Why staying the course is Toronto’s wisest choice

To many, when looking at the Maple Leafs’ projected roster for the 2016-17 season, many glaring holes appear. One on right defense (in addition to the one filled by Zaitsev), one at second line left wing, one at first line right wing, one at starting goaltender… the list goes on. What I’d like to talk about in this bit of a think piece is why, except for a goaltender, the Leafs should stay the course and avoid any sizable acquisitions or departures.

Obviously, an acquisition like Stamkos is somewhat of an exception here, as those opportunities don’t come very often (I mean, except when John Tavares goes UFA in 2018, but you can’t bank on that). If the opportunity does present itself to acquire Stamkos for a reasonable dollar value, the Leafs will likely pursue that, and that’s okay. It breaks the philosophy I’m proposing, but it’s an exception that makes sense.

What I’m more getting at is the improvements on the margins. Potential acquisitions like Vatanen, Demers, Okposo, Barrie, Yandle, Staal – the list is endless – are unwise despite being improvements to the roster. I’m going to talk about why I feel that way.

WHAT IS A REBUILD?

There’s no question you always want to be improving throughout a rebuild. Starting from this past season, every year the Maple Leafs’ record should improve until you’re a legitimate Cup contender. But this season, I don’t believe the way to do that is through talent acquisition. I believe it should be through player development.

This is a long process that starts in the junior leagues, on to the minor leagues, and onto and into and throughout their time in the NHL. All of the Leafs’ assets are at different places in their development plans. Some, like Martins Dzierkals, are very raw and need to go through a lengthy process of coming up the ranks. Others, like eventual 1st overall pick Auston Matthews, are ready to get their first tastes at the NHL already based on talent and hockey IQ alone. But then, there are the fringe guys. The guys that have seasoned in the AHL for a little while, and have had cracks at the NHL for injury replacements and the carousel that was the post-deadline 2016 Maple Leafs. But, they haven’t been given a solid footing to stick around on. I believe this coming season is the perfect time to do that.

THE TIME IS RIGHT

Last year had a very distinct goal: suck as much as possible while still being respectable. That was accomplished beautifully, landing the Leafs the #1 overall draft pick.

So what should be the goal of next year? Many will say it’s simply to get better. For me, it’s to see what you have in your fringe players. Let what you have in those players improve the team as much as they’re able to.

Again, this isn’t going to be a season of winning. There are no plans to make the playoffs next year. I can’t see why anyone would want to bring in UFAs or make big trades or bring back veteran UFAs, even if they would improve the team. Because what’s the point of amassing prospects if you never let them get to the point of establishing a full-time NHL job?

So why not take the opportunity not necessarily to be superb, but concretely know what you have in someone like Josh Leivo. If you play him 75 games in a 2nd line role, can he score 15 goals for you? Or how about Brendan Leipsic. If you let him run amuck on your third line with some veterans, can he make an impact with all the tools he possesses? Or what about Connor Carrick? He is dominating the AHL playoffs right now. Can he make the same offensive impact in a top-four role at the NHL level? All of these players, and their peers who are at that fringe stage have shown flashes of their potential. There’s already a lengthy list of rookies that will be on the Maple Leafs’ roster, and I believe these fringe guys should be added to it, so as to see if they can reach their potential or not. Lack of veteran presence be damned.

NO MORE VETERANS

Every time I suggest running a roster of mostly rookies, I get met with the same complaint. “You can’t run a team of kids; they’ll get run over and turn into the Edmonton Oilers!”

First of all, this team will never be the Edmonton Oilers, due to the more competent management team it possesses. Second, having too many rookies was never the Oilers’ problem, it was that the “veteran presence” they did bring in was awful. Third, the Leafs already have Matt Hunwick, Milan Michalek, Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner, Colin Greening, Brooks Laich, and Joffrey Lupul (if he doesn’t get IR-ed) as players with five years or more in the NHL. Do they need to bring in more just to satisfy some non-existent quota of experience? My answer is: most definitely no. 

The fringe players I propose running with (to list them all: Carrick, Corrado, Percy, Harrington, Brown, Leivo, Leipsic, Soshnikov, Hyman) in addition to the very young talent (Nylander, Marner, Matthews) are all quality players and are a smorgasbord of both offensive and defensive capabilities. It will be a quality team that will at least be competitive, and a roster full of players who constantly have something to fight for, a permanent job. Because once this season is done, the next wave of talent and big time acquisitions will be on their way. They will be aware of that, and they’ll fight to prove that their talents make them unnecessary.

  • Jeremy Ian

    This is a false dichotomy. Why player development versus acquisition? Organizations that stick to one track, especially when repositioning, often get stuck. It’s Management 101. “Staying the course” means staying creative.

    If good opportunities arise for the right price to fill knowable gaps, why not?

    Also, the Leafs are flush with prospects and picks. That puts them in a very good bargaining position, especially with teams that have cash or cap issues. Why forsake that? I could imagine a creative trade by bundling (do we need Percy and Harrington?), especially with the waiver-prone players.

