Naylor: History shows 30 years of stumbling for Leafs GM's

Dave Naylor
1/10/2013 10:00:51 PM
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It is often said that it's not possible to convince hockey's biggest, richest market to be patient enough to allow a general manager the time he needs to build his team into a long term winner.
We're talking about Toronto where the Leafs have not won a championship in four-and-a-half decades, and yet supposedly neither fans nor ownership have the stomach for a long, slow rebuild.
In fact, time should be the greatest asset to building a hockey team in Toronto since the one thing we know about the Maple Leafs is that it's impossible to keep people out of the building or away from their television sets on game nights.
No matter how poorly the team performs, no matter how many disappointing seasons pile one upon another, worry that the fan base will become fed up and turn away is never, ever part of the equation.
So it should be simple here, right? Hire the best general manager available, give him time and space and let nature take its course.
Except, it never seems to work out that way.
Which begs the question of why have so many Maple Leaf general managers of the past 30 years stumbled and failed, while the blueprint to building successful teams seems so evident in other markets around the league? Why does the slow build to success never happen?
The first thing to keep in mind is that building long-term success in the NHL happens through success in the draft, with few, if any, exceptions. Free agency and the ability to execute good trades help, but find a team that's maintained success over a period of more than a handful of years and you're guaranteed to find a very strong draft record.
Pick your example because there are all kinds of them right now in the NHL – LA, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, Vancouver, Chicago, Boston, to name just the most obvious. Edmonton, where fans have endured plenty of awful seasons, now has a team loaded with top draft picks that many predict will return them to their glory days.
But building through draft requires two things – the patience of ownership to allow time for maturation of prospects into front-line NHLers, and the ability of the general manager to get it right on draft day (or not trade away draft picks before draft day ever arrives.)
There isn't a single Maple Leaf general manager of the past 30 years who can look back and say he had both those things going for him, from Burke to John Ferguson Jr., Cliff Fletcher all the way back to Gerry McNamara.
There have certainly been times where there was pressure from ownership to win immediately, such as during Ferguson Jr.'s stormy period operating the Leafs.
Brian Burke followed him with the clout of a Stanley Cup ring, and a resume that earned him more autonomy than any general manager in recent memory.
But in fine Maple Leaf general manager tradition, he either traded away picks before the draft or wasn't able to pick the best available player when his turn came along.
He may have never uttered the words "draft schmaaft," but his signature move -- trading three draft picks – two first-rounders and a second-rounder – to Boston for Phil Kessel, has Maple Leaf DNA all over it.
And the highest pick he retained during any of his first three Maple Leaf drafts – the No. 7 overall in 2009, he used to take Nazem Kadri, a player who remains very much a work in progress at age 22.
Interestingly, Kadri is the only player selected by Burke to play a single NHL game. Among players taken during the '09, '10 and '11 drafts there are 90 players who've participated in NHL games. But Kadri, whose status in the NHL remains iffy, is the only Leaf.
Leaf GM's weren't much more successful at the draft table during the years that preceded Ferguson, but those teams were operating in an environment where errors on draft day could always be papered over with cash, something that's never been in short supply in Toronto.
That can't happen in today's NHL, which makes the skills of a general manager on draft day, and the willingness to let him build through the draft, that much more important.
Yet nearly 46 years removed from a Stanley Cup win and nearly nine years since they last played a playoff game, passion for the Maple Leafs in Toronto hasn't subsided one tiny bit.
Ten general managers have come and gone since 1967, all of them falling victim to impatience, either their own or that of ownership, and/or ineptitude at the draft.
Building from the ground up shouldn't be so complicated, even in Toronto, with all the pressures that abound.
Some day, someone is going to get it right.

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