Report: Maple Leafs still focussed on selling at the deadline, despite recent success

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Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t take much in the Toronto marketplace for Maple Leafs players to be asked about the possibility of making the postseason. 

The current iteration of the Maple Leafs are bad. They play like a good team, with structure through the neutral zone, and quality special teams units, but they’re not built like one. 

And they’re not on pace to make the postseason. In fact, in what is arguably the weakest (or second weakest) division in hockey, the Maple Leafs sit dead last. They’re on pace for 69 points, which is nice, but not playoff worthy.

Recently the Maple Leafs have been winning though. They’ve racked up wins against teams like the Nashville Predators, the Dallas Stars, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Colorado Avalanche of late and they’ve taken points in seven of nine overall. While this recent streak of decent play has been a welcome relief from the near-constant losing Maple Leafs fans have endured over the past two seasons, it hasn’t changed the club’s overall strategy. This is still a team intent on self-immolation at the NHL trade deadline.

It’s funny that as Mike Babcock is talking playoffs, the club’s actual intent is something quiet different. 

As TSN’s Darren Dreger reported on Thursday’s edition of Insider Trading, the Maple Leafs have their eyes squarely on the prize and are sticking with their play of capitalizing on inflated asset prices at the upcoming NHL trade deadline:

“(Babcock’s primary goal is) to coach this group up to a point where they’re most valuable at the NHL trade deadline, so Lou Lamoriello can move the majority of those pieces,” Dreger said on Thursday’s broadcast. “The Maple Leafs want the team in place for year three, so that they’re contending in year four, five or six for a Stanley Cup.”

Players like Shawn Matthias and PA.. Parenteau have been a major part of the club’s recent resurgence, but do they fit on Toronto’s hypothetical 2020 Stanley Cup contender? Doubt it. Does Joffrey Lupul or Tyler Bozak? I’d be surprised. How about James Reimer? Now that’s where the decisions may get a bit tough…

While the Maple Leafs’ ruthless pursuit of long-term contention is the right course of action for the club, you sort of have to feel for Maple Leafs players in this. The deck is stacked against them.

“I love flying under the radar and I don’t think many teams expected us to do anything this year, so there wasn’t too much pressure,” said Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri via TSN.ca. “We’re not coming into games hoping to lose and thinking about draft picks or anything like that.”

Lupul, meanwhile, thinks the team needs to focus on getting better, even as it’s likely that his club’s management team will sewer the roster on 29 February 2016 (or even before). 

“Are we good enough to make the playoffs right now?” Asked Lupul rhetorically. “Probably not, but we’ve got to get better throughout the year.”

Dreger’s report adds further substance to our theory about the Maple Leafs’ program of trade market speculation using veteran assets. As we wrote following the Michael Grabner trade:

What the Maple Leafs are playing at is altogether different, but this is the most radical expression yet of their increasingly obvious plan to leverage their incomparable budget to supplement a program of short-term trade market speculation, using veteran assets. In addition to Grabner – who as previously mentioned, fits the bill – the club now has additional standard player contract (SPC) slots with which to sign one of Brad Boyes or tanking talisman Curtis Glencross.

It comes down, likely, to an organizational judgement concerning how to most efficiently use their 50 SPC slots. And the club has now indicated clearly – and very radically, considering the way we’re used to seeing NHL teams operate – that they’d rather use those slots on potentially useful veteran pieces that can be swapped for additional futures when the price of short-term help gets bloated at the trade deadline, as opposed to saving those slots for fringe prospects who may (or more likely will not) develop into NHL players.

While some of the club’s recent moves – the demotion of Marc Arcobello, the signing of Rich Clune – appeared to contradict what would be an intelligent approach for a big market team to take in restocking the prospect pipeline, it seems that the Maple Leafs still have the big picture in mind. This is an organization that remains focused on winning for real several years down the road, not winning here and there several weeks down the road.

Keeping the big picture in mind? In Toronto? Why I never thought I’d see the day.