    • I’m only suggesting player development focus for this particular season, as there’s so many prospects on the bubble you’d risk losing to waivers. I totally agree that a time will come when acquisitions over development make sense. This just isn’t the season to do it.

      • Benjamin

        I think Jeremy’s point is that limiting your organizational flexibility with relatively arbitrary rules is what gets you in trouble. These rules can easily act as blinders that only exist in your mind.

        Although you obviously want to exercise prudence, unrestricted free agency can still be a place where you can get great value in a salary cap world. PAP for $1.5M? Winnik (and, by extension, Carrick and a 2nd rounder) for $2.2M? Why are we preemptively shutting the door on these possibilities?

        • Bringing in cheap UFAs to flip is one way to manage assets, and it’s been an intelligent and rewarding gameplan for the Leafs the past two seasons.

          However, another important aspect of asset management is letting your assets develop properly and I think if management were to go down that “sign-and-flip” path again this season, it would be a failure in that aspect of asset management.

          So it becomes a balancing act. How many of those fringe guys *need* AHL jobs? How many jobs are already filled with guaranteed roster players? If those two add up to make your 20 roster players, then you’re done.

          If there’s room to work with, then bring in some UFAs, of course. But I believe if that’s at the expense of our current prospect’s roster spot, it’s a mistake.

          • Benjamin

            See, again we’re restricting ourselves by saying that you only acquire cheap UFAs for flipping at the deadline. Why can’t we make good signings and hold onto them? We’re obviously not building a team through FA, but we should be adding smart pieces at smart prices whenever we can.

          • Gary Empey

            While some of what you said may very well come to pass, you completely overlooked Babcock’s play to win philosophy. Babcock never puts players on his team to see what they can do. He is on record stating for a young player to make the team it is simple. The player must take a veterans job.

            You are handing a spot to rookies Nylander, Matthews, and Marner and proposing to bring up some of the “fringe” players. Is this really staying the course?

            Provided the Leafs don’t resign any of their RFA’s, like Holland, or sign any their UFA’s like Parenteau, someone will have to take one of these cagey vets jobs. As far as I know I think all the guys must clear waivers. Not sure about Froese.

            James van Riemsdyk

            Leo Komarov

            Colin Greening

            Joffrey Lupul

            Tyler Bozak

            Nazem Kadri

            Brooks Laich

            Byron Froese

            Milan Michalek

            From what I seen of the call-ups last season, I think a few of them are better than some of last years vets. To me that means something has to give.

      • Jeremy Ian

        I don’t hear too many voices calling for UFA binging, so I am not concerned about that. I agree with your basic point that the strategy has to be attuned to different stages of the rebuild.

        Where I disagree with you is seeing this season just as a lab for trying out the prospects.

        The Leafs are part of a system full of weaknesses; management needs to exploit them. The Leafs have two major strengths now: an overstocked farm system and even more picks coming, and cash. They could use those to make some devastatingly effective moves.

        What Shanahan and Lou have done over the past 15 months is astonishing because it was audacious. This is not the time to let up.

  • Jeremy Ian

    I agree with you as a general principle,
    but with so many depth prospects bundling second tier prospects to address “holes” with other pieces I think is still in the cards.

    Avoiding having too many players becoming UFA’s and RFA’s at the same time is very important.
    And though the Leafs want a young developing team-just how you draft the best player available, you don’t ignore upgrades because a player is in a different stage in his career.

    The Stamkoes debate is a tricky one , a 5% chance that his career could be curtailed because of blood clots could be enough to scare away many teams, and could allow some team to sign him to a team friendly contract.
    If it is possible to sign him to a contract that
    would allow the Leafs to trade him at some point later in his deal, we could cash him in at some point for other assets if the need arose.

  • Jeremy Ian

    agreed. what do we have to lose. it’s about development not a fast track to the playoffs. you’re wrong about barrie and vatanen though. those are young right handed defencemen who should be acquired if available. those don’t come often either and the leafs cap will be great by next year so they could afford them long term. it would solidify the top 4 with rielly, gardiner, zaitsev and possibly barrie or vatanen. have marincin and carrick with corrado as 7d and that’s an excellent young top 7 defence core. trade hunwick. I’m sure someone will want him.

  • I like your appraisal of Demers, Okposo, Yandle, and Staal, Ryan, but I don’t know about including Barrie and Vatanen on the list. Both are experienced, 24 year old, top 4 right shot D. In Vatanen’s case, he is a legit top pair player with experience on a top tier team. He will be hungry to get to the next level and will have maturity and poise that most of the young Leafs won’t. It looks like Carrick has what it takes to be top 4 but it can’t hurt him to play some protected 3rd pair minutes for a season. Zaitsev is only signed for one year and is an unknown commodity on the small ice. Maybe he translates, maybe he doesn’t. I would say, if you can take advantage of Anaheim’s cap crunch and get Vatanen without losing Carrick, you do it. The Leafs have a lot of picks to play with and Anaheim is severely lacking. Might be an opportunity there.

  • FlareKnight

    I think they should just go at a calm pace, but feel free to make moves. Nothing wrong with adding a few UFA pieces. They have some decent vet presence, but one or two guys won’t hurt anything.

