Building A Champion Part 1: Establishing A Core

As Pittsburgh and San Jose battle to take home the Stanley Cup, I’m sure there’s one thought thought that’s crossing every Leafs fans’ mind while watching: how long until we see the Leafs here?

It’s a valid question, but considering it’s steeped deeply in years of futility, the question is much closer to “seriously how much longer?” Yes, it’s been a while. Almost 50 years. Back when Brian Burke came aboard in 2008 he said that fans wouldn’t have patience for a five-year rebuild. As if after 41 years, they’d throw patience out the window. Eight years later, here we (still) are.

Phil Kessel, the guy that Burke brought in to build around in 2009, and the guy Toronto ran out of town last summer might hoist the Cup in his first season away from the Leafs. His first try, while Toronto continues to wait, toiling away in the league’s basement. Life as a Leafs fan has been pretty bleak.

But it’s not all bad. Being in that basement means the Leafs will likely nab the biggest piece of the Cup contender puzzle: an elite first line centre. 

Over at The Hockey News, I did some research behind all the final four playoff teams since 2007-08 and the value of the core pieces that got them there. It was inspired by this incredible Canucks Army series last year from Money Puck which I would recommend reading if you haven’t yet.

Of the teams that went to the Cup Final, just two didn’t have an elite centre while those two were at least very good players. The first line centre also had the highest average wins above replacement (WAR) of any other core position at 3.7 WAR. Having that type of player is crucial to contending.

It only took two rebuilds, a full management overhaul, a commitment to scorching the earth and some lottery luck to get here, but they’re finally on the right track.

The right track means identifying a core group of players and building around them at the perfect time to take advantage of a Cup window, the most important piece being that first line centre. That’s how Chicago did it, how Pittsburgh did it, how Los Angeles did it and it’s how both Cup finalists this year did it, too.

But while a first line centre is the most important piece, it’s not the only one (duh). On top of an elite number one centre, a contender likely also needs an elite winger, an elite d-man, a very good second centre, a strong fourth forward, a solid goalie, and a capable second d-man. It’s quite the shopping list, but it’s the seven spots that most teams build around. 

They don’t all have to be elite players, but at least four of them should be, as well as another very good player too. On average, those seven players made up 75 percent of a teams’ win contribution compared to the depth that surrounded them. 

Building a decent core is the first and most important step to success. Without a great core group of players, your team won’t be consistently competing for Stanley Cups. The goal is to go into the playoffs expecting nothing less than a Cup, not hoping to maybe win a round and see what happens. That starts with the core.

On the Leafs current roster that core probably currently looks something like this:

1C: Nazem Kadri

1W: James van Riemsdyk

2C: William Nylander

4F: Tyler Bozak? 

1D: Morgan Rielly

2D: Jake Gardiner

1G: Jonathan Bernier

That’s… not a championship calibre core. Now or probably ever. That’s why they were in last place. But there are some decent pieces there, namely The Leafs Top Prospect Until They Were Extremely Bad For Two Straight Seasons and the two guys they signed to six-year deals recently. And there’s also pieces that are off the roster that will obviously take over.

So the actual core that will hopefully be contending for a Cup sometime in the near future – let’s say five years – probably looks a little different than what’s up there. Looking ahead to the future, here’s what the Leafs likely core looks like:

1C: Auston Matthews

1W: Mitch Marner

2C: William Nylander

4F: Nazem Kadri 

1D: Morgan Rielly

2D: Jake Gardiner

1G: Mystery Goalie

A lot better, right? We’re probably being a little presumptuous with Matthews who hasn’t been drafted yet, but I really doubt the Leafs pass up on a cornerstone centre when they’ve seen countless others go deep thanks to one. Pair him with Marner and you’ve got a dynamic duo that’ll terrorise the league for years. William Nylander as a second line centre probably won’t be too fair to many teams either.

The fourth forward is the trickiest piece as it could very well end up being another prospect in the pipeline, but at this point in time it has to be Kadri, who’s still relatively young at 25 (although that means he’ll be 30 in five years) and the Leafs’ current best player who just signed for six more years.

The forwards look stacked, but the backend is where some question marks start emerging. Jake Gardiner is a good player, but like Kadri, he’s 25 meaning the Leafs need to consider when their window to win is. If it’s in five years, both players will be 30 and not as good as they are now. Will it be enough? 

Then there’s Morgan Rielly, who is the closest thing the Leafs have to a future number one d-man. He hasn’t been at that level yet, but can he get there? Can he be a Kris Letang-type of player? I have my doubts based on his current level of play, but at 22 there’s still plenty of time for him to get there.

Then there’s the goalie. Will it be Bernier? Will it be someone else they acquire? I really don’t know. Goalies are fickle beings and projecting them this far into the future is a foolish proposition. Let’s just hope that the Leafs find someone good within the next five years. Shouldn’t be too hard considering how flooded the goalie market usually is.

