THE LEAFS NEED THE MLSE BOARD OF DIRECTORS TO ACT
Opinion: Coach Mark – hockeyplayerdeveloper.com
The Leafs are owned by MLSE. MLSE in turn is owned by Rogers Communications 37.5% and BCE 37.5% and Larry Tanenbaum’s holding company 25%. There apparently is a Shareholder Agreement ensuring that Rogers and Bell will vote their overall interest together at the shareholder and board of directors’ levels.
As a result of Bell and Rogers having co-ownership in MLSE, the regional broadcasts of Maple Leafs and Toronto FC games are split between Bell’s TSN and Rogers’ Sportsnet.
The Maple Leafs franchise is valued at $1.5 billion-plus.
Are the Leafs really failing according to MLSE’s objectives? Yes, of course, and it’s a double whammy for MLSE: Covid causing significant revenue decreases and the Leafs not producing long Stanley Cup playoff runs to help support the revenue stream. There have been MLSE salary reductions during Covid. Challenging times.
Is financial uncertainty one of the reasons why MLSE keeps Shanahan and Dubas in their leadership positions when they are clearly failing to even win a playoff series year after year? My guess is yes. If Shanahan and Dubas were let go, MLSE would have to honour their contracts and also pay the necessary for proven talent replacements (i.e. someone who has managed the winning of Stanley Cups) as has been done before with Babcock’s contract. Very expensive.
MLSE must realize that 3 years is enough time to evaluate the viability of a leader’s strategy? Dubas’ offence first, defence second hockey philosophy/strategy and a cap allocation reflecting these priorities have clearly been a failure? And look closely at the players he has brought in recently and ask yourself how many helped the team get better in the playoffs and win? Most didn’t. Brodie is an exception. We all saw what happened in tight games when only a few goals were scored… the defensive part of the game including forwards, defence and goaltending did not hold up compared to the Habs. The supposedly inferior skilled Habs who just eliminated Winnipeg in 4 straight with one regular-season player with over 20 goals, Toffoli with 28!
And Dubas doesn’t seem to get the difference between regular season hockey player performance and the playoffs, despite clear metrics showing offensive performance deterioration of Matthews and Marner in the playoffs. Dubas said:
“I understand the fans and they can feel any way that they want, and media are entitled to feel the way that they want, but these are two awfully great young players that showed it over the entire regular season”.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are all obviously star players in the regular season. Their stats support this. As The Athletic reported, over the past two seasons, they sit eighth, 10th, 32nd and 46th in points per game leaguewide. In goals per game, they’re first, 66th, 33rd and 24th. You’re not going to find many NHL teams in recent history that have four players that high in both stats over a prolonged period. That is true in the regular season … in the regular season… say it gain and louder so it sinks in… in the regular season!
When is Dubas going to stop talking about excellent performance in more casual, slower, way less intense and less physical, and a more time and space regular season? Perfect for non-contact type very skilled slick players who can score. Maybe when these players are shut down in the playoffs you need a team of above-average skilled players but not top-end skilled players, so depth trumps over-weighted spending on a very few players unless the few can produce in the playoffs like in Boston with the perfection line.
Anyone who has played the game at a high level knows that very good skating and checking teams who are hard to play against with good systems, grit and a passion to win can almost completely negate higher level regular-season goal scorers who don’t score a lot of greasy goals in the playoffs by hounding the net for rebounds and deflections, and crashing the net when necessary. Just take away the softer high goal and assist players usual regular-season time and space and some softer players disappear. Little fire in the blood.
And it is next to impossible to change the above type of softer players into a motivated and desperate warrior who wins puck battles in corners, crashes the net for rebounds, physically battles everywhere, blocks shots and can shoot accurately and score like he did in the regular season getting hit when he shoots or just after in the playoffs. It’s just not in their DNA, particularly when they make $10 million-plus a year. So, does their regular season skill really matter, other than to pump the unrealistic expectations of the fans, sell tickets, give media stories, and sell accessories?
And what about goalies and defensemen in the playoffs. It must be clear to the MLSE board that teams with outstanding goaltenders and 4 tough and mean defencemen who can also move the puck, make the 3 ft pass under pressure, win corners, control net front and shoot a puck better than average are needed in addition to one or two that can become the 4th forward on a rush or successfully pinch at the opponent’s blue line some of the time. Just look at the Habs top 4 and how they contributed to stopping the Leafs. And Winnipeg in all 4 losses could barely squeeze their way to the A and AA shooting locations because Montreal’s Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson bounced them out.
And then there’s goaltending, the most important player on the team by far, like an elite starting pitcher in baseball except the goalie, plays much more and thus is even more important. Look at all the teams that have won the Cup over decades to prove this point almost all the time. Carey Price’s magnificence from the start is the biggest reason for Montreal’s success. He has simply been magnificent.
