5 Maple Leafs Players That are Good Enough to Build Around

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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

Rumours have been swirling around the Toronto Maple Leafs and their top players since February, and that sort of talk is only going to get louder as we get closer to draft day and the opening of the unrestricted free agent market.

We strongly suspect that Toronto will move out as much of their “core” as possible, and even the vets who are left over after this summer will likely be subject to trade talks leading up to next year’s deadline, but after it’s all said and done, what will the next core look like?

The Leafs are currently in the tear down and accumulate phase of the Shanaplan, but in the next phase, “the build”, I suppose, we should get an idea of who they want to prop up. 

Here are a few players who should be around to see things shake out.

Morgan Rielly

2014-15 – Toronto (NHL): 81GP-8G-21A-29PTS

I think it goes without saying Rielly will be a core piece for the Maple Leafs over the next decade.

So many of the successful teams in the league are built from the blue line out, or at least have one guy back there who can run the show. Having a do-it-all player like Subban, Karlsson, Doughty, or Keith blatantly tilts the ice in your favour, and while those names present a high bar, Rielly’s ability to get into that stratosphere isn’t out of the question, at least not in my view. 

This upcoming season should give us all a much more informed opinion of Rielly as he enters his third full campaign, a contract year to boot. Don’t be surprised if Babcock runs everything through him.

William Nylander

2014-15 – Modo (SHL): 21GP-8G-12A-20PTS

2014-15 – Toronto (AHL): 37GP-14G-18A-32PTS

No doubt a bigger question mark than an established guy like Rielly, but Nylander is an elite prospect by essentially all accounts and measures. He’s widely considered the best player drafted last summer who isn’t in the NHL. 

If you’re looking for prospects who performed comparably in their draft plus-one season, you’re out of luck. Nylander’s SHL production was basically unheard of for a player his age, and it’s so rare for an eighteen-year-old to even play AHL hockey (because of the NHL-CHL transfer agreement) that his only real comparable is Nikita Filatov. When you’re performing at a level that breaks tools developed to compare prospects to one another, you’re probably a pretty special player.

There’s a very real chance Nylander is going to be a – if not the – key piece of these Maple Leafs.

Jake Gardiner

2014-15 – Toronto (NHL): 79GP-4G-20A-24PTS

Now we’re starting to reach a little. 

Gardiner is a player with a lot of skill, and now that he’s escaped Randy Carlyle’s backwards systems, he should perform much better in a consistently big role, especially if the Leafs ship out a guy like Phaneuf. But in terms of really being a player you “build around” he might still be a tough sell. 

Even for folks who view Gardiner as a valuable piece for the Leafs, not many see him as truly untouchable, and he’s turning 25-years-old in a few weeks. I’ve always been a fan of his game, but in his first season under Babcock we should get a much better sense of what he really brings to the table, and the team can go from there in deciding how available he is to potential suitors. 

I’d be floored if they move him this offseason, however.

Nazem Kadri

2014-15 – Toronto (NHL): 73GP-18G-21A-39PTS

Again we’re in “is he or isn’t he” type of territory. 

Kadri’s had a bit of a tough year, with questions about his off-ice behaviour given the highly-publicized suspension handed down by Shanahan in March. On the ice his boxcar numbers were down a little – he didn’t crack 40 points – so on the surface his perceived value has definitely taken a dip. However, I still think he’s a player who can make those around him better, one of maybe two or three forwards on the current roster who I’d argue fit that bill. 

Kadri is a restricted free agent this offseason, and he’ll need to be re-upped. His down year could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Maple Leafs, if they’re willing to make a bold bet on projecting his future value. 

Anyway, where the Leafs go with money and term on his new deal might signal how they feel about him as a building block. 

Top Pick in This Draft

There’s an interesting – albeit fun – debate that will likely arise if the Leafs stay in their draft slot at fourth (their highest selection in nearly three decades) to select a high-end player next weekend: “Who is the organization’s top prospect?”

If, say, the Leafs nab Mitch Marner – a player who notched 126 points in the OHL this season and would arguably be in the conversation for first overall in other draft years – most would put him ahead of Nylander, and the same likely goes for Strome or Hanifin. Even if you don’t agree, this is a good thing. Most organizations aren’t operating with three elite prospects (I’m including Rielly here because he’s still developing) in the pipeline. This will be the most important pick the team will make in Shanahan’s effort to bring them into contention.

The Maple Leafs will look to add to their projectable core on the draft floor later this month. If you want a chance to witness this year’s draft in person, the Virtual League of Hockey will be flying two lucky virtual GMs down to Sunrise Florida to watch it all unfold from June 25th to June 28th. By registering for a free account you will automatically be entered for your chance to win. The VLH lets you create your own team, develop players and challenge a community of hockey fans from around the world. Now you also have the chance to learn from the world’s best GMs at the entry draft! Join today for your shot at the grand prize.

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  • silentbob

    I’m not sure what to make of this.

    I disagree with the head line – I don’t think any of those players have shown the level of play to be considered guys in the same catagory as Toews or Keith or Lidstrom or Yzerman (ie – the type of players you build a team around). Which isn’t to say none of them will end being that level of player, but I wouldn’t build the team assuming it right now either.

    That being said, I 100% agree with the article, that most or all of them will be around for a while and play an important role for the Leafs (I think it might be time to cut bait with Gardiner and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kadri get squeezed out in a few years).

  • Jeremy Ian

    I’d agree with this summing up. But you’d have to admit, this is not a powerful core, especially down the middle if Marner is the pick. I like Kadri, but I doubt he’s ever going to be the anchor-piece of the first line.

    At least it’s a start. When Burke took over, it was a busted team.