So that’s the core. Probably. Things like this can change and with this management group, I don’t doubt it will. But as it stands now, this is the core. Is it good enough to compete for a Cup within the next five seasons? First, we have to figure out how good everyone is. We’ll tackle that in the next part of this series.

  • BestDayEver

    I like Kadri but I don’t see him as our strong 4F. I get why you use him as your 4F ($4MM for 6 years + top forward this year) but I feel like he’s lying on the ice, drawing penalties too often. Drawing penalties is great but I highly doubt he’s a name that gets circled on the other team’s white board before the game.

    To me, someone like Soshkinov or Leipsic has that 4F potential. Both of them have speed and both are relentless on the puck. I know it’s too early to project them but I see both of those guys creating more of a challenge for the opposition than Kadri.

    Maybe if Kadri is sheltered as a 2C or 3C he’ll be more dangerous than he is now?

    • silentbob

      To this point, neither Soshkinov or Leipsic has shown that kind of skill or potential.

      If you look at that `4th player`(it shouldn`t be limited to a forward) from other teams youre looking at players like Krejic, E.Staal, Hossa, Sharp, Carter etc…

      The type of player a team would sign to a long term, bad contract if he became a UFA.

      I don`t know if Kadri is that player, but I`m very sure it won`t be the guys you mentioned.

      • BestDayEver

        I’m going a bit off the board here.

        Look at Brendan Ghallagher and Brendan Leipsic’s pre-NHL stats side by side. Leipsic is the same type of player and he out performs Ghallagher everywhere, he just hasn’t been given the shot Ghallgher managed to get early in his career. I think Leipsic has shown real potential to become a 4F.

        I really dislike Ghallagher but I don’t think you can deny he’s a 4F.

  • CMpuck

    I love how we plug in names and call Nylander an elite C already. How many of those Stanley Cup finals cores had small centers? Let’s take a guy like Bennett, he might become a great regular season C with elite number but in the playoffs it’s a different beast because he matches up every night with more difficult quality of competition. He exposes his team in that match and good opposing coach makes adjustments to exploit that match up.

    Ideally you want Nylander on the wing as your 4F.

    • silentbob

      Nylander is listed at 5`11, 190lbs.

      Crosby is 5`11, 200lbs.
      Datsyuk is 5`11, 194
      Zetterberg is 6`0, 195
      Yzerman was 5`11, 185

      Add to that Nylander (I think more likely Marner) will most likely now be, at best, the Leafs 2nd line center behind Matthews.

      • CMpuck

        So you can’t tell the difference between Crosby (generational talent), Datsyuk (Generational..) and Yzerman (took him 14 years to get it done) and
        Nylander? I just adore the homerism of this comment section, I’ll have to agree with Babcock that Willie is a winger though.

        I much prefer the 7 player profile to build a contender.

        2 Elite centers with size or generation talent
        1 Power Forward
        1 Utility Forward

        1 Elite PMD
        1 Hybrid D that can shutdown and provide offense

        1 Elite Tender

        Follow up question where in the top ten of all time scoring do you think Mitch Marner will finish?

        • silentbob

          I wouldn`t call Datsyuk a generational talent. However Crosby being a generational talent doesn`t change the fact that teams have won with centers the same size as Nylander and Marner. That also doesn`t matter since, assuming they all reach their potential, Matthews will be their first line center.

          As I said above, you dont NEED 2 elite centers, an elite D-man, an elite goalie etc… to win. The Bruins, Duck & Devils all won without an elite center. The Penguins best D-man was Letang who is good but not on that elite, build a team around him level. The Wings have won without elite goaltending. You take the elite talent where you can get it.

          • CMpuck

            I would call the most respected European player of the last decade a generational talent, best all around forward of the last decade is generational IMO. Marner is a center now too??? The Leafs drafted him so I guess he can be anything you imagine him to be… Babcock doesn’t even want to put Nylander a C but he’s already a check mark for elite C? There are no match issues for Nylander in the playoffs? How about he torches the AHL in a playoff run before we pencil in him as elite cup contending C?

            Bruins had Kreijic leading the playoffs in scoring, so he was playing elite, Bergeron is elite (again like Datsyuk you seem to gloss over a complete game) and Seguin? And historical goaltending in Thomas, no management can really plan to capture lighting in a bottle.

            Not to mention as Nonis proved modeling that Boston team was a terrible way to run a franchise. But Boston won so….? Funny considering this site basically exists to bash the Boston model.

            Ducks won with 2 HoF D and Getzlaf, Devils? I’ll grant that but this isn’t the clutch and grab era.

          • silentbob

            Datsyuk was not a generational, once in 10-15 year player. Bergeron and Krejic were not elite, build you team around them talents (just look how that team feel apart when Chara did). Seguin was not an elite player during his time with the Bruins, like Getzlaf and Perry are now but weren`t when they wont a cup with the Ducks. Context matters.

