On the Toronto Maple Leafs spending habits

And so Rick Nash will be a New York Ranger next season. We’ve known for quite some time, probably, that Nash would go there and not to, say, Toronto, but a lot of minds in the Greater Toronto Area may have needed the closure.

Not sharp minds, but the way that things have panned out in Toronto in the seven years since the last NHL lockout, the Leafs have time and time again missed out on the big-name NHL player. Sure, Brian Burke worked trades that brought Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel to Toronto, but neither have proved to be the stumbling difference between the current Leafs and a playoff spot.

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It’s a fallacy, however. No one player, goaltender aside, can influence a team that heavily in the standings. You’d need a generational talent, but even Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin couldn’t bridge the chasm for their perpetual out-of-playoff teams in their respective dominant rookie seasons. It takes a supporting cast and it takes a lot of good players. The Leafs really have neither.

When you look at the big money contracts that have been signed, mostly they’re restricted free agents who were drafted and developed by the organization into an asset that was worth locking up for upwards of seven years. Among the longest deals, you see names like Ovechkin, Duncan Keith, Henrik Zetterberg and, aside from a few recent names, few who actually hit the open market.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin were UFAs for a few minutes before being re-signed by Vancouver. Ilya Kovalchuk, after an arduous process, stayed with the team that made a huge personnel commitment to acquire him at the previous deadline and again with a massive financial commitment. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter wanted to play out West, Marian Hossa with a Stanley Cup team, and so on.

Christian Ehrhoff, Brad Richards, Brian Campbell, Scott Gomez and Danny Briere are the only other players who are on this list of the 25 longest deals by way of big UFA deal. The jury is out on Parise and Suter. Kovalchuk brought his team to the Stanley Cup, but the Devils in financial turmoil at the most inopportune time: they owe Kovalchuk at least $10M over the next six seasons.

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As for the rest, Ehrhoff played one season for an underwhelming Buffalo Sabres team, and they’ve felt the urge to make a lot of changes this offseason. Hossa and Briere are the best buys of the bunch, but we have yet to see how Briere’s three 35+ years go, and Hossa’s deal could turn into an albatross if he has any lingering health issues caused by the Raffi Torres hit.

Brian Campbell is a good hockey player and well-worth his deal. Gomez’ contract is a nightmare for the Canadiens right now, although I believe he’d succeed on a scoring line as a defensive playmaker (hint hint, Brian).

Still, did any of these players turn a franchise around? New Jersey was always limping around as a borderline contender every season and Chicago had a very good young core that will still be the core of the team going forward: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are an excellent young one-two punch for forwards and they commit to Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on defence.

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So who did the Leafs miss out on? They won’t be able to get the big-name UFAs unless they improve, but they can’t improve without getting bigger pieces. It’s a perpetual cycle of doom, and expecting it to improve each year by hoping a few promoted prospects or internal solutions creates chaos.

See, the Leafs can use offer sheets, and they can frivolously open the chequebook like Paul Holmgren is in Philadelphia. They were the top revenue team in 2011, likely were in 2012, and, as this next chart shows, there’s a pretty good correlation, or was last year, between revenue, the amount of big money deals, and playoff spots. The Leafs have yet to use their financial clout for tangible gain on the ice in the Brian Burke era:

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  Revenue Playoff Spots $50M+ Contracts
Top 10 Revenue 46% 44% 45%
Bottom 10 Revenue 23% 25% 20%

(The percentages are determined by share of the total league playoff spots and revenue. I took the revenue figures from James Mirtle’s Friday post at the Globe)

Not that an expensive front office is bad, but the Leafs could create a very detailed analytics department studying a lot of things about the game. Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis was on Vancouver radio Monday afternoon discussing things like shot quality and shot location in determining player success. If you just paid six or seven kids with no hockey experience $50k a year to watch hockey and record data (hint hint, Brian), you could find one or two hidden gems for the cost of Keith Aucoin.

Again, the more you run the numbers, the more you’d see that Nash wasn’t that choice for the Leafs, and I’m not necessarily endorsing that course of action. But you see players who did move teams for menial pieces, Jeff Carter, for instance, was traded twice on a money deal before his no-trade clause kicked in. Last season, I applauded the Leafs using their financial position to levy a trade for Cody Franson by ditching Brett Lebda, taking on Matthew Lombardi’s cap space. Lombardi is a player who has had concussion issues, and the Leafs are in a better position to pay him on the LTIR than Nashville.

Lombardi is still a player who can contribute, and in the scheme of things, another guy on the 3rd line making $3.5M when you’re nowhere close to the cap for another year is a good risk to take. Franson is a good defenceman, or can be, but he’s been used sparingly by the Leafs, and we go into this next season with no real fit for him in the lineup, which is a shame.