  • Gary Empey

    My prediction for what post-2016 draft Leafs line-up/prospects will look like, assuming NHL-size CHL/OHL centers in 1st round, OHL goalie and forward in 3rd round, and only Europeans from 4th onward,[(+) = trade-deadline acquired pick]:
    Johnson Nylander Leivo /Loov AHO //
    Kapanen MCLEOD Marner /Dermott Harrington//
    Timashev JOST Dzerkals /Rielly Nielson//
    Soshnikov RUBTSOV Brown/ZAitsev Valiev //
    Bracco SOMPPI VEsey /Gardener (+) KRYS //
    Hyman FOX Leipsig /Corrado Percy //
    Korostalev WAHLGREN (+)JonatanJARS/Granberg Lindgren//
    JVR Kadri Komarov /Desroches REUNANEN //
    (+) STRANSKY Holland Panik /Marincin Ondrej VALA //
    (+)KRikunenko (+)MEshcheryakov PILlipenko/RUbins RYkov
    Picinich Gauthier Bailey

  • MatsSundin#13

    You do have to feel for the players, but only if they don’t play well enough to get traded to a contender. I’m sure [insert half of leafs lineup here] is loving his time in TO, but I would be happy to see him win the cup with a team poised to make a run this year.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Stick with the plan. Contending in year four sounds really, really nice.

    The UFA’s can get some consolation in the fact that they have a good coach who can get them playing at their capacity — and they can compete in the player market in the offseason.

    The player I mainly feel badly for is Reimer. He buoyed the team for a while, endured the worst (“just ok”) and is now backstopping the improvement. But he will be traded away. There are a couple of teams out there that should be contenders that have issues in net. Lou should prey on them.

    • magesticRAGE

      I think Reimer stays, and Bernier goes. #1 Starters are hard to find, and Reimer is showing his worth, and possibly earning his security. I am happy for him and the success he’s having.

  • Gary Empey

    Darren Dreger’s timeline of contending in year four, five or six may have been valid at the end of last season. It will be much sooner than that. Dreger needs to quit watching only the Leaf highlights packages. Already in November reporters are asking premature questions about the Leaf’s chances of making the playoffs. Only one month ago the same reporters were telling us Leafs will finish 30th overall.

    Regarding the trade deadline I expect to see the Leafs make some trades. I don’t expect to see the whole veteran core go. Leafs will not be icing a virtual all rookie team next year. As desperate as teams know they need immediate help, most will not part with what the Leafs want. (#1 draft picks and top AHL prospects) Remember last year when Detroit refused to part with their one trick pony Anthony Mantha. In the AHL he managed 15 goals last year and has only 2 so far this year.

    • magesticRAGE

      Well…I may have to agree with Dreger. If they contend in year 3, that would mean everything would have to go absolutely perfect.
      Hunter would have to hit on 4 players at each draft, Gauthier turns out to be a great shutdown 3rd line center, Nylander is a superstar center, Marner is a stud winger, leafs draft another star forward and stud defenseman, Loov and Dermott and Valiev become Leaf regulars, Sparks or Bibeau turn into Reimer’s backup (or supplant him), some of the current prospects turn out to be legitimate top 6 talent, and the lineup manages to stay healthy.
      This sounds like 4-5 years to me.

      • Gary Empey

        I respect your opinion probably more than I do Dreger’s. From what I have witnessed so far this season, the Leafs are only a couple of pieces away from comfortably sitting is second place in the Atlantic division this year. The Babcock factor, is the wild card a lot of people are underestimating. There has been steady improvement every game. We still don’t know just how good they will be. I know that may not make us contenders. We have played some of the so called contenders already this year. We didn’t look out of place. Some we won and some we came in a close second. I hope those teams who squeezed two points out of us in October while the team was learning Babcock’s system, appreciate it. That avenue of pleasure has been closed.

        With Babcock behind the wheel, TSN’s Darren Dreger opinion has as much value as Nostradamus’.

        What the hell I will tell you what I really think. If we do happen to make the playoffs this year, I bet you no one is too keen to meet us in the first round.

  • Gary Empey

    We are witnessing the “Toronto style rebuild”.

    By winning now it raises the value of it’s players.

    At the deadline I think they will be in a playoff position, they sell off their short term contracts for futures, and they dump all large contracts of everyone they don’t for see as a long term building block, reducing the risk of any bad contracts.

    After decimating the roster at the deadline the team is weakened so the will be in a better position at the draft.

    Meanwhile at the Marlies Marc Arcobello, and Rich Clune help foster a winning environment as veterans mixed in with all their prospects.

    I think the major problem is going to be having too many prospects and not enough spots on the Marlies & Solar Bears and not enough contracts (50) to keep them all protected.

    • Gary Empey

      If they sell off their short term contracts and dump all longer term bad contracts, that will leave them down to about six players. That would open up space for about 17 rookies next year.

      Realistically people should expect one or two trades. It is far too early to know if other teams will be beating down the door for what the Leafs have on offer. Some years there is lots of action. Other years teams hang tight and hope for the best.