  • silentbob

    I’m really pumped about Reilly. He was the best player for the leafs this year and he just turned 21.

    If the team isn’t a total flop next season, Reilly could continue to develop into an elite D-man. But if he has to play with a broken team for the next 2 years that could mess with his development.

    I could see him becoming Team Canada worthy (if not Norris worthy) over the next 4 years.

    With him as a quarterback, I think Nylander and this year’s 4th can really help build out the core.

    Kadri still has a lot to prove to be considered core.

      • silentbob

        You’re probably right but do you have any examples?

        The Oilers haven’t shown us good development on a bad team. I guess Hall did get 80pts sometime in the last couple of years but I don’t know if he’s really developed. Still seems like he has a long way to go.

        Maybe Oliver Ekman-Larsson?

        • silentbob

          The Penguins were pretty bad when Crosby joined the league. Same with the Lightning and Stamkos, the Islanders and Tavares. The Oilers aren’t a good team but Hall and Eberle have still developed into good players there. The Red Wings were terrible during the early years of Yzerman’s career (maybe Fedorov and Lidstrom too, I’d have to look it up).

          Its the nature of the draft, most of the highly skilled, high potential players go to poor teams that lack talent and aren’t very good.

          • Brooksterman

            Good point, that is the nature of the draft. I guess that was dumb to ask for examples.

            Regardless, hopefully Reilly can stay positive and Babcock can help develop him into his full potential in spite of the promise of “pain.”

  • silentbob

    I think the way Ryan is using the term “build around” and the way it’s usually used aren’t quite in sync.

    Most people use the term “build around” when describing a player of proven elite quality + potential.

    I think Ryan is using it as “players who have the potential to be very good/elite and are pieces definitely worth keeping in our rebuild, moving forward.”

    I would agree on Rielly and Nylander being pieces to “build around” it doesn’t mean they are the best players/going to be our best players. It means, they are players that I would definitely like to keep for the long haul rebuild that is coming, as I think they will be very good players to have on a roster. Kadri and Gardiner I can take or leave. I like both, and I think Kadri is a lot better than people give him credit for, but I’d move them for the right deal.

    I think that’s all Ryan means… But I might be putting words in his mouth…

    • Yep agree. The title probably only applies to 3 of the five on the list, to be fair. You build around Nylander and Rielly types, and more so build with Gardiner and Kadri (for now), but the former are obviously much more along the lines of untouchable

      • silentbob

        Even with those 3 I’m not entirely sold yet.

        I think Rielly and Nylander will be good NHL players who will/can be important parts of the Leafs in the future. I do not think they are on the same level as a McDavid or Eichel or Jones or MacKinnon; players we should expect to be top tier, franchise players.

        To compare them to the Black Hawks, I think its very possible they are more Hossa and Seabrook (in terms of position, not style or anything) then Kane and Keith. If I was in charge of building the Leafs, I’d move forward under that assumption, and if I get lucky….awesome.

        @Jasken – teams don’t HAVE to build around the goalie or from the net out. Players that good (I’m talking about the top 2-3 players on cup winning team good) are hard to come by, even with multiple early draft picks. You can’t be picky about position. If you land Crosby and Malkin, you build around 2 centers. If you have Toews, Kane and Keith, you build around them etc…

  • jasken

    The term build around is simple you start with the netminding and work your way out. This goes as follows elite goalie like Price or Top tier like Crawford. Next you go Blue chip defenseman like a Doughty or a Keith, last is a Center like Toews, Stamkos, Getzlaf.

    Do you have any players of this calibur no the Leafs haven’t had these in the last 9 years. There were potentials to possibly be but never reached. Burke/Nonis made a mistake thinking Phaneuf, Kessel, Gustavsson/Reimer/Bernier were these pieces. This has been the problem. Seeing the statements made on this or that about the players was hilarious how people were arguing Kessel needs a proven top tier elite center and in the same breath claim he is a building block for a team. That was like saying you got a great support beam but you need a better foundation pillar.

    People are going to point out how Kane matches Toews, Perry matches Getzlaf but look how they were acquired Center then the winger always special circumstances like Sedins dont really matter as they made sure they could choose 1 or other right after the other consecutively.

    The only potential player on this list is Reilly, making a statement like Kadri, or Nylander is that Center needed to build around I am laughing in your face period. They have nice skill sets and are great pieces for a solid core down the middle but they are not pieces you build around.

    • Brooksterman

      Completely agree. It’s nice to have skilled wingers but every team has one position that has less depth than the others and generally the successful teams like LA, Anaheim, and Boston always make sure their depth is on the blue line and at centre and if they need to add depth they make sure it’s on the wing. Yes Chicago has Kane with Toews and Anaheim has Perry with Getzlaf but what was proved this year is that both those teams can lose Kane/Perry and not struggle that much but they would have probably struggled if it was Toews/Getzlaf that missed significant games. It’s purely why I have Strome ahead of Marner as I think the skill level is similar but centres have more value than a guy who projects as a winger.

  • jasken

    @silentbob

    Good points however who was acquired first Malkin Crosby or Fleury? Answer Fleury and than Malkin a year later followed by Crosby and Letang the next. Chicago had a goalie first before Keith and Seabrook.. “Craig Anderson” grabbed Crawford at same draft as Seabrook. The idea has always been goalies first because the puck stops there.

    • silentbob

      To me the point would be – their goal over the next 3-5 seasons is to acquire the 2-3 players that can be the guys you build a cup winning team around.

      To a team like the Hawks, for example, you don’t build around Sharp, Hossa and Seabrook because “thats what you have”, you need to FIND Toews, Kane and Keith.