And how has Dubas done in selecting and retaining AA goalies like that? Not well because I don’t believe his strategy values them that way. Like many old-school coaches, does he use excuses such as how can anyone assess a brilliant vs. an average goalie, and where would I ever find one? Well, how come other teams find them over time? You would over time too if you found him on the free-agent market and agreed to pay him like Matthews or Marner or traded for one opening up cap space via sacrificing one of your high-priced top 4 forwards or Reilly or more.
No, couldn’t do that. Instead, Kyle Dubas, I think for the first time, acknowledged recently that he wants to have two “solid” NHL netminders who can share the load next season. “Solid” doesn’t cut it to attract and retain the most important player on the team and build a Cup winner. At best, Dubas will be able to find a second goaltender in the $2.5 million to $3 million range. These will not be franchise players like Carey Price, for example.
And what about defence again? Sandin and Dermott were responsible for 3 goals against in very close playoff games against the Habs. Not good enough after adding all kinds of bottom-end forwards who are not nearly as important. You are truly only as strong as your weakest defensive link on D, particularly when your systems promote thinking offence over defence.
The Leafs just lost the Habs series where they scored more total goals, took more shots and shot attempts, generated more scoring chances. But who made the best and most expected goal saves … Price. Save % is a very important metric 5 on 5 and on the penalty kill, but not as important as stopping expected goals in AA areas or on deflected or screened shots. And certainly, Price outplayed Campbell in not letting in one unexpected goal in the Leafs series. Campbell did in the critical game 7.
If Shanahan and Dubas do not change the strategy, they are doubling down on a failed strategy. The most important starting point in any best practices change management project is the identification of the gaps between current performance and best practices results among winning peer teams. And second, have each individual on the team recognize and believe their individual and team performance gaps? Have the Leafs done this analysis or been through this process? How can Dubas objectively do this when the results will show his own strategy failure? MLSE should bring in a seasoned independent leader to do a qualitative and quantitative analysis with metrics and a fresh set of eyes on a completely open basis.
Here are some of the comments of 2 of the protected 4 so-called star forwards after not so star playoff performances against the Habs:
We have an unbelievably talented general manager,” Marner said. “Everyone just wants to get in panic mode… and try and get something new or change something up. But I think they’ve got a lot of confidence in our team like all of us do in our locker room.
Matthews, too, shrugged off the notion that the Core Four could be broken up after five straight series shaking hands with the winners.
“I don’t make much of that, to be honest. Mitch is an unbelievable player. He’s an unbelievable teammate. That’s just something I don’t think anybody really thinks about or focuses on. I know in this room, everybody loves Mitch,” Matthews said, metaphorically strapping on his noise-cancelling headphones.
“Coming from the outside, you guys have fun with that.”
The above is all a very nice way of saying f….. off! What about results and winning?
“No doubt, there will be changes this year. If there’s a pattern that’s developed, it wasn’t a lack of desire, it wasn’t a lack of preparation. There’s a killer instinct that’s missing that we need to address.”
And Dubas had asked the team before this season to step it up in that area by saying:
“If that level of competitiveness and grit and toughness is going to permeate through the locker room, it’s going to be through the maturity of the group that’s already there and our core group embracing the fact that this is a wonderful opportunity if they’re willing to sacrifice a little bit in each of their own individual realms as all young teams do with young superstars.”
So, where was the maturity for grit and toughness in the highest-paid players? Not there. You can’t give what you don’t have in your gut or be lead to give it when you clearly do not want to play that way!
In any change management project, some change resistors must go if they do not believe in the change or refuse to change or they will torpedo the implementation of the changes, particularly if the resistors are respected highly skilled players who others look up to.
Good luck trying to instill a killer instinct in Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares and Reilly, the players other teams with killer instincts check very closely to get them off their usual game.
If the players don’t see the need for radical change after the past 3 years of failure in the playoffs and if the management group does not either, it’ll be the same next season with a few tweaks around the non-core edges.
Someone needs to change this “everything is generally fine culture except for a few more tweaks” and make some radical changes with excellent leadership and good major trades. That means significant human resources changes. Something like the Blue Jays did in 1990:
Didn’t work out so bad, did it? Among other player moves, it produced 2 World Series winners.
Board members of MLSE, where are you when the Toronto public needs you to monitor and manage management effectively to get acceptable results and trades?
If MLSE financial considerations prevent their removal and replacement, then appoint a special consultant with power to direct Shanahan and Dubas and to interact with the team. Dubas and Shanahan have not earned the right to be left alone.
All their talking and planning is not “doing”: doing is doing.