Who Will Be the Veterans On the 2018-19 Maple Leafs?

“Normally, when you’ve been nine or 10 years in one spot, you’re not worried about (veterans),” Babcock said. “But when you come to a new place, you don’t know who they are. They’ve got to get going. So that’s up to them and up to me.”

This past October, in the midst of his first training camp as the head coach of the Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock made sure to point out how important he feels veteran leaders are to a hockey team. He spoke of familiarity with players and the idea that he wants guys to already know the practice format so he can spend more time teaching as opposed to demonstrating drills.

With the eyes of the fan base locked squarely on the kids of the future, the idea that the team will need veterans that Babcock can lean on is often overlooked. When the Maple Leafs are good enough to be a solid playoff team (let’s say 2018-19), the core is going to be Nylander, Marner, Rielly and potentially one more. Matthews? Laine? Puljujarvi?

With a probable selloff of veterans in the next month, this Leafs team is going to get younger quickly. As the deadline approaches, we are likely going to hear rumors about every person on the active roster as people look to the future and forget that some of these current players (even the older ones) will still be around when the team gets good.

When Mike Babcock mentioned “pros” during his radio spots last week, he was referring to players that lead by example; guys he can lean on to deliver his message to the rest of the dressing room, and guys that will check Mitch Marner in his second season if he gets caught dragging on a back check. These guys will be important for the team’s future… and for my money it starts with Nazem Kadri. 

Kadri will be 28 at the start of the 2018-19 season, he’ll be entering his 10th year in the Maple Leafs system and what will be his fourth playing for Mike Babcock. 

“I just think he’s brave, he’s smart, I don’t think he’ll have any issue whatsoever, it’s just getting the time. All these players, we could do everything with them at once, but it doesn’t work like that in life. You’re just building blocks and you keep plugging away at it and once a guy is doing something pretty good you can move to the next thing”

When speaking about Kadri this week, Babcock sounded like a coach that feels the desire to spend extra time turning him into a complete player. This sounds to me like the coach is turning Kadri into a “Babcock-style” player. He may not be the stat sheet stuffing offensive dynamo that we were promised when he was drafted but Kadri is developing into one of the team’s best players and will be a key veteran when the team needs it.

With Kadri as the elder statesman up front, Jake Gardiner is likely to fill the same role on the back-end. At 25, Gardiner has been the Leafs best defender this seasons. In the past few years, his name has been linked to more trade rumors than just about anyone but this season it seems things may be shifting in that regard. He looks more comfortable each game and is clearly learning to use the incredible raw tools he has always had. Don’t be surprised if he’s settled in as a 29-year-old top-pair defenceman by the time the Leafs open the 2018 season.

There’s a good chance that both Kadri and Gardiner will have their names filling the rumor mill until the deadline passes on February 29th, but it should not come as a surprise if both are still around long into the future as “Babcock guys”. 

On the less obvious side, Dion Phaneuf and Shawn Matthias are two players that I could picture in the 2018 opening night lineup. Phaneuf as an overpaid veteran that will continue to anger fans that only see him for his contract and not for the player he actually is, and Matthias as the bottom-6 grizzled veteran filling the Michal Rozsival role was saw on the Blackhawks last season.

James van Riemsdyk is the kind of player every team wants. Big, fast, offensively gifted and on a contract that would be desired by 29 other teams. While he is their best player and will still be relatively young by the time the Leafs are able to make the push towards contention, JVR is not mentioned because he may simply be too valuable for the front office to hold on to. Teams likely call for him every day and there’s a good chance that one of them eventually throws in the right pieces that makes an offer just too good to turn down. Van Riemsdyk would be a great fit on a playoff team three years from now, but so might the multiple high-end assets you’d be likely to receive if he’s traded. 

“What about the team’s lone all-star?” you might be asking. Leo Komarov has been great for this team, but if the Leafs don’t sell high on him they are out of their mind. He probably shouldn’t finish this season with the team let alone be here three years from now. But more on that later from the one and only Jon Steitzer (@YakovMironov).

While it’s fun to look at the prospects and the coming draft picks, it’s important not to lose focus on which of the current players will still be around down the line. Who would you keep from the current roster that would be necessary to make this team playoff contenders?

Oh, and by the way, 2018-19 will be the age-30 season of a guy named Steven who currently resides in the St. Petersburg, Florida area.

  • Jeremy Ian

    On defense, I’d keep Polak and Hunwick. Could definitely see them as an elite shutdown pairing. Up front, I’d keep Froese and Clune. I like their grit and heart.

    • Benjamin

      If the Blackhawk’s have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t prioritize the bottom half of your team.

      As for veterans you prioritize keeping: Leo’s a good bet in my books. I think JVR is also working his way into one of Babcock’s keystone ‘veteran’ roles.

      Both are the right combination of age, buy-in, savvy (I think they’re both actually reasonably smart, a rarity in this league), and talent. They’re under a great (JVR) and reasonable (Leo) contract for another two years too.

      That’s not to say that if someone blows the doors down with an offer you don’t listen, obviously. But I’d like to see them stick around.

  • magesticRAGE

    contradiction, in keeping Phaneuf, over-paid, well into old age, already into 30’s, while selling the team’s all-star, who is in his prime and under-paid. You are ‘out of your mind’ if you sell key players in their prime; you sell them when they begin to show signs of decline. An important point that’s consistently overlooked/unmentioned in articles/ comments, is making a difference between making phone calls selling players, and getting phone calls about players. In the latter case, no one is untouchable. Of course if the Leafs got an offer they couldn’t refuse for Leo, they couldn’t refuse it. Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

  • magesticRAGE

    The most important role for veterans is to teach the young players about the NHL. And I am not sure which of the current Leafs are the best to do that.

