explanation as to why things unraveled for the Leafs so epically months earlier, but did notice something amiss with the attitude of his group.
“We lacked the compete,” he said, while at the draft in Philadelphia this past weekend. “I look at compete as part of the character flaw.”
It was clear management sensed something similar, though character and leadership would hardly encompass the Leafs' woeful defence and penalty-killing, targeting players in free agency or on the trade market who were known for their high compete level.
In addition to Komarov and Robidas, the club also made pitches to keep gritty, but soon-to-be overpaid, Dave Bolland, 38-year-old former Team Canada defender Dan Boyle and long-time Montreal heart-and-soul type, Josh Gorges.
Robidas, who was signed for three years at $9 million, offers the Leafs a much-needed veteran upgrade in their top-four, a long-time Dallas Star who's physical, blocks shots and has the ability to play in every situation. A right-handed defender, in short supply for the club a year ago, and veteran of 885 regular season games, Robidas brings a savvy that was lacking on a mismatched back-end last season.
“It was a factor,” Nonis said of character when it came to Robidas, who suffered two separate, broken right-leg injuries last season, but will be ready for training camp. “The people that I know that know him, that Brendan knows, speak very highly of the way he handles himself, on and off the ice. I don't think we're looking at a guy that's going to come in here and be terribly vocal or anything like that, but in terms of playing the game the right way, taking care of yourself and leading by example, that coupled with being a right-shot and his playing ability, he was the guy we targeted right away.”
Komarov bolted for the KHL after that 2013 campaign, but was eager to return to the NHL-lifestyle this fall. He garnered considerably more than the club appeared willing to pay just one year earlier, four years at $2.95 million per season, and quite a bit for a player who was limited offensively as a Leaf. It was clear, however, that Nonis and company valued the Finnish winger's scrappy play and were also hopeful of more upside with more opportunity next season.
“He's a very competitive guy,” said Nonis of Komarov, who had nine points in 42 games with the Leafs. “He's going to give you whatever he has … He has compete. He gets under people's skin by the way he plays, not because he's a chirper or anything like that, but he finishes every single check and, sometimes, I think people don't really enjoy the way he does that. But for us, he brought that element; he brought some character to our group. He was very well-liked by his teammates. All the things that you look for in a player, he ticks a lot of boxes.”
Polak, too, was added from St. Louis earlier with an eye toward the “edge” he would bring to the Toronto defence, a quality infinitely enduring to the head coach.
But for the all the focus on injecting the Leafs' dressing room with more bite, increased leadership and character, it's Carlyle and the still-yet-to-be-named coaching staff that bear the most watching next season.
For whatever the Leafs lacked in determination and persistence last year – and there was a noticeable difference – it was their inability to defend with any degree of success that instigated their downfall last season. No team, as widely known by this point, allowed more shots than Toronto and only three teams allowed more power-play goals.
It was a house of cards that was bound to collapse and did when Jonathan Bernier went down with injury in mid-March.
And for all his drum-beating about the troubles, and he was quick to point flaws as early as October, Carlyle and his since-deposed trio of assistants could not find the right answers, instill a defensive mindset onto a sometimes immature roster, employ top line-ups and align the talent in place with a suitable style of play.
All that will have to change and it's up to Carlyle to adjust accordingly. The coming season won't be about leadership concerns or questions of character, but whether a head coach can adapt to a younger and faster league.
Robidas, Polak and Komarov should help to address some of the defensive deficiencies of last year – also fitting Carlyle's harder brand of hockey – particularly a penalty kill that fell right back to the bottom of the league last season.
Roster holes still to be filled include a centre capable of playing in a third or fourth-line capacity – Peter Holland is in line for regular opportunity, but a security blanket for Carlyle is likely preferred – perhaps another defenceman, with Cody Franson likely on the way out, some scoring depth and a backup goaltender, though, Nonis continues to insist that James Reimer could be back next year, despite clear indications of his desire to move elsewhere.
Some of those changes could come internally with a round of Marlies keen to take the next step into the NHL. The Leafs additionally have about $15 million in cap space to work with a group of restricted free agents, Jake Gardiner most prominently among them, still to sign.