One thing I can say about the Leafs is that they haven’t lost out on anyone due to money. They just haven’t had terrific players, and with that, Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle will go Cup-chasing rather than stick around. It’s the reality of veteran players. As for the players they lost to free agency, well, the big names are Yannic Perreault, Kyle Wellwood, Jay Harrison, and Garnet Exelby.

The team held onto Mikhail Grabovski this year. They’ll need to find a way to keep Kessel interested into Toronto by the time he’s an unrestricted free agent in two seasons. The team has a big test in Joffrey Lupul this season, which could be a disaster if the Leafs overvalue him.

It’s tougher to spend money to improve your team due to RFAs locking up for longer, saturating the free agent market, but the Leafs do need to find ways to creatively out-spend their opponents. I’d start with trying to pick off back-loaded contracts from teams that can’t afford them.

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  • RexLibris

    I would certainly agree that the long-term answer would be for the organization to sink some money (and grey matter) into scouting, development, and analytics. It is all there for the taking, but for some reason they refuse (ie: Burke didn’t think of it first).

    I remember reading in Leafs Abomination about the Toronto scouts getting a call back in the 60s about a local (ONT) kid who was skating circles around his opposition. They could have invoked territorial claim and protected him from the draft, but because the drive was a little too long for the administration they passed on him. He would wear #4 for the Bruins instead.

    That kind of shortsighted arrogance appears to run in subtle veins throughout the organization at times. All teams are guilty of it at some time or other. But with the Leafs, they seem to have spent longer deliberately not learning from others than most franchises.

    Maybe it’s just the skewed perspective of an outsider, but from my perspective it certainly seems to hold true.

    I’ve put forth the idea for the new arena in Edmonton that they could install several bird’s eye view cameras in the ceiling that would gather consistent data about positioning and puck movement (and whatever else one could want) for every home NHL/WHL game played. That kind of data trove could be invaluable to both pro and amateur scouts. And the cost would be (in the realm of such a massive building project) relatively minimal.

    • Danny Gray

      Ah the Orr thing. This is mostly hindsight bias. I’m sure the Leafs got a call about every single kid playing in Ontario who looked good. How many did they ignore that turned out to be crappy hockey players who did nothing? We just don’t hear about those players. It was obviously foolish but I don’t think it’s arrogance, just bad luck.

  • RexLibris

    Contract length extends the agony if things go bad but can also lock in a player for their best years if things go well. But I expect, the longer the contract – the higher the risk that things go bad. There are ways out of a bad contract – trade the player like Gomez or AHL him like Redden or even a Yashin buyout. Even Roloston found a home in his last year of his contract.

    That said, Gomez has a relatively short 7 year contract and it is mess. Even 4 years of Komisarek (and Lebda at 2 years) was terrible for the leafs. The issue is not so much length, but more about poor scouting and player team fit. Burke has shown that GMs can be just as destructive with shorter contracts as some long contracts.

    On a different note, I have a theory that Campbell (also on a big/long contract) traded to the Panthers had a dramatic benefit to the team and their playoff berth. He and Theodore are the most important players on that team.

    And I don’t follow your love for Lombardi. He will either rebound as trade deadline bait and represent hopefully good return on 2 season investment in him or walk a UFA as a failed investment. Sure his cap size doesn’t harm the leafs but the roster spot he occupies suppresses prospects like kadri from getting valuable NHL experience.

    Given the leafs are not a contender, I think the leafs should look to the UFA market for available skilled (Semin) and potential rebound players (Mueller already signed now). Than trade off overachieving non-core talent (lupul) for core pieces (goalie/1C) or great prospects. Than move Mueller/Semin in future years. This is like a step backward until the team is ready to compete as a playoff team.

  • RexLibris

    I’m with Leafer, how on earth is a consistent 30 (and often nearly 40!) goal scorer not on their radar? I hear he is asking 7M+. Who cares? The Leafs have it, and Lombardi and Connolly coming off next year zeros it. 2 years would be ideal but if he wants 4-5 then you have to try for a player of his skill level that will be a long time coming if we try to develop it from within.
    Put him anywhere in our top 6 and teams start to wake up and notice that the Leafs were a lot closer to being a complete team than anyone realized.
    As the article covers, most big name UFAs will not choose the Leafs as the article mentions, but Semin is in a unique situation of not having as many suitors as he should so if the Leafs give him an offer he can’t refuse this might be our big chance to change our fortunes and really turn this into a respectable team UFAs WANT to play for.

  • RexLibris

    @Danny Gray

    True, the book was obviously written with an intended bias (“this sucks!”) in order to prove a point.

    And in this case it could be a product of confirmation bias. However, both Canadian teams at that time were, I would suggest, arrogant. They were successful, rich, and boasted a long tradition in the league.

    All of that aside, the Leafs have had some spectacularly poor luck in drafting and developing, for a team with their resources.

    I know that many feel the Leafs are a destination team for players, in part due to the history and presence of the franchise as well as the city itself. However, I am beginning to wonder if the media presence in the city isn’t becoming a detriment.

    Just curious.