Every year in the NHL there are good teams and bad teams, but it's rare you find a bad team that is in as dire straits as the Toronto Maple Leafs are right now. You could easily say the Maple Leafs are playing worse than any other team in the League after a January in which they went 1-11-1. They're beaten mentally and physically and they're underperforming tremendously.
Toronto looks like it needs to completely rebuild in my opinion, but the only thing more frustrating than the Maple Leafs' record might be the reclamation project. How exactly can you blow that team up with so many guys that have huge contracts or no-movement clauses? How do you start over with so many players that are untradeable? Do you build around guys like Phil Kessel or James van Riemsdyk and try to move everyone else, or do you try to leverage young talent like Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly into high picks because they're the only valuable commodities you've got?
From the players' perspectives, it's extremely difficult to play in a situation like this mentally. There are still a ton of games left in the season, but the Maple Leafs have little to play for and are in a major market that demands success. I've been on teams that have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs and I've coached them too. It's a rough experience. In a market like Toronto, it'll be that much more difficult for the players and their fans.
RICHARDS RIDES THE BUS
Playing professional hockey brings a lot of difficulties, but there aren't many as tough as the blow to the ego Mike Richards suffered last week, being assigned to the American Hockey League. You could joke that he'll feel better when he gets his paycheck every two weeks, but to be a trusted veteran, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and a quality character guy, and get sent to the minors, is a difficult pill to swallow.
I played more than 300 games in the NHL, but I wasn't an NHL regular. I didn't know if I was going to make the team each year and I went to the minors a few times. I know it can be embarrassing. Richards' situation is completely different. He's a guy that isn't producing the way he was expected to, and because he carries such a massive contract, he can't find a place to play in the League right now. The Los Angeles Kings have a deeper lineup than most teams and even with the way Richards is struggling, he could have found a place to play in the NHL if he wasn't weighed down by his salary. Instead, he passed through waivers because 29 other teams had a chance to pick him up and chose not to. If I had a team that needed one more piece to truly contend, I might like to take a flier on Richards and see if a change of scenery could help him, but his contract just brings too much risk.
I think we'll see Richards back with the Kings at some point this season, but for that to happen, he's got to prove to the Kings that he's in the right mindset and he has to be productive in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs. The AHL is a tough league. You'll see teams play four games in five nights or three on a weekend. That's a grind. If Richards can be a good soldier, help out the young guys at practice and show his worth, he just might prove he has enough character to be back with the Kings come playoff time.
MARTY'S NEW JOB
Martin Brodeur retired last week and is immediately transitioning to a job as senior adviser with the St. Louis Blues. Personally, I think Brodeur will take the same dedication he had as a goalie to his new gig, but as someone who went from playing to coaching, it can be a very difficult transition. The experience can be frustrating depending on the job you get. Are you in a position of importance? Is your voice heard? Is this just a token role?
You have to be able to learn how to have an influence when you're now in a role you've never had, and you also have to accept that there's only so much you can do. As a player, you can impact what you do on the ice and you can take care of yourself. In the front office, you can put the pieces in place, but when you watch a team struggle as a former player and know you can't actively help out yourself, it can be very difficult. It can also be difficult to go from a player who is friends with everyone in the locker room, to being a management official who needs to have frank conversations about the roster. I imagine a veteran like Brodeur has been involved in some of those difficult conversations before, but it can be jarring to view players as commodities rather than people.
The one thing he'll have to cope with most, however, is that he's going to just have to accept that it's much more fun to be on the ice than off of it. The first thing you feel when you get out of playing is, "Man, I wish I was playing." Nothing is as fun or rewarding, and you can focus on yourself instead of worrying about everybody else. Management is very different and transitioning to the business side can be a turbulent experience. If Brodeur can handle the changes in stride, he'll stand a good chance of being a success in the front office.