    Looking at the Blackhawks again, their core group is just nuts. Not just Toews as Captain but Keith, Seabrook, Hossa, Hjalmarsson. Kane as the bad example. Elliot Friedman had an interesting observation yesterday – 12 of the Blackhawks are paid under $1MM. Young guys come in and have to adapt to the culture. Which they seem to do. The Blackhawks have five full blown rookies playing key roles this season. That does not include Teravainen who played 35 games last season.

    Where they got their rookies is interesting. Everyone wanted Panarin (FA) but Chicago got him. The others:
    Phillip Danault(C) – first round pick in 2011 (26th overall – taken ahead of Brandon Saad.) Plays third line with Teravainen and Desjardins.
    Dennis Rasmussen (C) – FA from Sweden. Spent a year in the AHL and now centres the 4th line.
    TVR (D) – FA from U of New Hampshire. Funny, his brother could not (or did not) get him to sign with the Leafs. Solid third pairing,
    Erik Gustafsson (D) – I love this one. Drafted by the Oilers in the 4th round in 2012. They never seemed interested in signing him. Given their stellar blue line, why would they want him? Chicago scooped him up in April 2015. Now a solid second pairing defenceman.

    And they get Richard Panik from the Leafs who is playing 3rd/4th line and already has two goals in five games. Chicago had Jeremy Morin twice and could not make him work within their structure. But Panik seems to have fit right in. In an interview (cannot find the source), he said something like – “Difference between Toronto and Chicago is the players. The Chicago players are very good and know what their roles are.”

    Even if the veterans the Leafs keep are not very good, they could at least make sure everyone knows what their roles are.

    • Jeremy Ian

      Yeah, I think you hit the nail of the problem on the head. Panik did. What happens when the vets you want around to mentor the younger guys are not as good as the younger guys? We have an upside down pyramid; Chicago has theirs the right way.

      This article is a bit confusing because we are dealing with three kinds of vets.

      1. The ones who are now mature and have long-tail contracts, like Phaneuf (and Kessel if he were still around), Lupul who’s a UFA 2018-19, and Bozak (same term).

      Realistically, only Bozak is tradeable of this mix; the salary is decent and he is pretty reliable and a demon in the faceoff circle (76% last night — and that Hunwick goal was thanks to him winning that faceoff after the icing).

      Trade Bozak; keep Phaneuf and Lupul because no one will take them. Let them go as soon as you can, but it may take a few years.

      2. The ones who are about to enter their best years, like Gardiner, Kadri, JVR. (There is a reason they get thrown into to trade rumour mill). Throw Holland in this mix; I don’t know why he’s left out of this discussion because he’s stepped up well this year and could be a very good and economical 3rd line anchor.

      Of these, I would only dangle Holland (much as I like him). But this grouping is the veteran core for that 2018-19 run.

      3. The rest, on shorter contracts. Some of whom are good to have around (Leo, maybe Polak) and some expendable (a lot of those UFA’s, though they have been mostly decent). All of these are trade assets, in my view. I like Leo and Polak’s quiet contribution this year. But realistically, they are not going to be around in 2018. Cut them loose for what you can get.

      If we do that, at least we don’t have an upside down pyramid any more. And when those vet contracts start to expire in 2018-19, the Leafs can start cycling them off to make room for rule by Rielly, Nylander, Marner, Kapanen, et al.

      Then you have the Chicago syndrome.

      And you avoid Edmonton’s misbegotten strategy of expecting all the young guys to reposition the team when they are still learning how to shave.

  • Jeremy Ian

    we should keep boyes, hunwick is staying and so is winnik. i’m ok with that. if matthias won’t fetch a good deal, keep him. i like his attitude and work ethic. sell grabner, parenteau, polak. the last two will get us good deals. try to move phaneuf and lupul’s dead contracts in the offseason. phaneuf is more likely to maybe move next offseason if he has another solid year under babs. sadly, we are stuck with lupul unless babs plays him in the top 6 with naz and raises that value. maybe then we would be able to get rid of him next offseason or the next year as his cap hit decreases and he proves to be productive to a playoff team. keep kadri and gardiner long term. keep jvr unless the deal is too good to pass up (top 4 d-man/#1 goalie). sell uncle leo for a dream return (1st/top prospect/young, promising roster player). obviously get rid of bozak asap. like leo, his value is at an all time high. hope to get a 2nd + 3rd or something like that for him. keep holland as long as he’s cheap. keep reimer through the rebuild, trade bernier or let him walk if he stays until his contract is up. obviously clune is gone or keep him with the marlies. let spaling walk. keep robidas on ltir with horton. maybe lupul will join them one day lol.

  • Jeremy Ian

    I’d keep Matt Hunwick and build the defense around him. I like his compete level. On forward, I’d keep Brad Boyes. Guy would be a 70 pt guy if he got the ice time. I also like his compete level.

  • magesticRAGE

    I think the vets will be:
    Defensemen
    Reilly, Gardiner (maybe resign Polak after dealing him like Winnk)

    Forwards:
    Kadri, Komarov, Lupul, Winnk, Fraese? (hopefully Matthias)

    I hope players like Loov and Carrick get a chance, they’re character and glue guys.