The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the most storied franchises in the NHL. With so many seasons now in the past, there have been many ups and downs not only in how the team has played but also in how the team’s leadership has acted.
Fans love their Maple Leafs. For decades, the team has been a source of excitement for hockey fans across the globe. However, recent events, such as how the team’s former general manager (GM) was let go, the prolonged contract negotiations involving Auston Matthews and William Nylander, and the team’s recently-reported lack of communication with Michael Bunting, have left me wondering if there is something wrong within the organization.
It seems so dysfunctional.
The Maple Leafs Legacy of Success
The Maple Leafs have celebrated numerous victories and championships throughout their long history. Fans were reminded of that this week when Bob Baun – a stalwart in the Stanley Cup wins of the 1960s – passed away. That, too, reminds me of the way the organization treated the also recently-deceased Rodion Amirov. He was celebrated and treated with class, consideration, and support. Finally, Borje Salming’s tribute last year was beautiful and heart-warming.
My point is that there are so many things right about the organization. In the six seasons that I’ve covered the team, I’ve been generally pleased with the organization’s culture. Old players who were once pushed away have been proactively invited back in – and celebrated in the process. Specifically, team president Brendan Shanahan helped bring closure to an old wound in time for the franchise’s 100th anniversary in 2016-17 by helping to bring back Dave Keon.
Related: Maple Leafs’ Prospect Amirov’s Return is One of Inspiration
It isn’t all dysfunctional. Yet, in the midst of so much success, there have been moments when organizational challenges have bubbled to the surface, and we seem to be in the midst of them.
From the “Harold Ballard Era”
Obviously, one period that most agree was dysfunctional was the infamous “Harold Ballard Era.” Ballard, the team’s owner from the 1970s to the early 1990s, was known for his controversial decisions and questionable management practices. While “his” team achieved some success during his time, turmoil and scandal surrounded the franchise. The organization struggled, and failed, to maintain a positive image.
Modern Challenges Aren’t Close, But They Are Troubling
This offseason suggests that, while nowhere as close to the Ballard Era, a pattern of events could lead to a perception of dysfunction. Any of these things as a one-off would just leave fans scratching their collective heads. However, when taken together, do they outline a pattern? Might more be coming?
Dubas and the Maple Leafs Part Ways
The working relationship between Shanahan and Dubas rose to the surface in early June. Of course, there’s logic to it. There was a sandwich of doubts about commitment, changing negotiation tactics, and a perceived shift in Dubas’ suitability for the role. Somehow, between the spotlight and behind the scenes, things contributed to Shanahan reconsidering his faith in Dubas as the Maple Leafs GM. Dubas is now gone.
Matthews and Nylander Are Seeking Contract Extensions
The prolonged contract negotiations for star players Auston Matthews and William Nylander raise questions about communication, leadership, and team chemistry. Obviously, this is not new. Such situations highlight a recurring issue that has occasionally plagued the Maple Leafs’ reputation. Perhaps, there’s simply a lack of cooperation from players and their agents that holds the team hostage.
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However, certainly, those in the know must see that Matthews’ signing and the percentage of salary-cap space that his new contract will take up will be a measuring stick for what Nylander is offered, and it will especially set the bar for what Mitch Marner and his agent will bargain for during his contract extension talks next offseason.
Michael Bunting Was Ghosted
Third, and perhaps the easiest to have solved, was the recent report during a Michael Bunting interview that the Maple Leafs basically ghosted him during his contract negotiations. According to Bunting, contract offer aside, they didn’t even talk with him. To me, that’s not a good way to do business.
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I have no issue with choosing not to negotiate with him. Fine, he was too expensive for the team’s plans. He had played himself out of a job. But, a better way to have done this would be to connect – preferably face-to-face – and tell him. Thank him for his service and for signing with his hometown for less money than he could have received elsewhere. Thank him for giving his all to the team and the fans while he was here.
Ignoring someone is what you do if you never want to have a relationship with that someone again. It’s not logical, and it isn’t relational. It really does render him just an asset and not a human.
What’s the Impact of a Perception of Dysfunction
Perhaps the team is not dysfunctional. Perhaps it just seems that way. But whether it’s real or perceived, what’s going on could have consequences.
Related: Ex-Maple Leafs’ Defenseman Jake Gardiner: Where Is He Now?
Actions such as the ones I’ve described might affect player morale and commitment, team dynamics, fan loyalty, and even the perception of the organization within the larger hockey community. Rightly so, this week’s Maple Leafs’ media wrote redundantly about the Bunting situation, and the underlying tone was, “This is unbelievable.”
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
During the rest of the offseason, the Maple Leafs will continue to navigate the complexities of all the jobs that must be done to put a competitive team on the ice. Mistakes will be made, which is the nature of the beast of running an NHL team.
However, I’ve got to think that the team can do better with the small things. More wins and losses, more triumphs and adversities are coming. These issues are not new issues.
The key rests in how the organization responds to these and other challenges. Those responses are the building blocks of culture and a foundation for effective communication, strong leadership, and a commitment to a franchise’s legacy within its community.