    It isn’t going to be a big winning season. Honestly I expect us in the 7-10 drafting range at best. Which is still a nice point improvement.

    Next year is about getting a lot of your core young guys into the lineup and properly surrounded by good veterans. Get the Matthews, Nylander and probably Marner into the mix and let them start getting settled into the NHL.

  • I like this article…because I largely agree with it.

    I’d stay out of the Stamkos sweepstakes myself, although it’s a tough call. I am enjoying the cap flexibility the team has right now, and Stamkos could over-accelerate a plan in a city that tends to get prematurely excited.

    It’s a good point on the veterns, but I’d also be wary of throwing all the Marlies in there at once. I’m not sure if it’s possible with everyone, but a healthy rotation of the younger Marlies up and down throughout the season coupled with stellar playing time for the Leivo’s etc would be my preference.

    I’d be more than happy with a wildcard playoff push that begins to fade after the all-star game, and then let 2017 be a year of real progress.

  • Jeremy Ian

    This, wholeheartedly this!

    I’ll add that by playing the fringy prospects the Leafs not only get a sense of what who might be worth keeping around, it also gives other teams a good chance to gauge if any of these kids are worth trading for – at some point Leafs brass will have to deal some of these prospects do best to get the most value for them as possible.

  • CMpuck

    Ugh, another let’s maximize our cap space to do nothing of value with it article. Rookies and RFAs are great because it allows fexibility to land a superstar?

    Who is better to spend cap room on that Stamkos?

    Leafs have Marner, Nylander, Rielly and Matthews and most of the team costed controlled on ELC and RFAs contracts for the next 7 years, that is the time where you can afforded Stamkos not two years from now where Tavares (putting aside the massive if he’s available) will command 7 years and the last two years directly conflict with the UFA years you’ll need to pay out on Marner, Rielly, Nylander and Matthews.

    I could perhaps get behind the ‘stay the course’ narrative but I find it reactionary and shallow, it’s a lot of butt hurt from past regimes that signed bad deals, if I read some intelligent analysis I could at least respect the counter point.

    But alas I read, flexibility is itself an asset, empty cap room is the goal in itself? but never do I read where that empty cap room is better spent.

  • CMpuck

    There’s no guideline for the perfect rebuild. The advantages the Leafs have over most other teams in the NHL are piling up. First Steven Stamkos is a UFA. This was probably a selling point Shanahan used to the ownership to get them to buy into the rebuild they avoided undertaking for 50 years. He’s a game changer. And it’s the timing of it that allows the Leafs to take advantage of it. Secondly, they can take advantage of the impending expansion draft. Teams will want to trade players they would never consider trading in a million years instead of losing them for nothing. Other rebuilding teams like Edmonton and buffalo and Florida didn’t have this advantage but Toronto does. If they get Stamkos, Matthews, Vesey, and add Marner to the lineup, without giving up a single draft pick or a prospect, well that speeds things up in a huge way. So why not make a couple moves with picks and prospects to add a D man and a goalie. They could target Anderson and Vatanen from Anaheim and make a great deal for two stud players and complete their lineup. Thirdly, Jimmy Vesey is a UFA. They’re gonna take advantage of that and offer him a LW position on a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. And I’m betting he takes the offer. Who wouldn’t. Next, the leafs have drafted 1st, 4th, 8th, 5th, and 7th in the past 6 years. There’s no reason to sit around and stockpile fringe players and prospects till the end of time. Eventually you want to start winning some games and you have to deal some players that might possibly turn into good NHLers someday but you can’t hold onto them forever. The brass know what guys are gonna play in the NHL and what guys aren’t. They’re the best at what they do. They might miss a few times but they aren’t scared to trade away Liepsic or lievo, because they know they have marner and Matthews and Nylander. The most important thing to consider is that as an organization, they’re doing things differently now. From grooming prospects to drafting them to their style of play, everything is going to be better now. So if they make a bad move, well, that’s sports and it happens. No need to panic. I understand I’m a bit of an optimist with this, but I also think shanahan and Babcock are two of the smartest guys in hockey, are extremely competitive and they live to win hockey games. They did an incredible job this season and accomplished more than most teams do in 4 years. So let’s get the show on the road.

    • CMpuck

      Yeah, also you know what I don’t read in these articles, authors suggesting to actually put any of our non top ten draft pick talents in the line up to be impactful.

      But don’t ever sign at ‘veteran’ because we need to draft more talent to make our AHL and ECHL teams look pretty.

      Pure hipster logic.

  • Capt.Jay

    I wonder what Hunter has in store again this year? Not only Mathews this year, but with pick 27-30 and pick 31 I see another Bracco and McDermott coming our way which would be awesome. Maybe a goalie with one of those picks.

  • Gary Empey

    As you mentioned the possibility of signing Stamkos and drafting Matthews, this will give you 5 centers who have played as #1 center for the majority of their career. At least 3 of them are likely legitimate #1’s. This is a problem that will have to be sorted out. Hopefully a pleasant one and easily resolved, but it still will need a creative solution. Not every center can or wants to play wing long term or will be content to become a role player.