            And of course we don`t KNOW How Nylander and Marner (both of which have been playing center since being drafted) but if they develop to their potential, yes they will be elite players in the NHL.

            And since you seem to think Datsyuk is the best player since Gretzky, how many times did he torch a lower league in the playoffs…… but he`s elite, how can this be…………

            http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/player-bio/pavel-datsyuk

          • CMpuck

            If Datsyuk isn’t generation, if Kreijic’s playoff performance on that cup win wasn’t elite, if Bergeron isn’t elite, then Nylander isn’t a top six by that metric.

            Getlzlaf wasn’t either? Ok, we can rewrite history to be whatever we want and project Nylander to be whatever we want. I can’t argue against pure fantasy, so you got me.

            Marner was a winger when drafted, the Leafs hoped to turn him into a center which failed, he played on Dvorak’s pretty much all year. Nylander has been forced into the center spot because we haven’t had a good center since Sundin, now that Matthews and possibly Stamkos are in the mix Nylander will go where he can best flourish the wing.

            Datsyuk is the guy taken with the first pick of every European got in an All Star draft, he’s considered the best European talent by his peers, I’ll happy to hang my hat of their judgement over than a blind Leafs homer.

            I’m making the distinction between elite centers to win matchups with over 7 game series not who is might win an Art Ross and Lady Bing.

          • silentbob

            Generational talents are players like Gretzky and Crosby, Datsyuk is not that level, sorry. Bergeron and Krejic are very good players, but you can`t build a team around them. Its being proved right now. Nylander…..we don;t know yet.

            Getzlaf IS elite, but he wasn`t the Ducks top line center in 2006-2007. As far as I nkow Marner played center most, if not all year and Nylander was having an historically good AHL season playing center, and did very well in the NHL playinc enter. Not sure why you`re concerned.

          • CMpuck

            I would say Kreijic and Getzlaf playoff performances were elite level in their cup runs. I mean Kreijic did lead the playoffs in scoring that year.

            Marner isn’t a center, he failed to transition this season. Babcock said he was force to play Nylander at center due to lack of depth and injury. Saying he was good at center doesn’t mean he can’t be great on the wing.

            Wake me when Nylander secures an AHL ring on the best team in the league.

          • silentbob

            You keep talking about generational and elite talents in reference to the “smaller” #1C’s in the league, but never the big ones. Remember:

            Thornton – ELITE
            Kopitar – ELITE
            Malkin – ELITE
            E. Staal (at the time) – ELITE
            Getzlaf – ELITE
            etc.
            etc.

            It isn’t as though the big guys you’re listing AREN’T elite, and get by because they are big. The common denominator is that you need a 1C that can flat out play regardless of size.

            Besides, Nylander isn’t small… Marner has some weight to gain, but he will be fine.

          • CMpuck

            Zzzzzzzz… so basically can’t account for the fact that teams with elite centers with size routinely out perform teams with smaller even if ‘elite’ centers in the playoffs, and you ignore the difference to between playoff hockey and regular season hockey.

            You site an irrelevant era where NJ won in a league ironically teams won with elite goaltending + size on the blueline. It was an era where size literally > elite skill in terms of forwards. It amuses me to no end the lack of critical thought in these posts.

            ‘Size doesn’t matter because Boston won cups and so did NJ’ Just wow… site the two examples of size compensating for questionable elite centers.

            You take elite talent where you can get it? So two picks for elite Phil Kessel? Ok….

            You build a team not just blindly put a top six together with elite talent where you can get it and patch work around it, the Brian Burke model is flawed.

          • silentbob

            I didn`t mean you get the talent where you can find it, the Kessel deal and moves like that (such as the Sundin trade) are deeply flawed because they put teams in a position were they can`t assemble a team around the pieces they do have. I meant you get its where you can get it in terms of position. A team doesn`t need to spread out their elite talent around the roster.

            And I`m sorry the evidence doesn`t match up with your belief that a big center is needed to win, (I actually prefer bigger players too) but the Penguins, Bruins, Devils, Ducks all prove you can win with a top line center who either not elite, not big or both. However, you don`t need to worry since in a few weeks the Leafs will draft Austin Matthews and he is 6`2, so you really have no reason to complain.

    • TGT23

      So.. your entire point is teams can’t win without a big elite C.

      Then when people prove teams DID win without an elite C, or their elite C wasn’t big, you make excuses as to why that’s irrelevant.

      “This guy can be tiny because he’s a generational talent!” and “He was elite during that month, even if not ever again or before!” and “that was a different era!”

      Or… maybe you’re just wrong.

      The Leafs need an elite C, his size is irrelevant. Plenty of 6-feet or smaller elite C’s have won. Plenty of big elite C’s have never come close.

      It is not black and white.

  • silentbob

    If you look at past winning teams, you don’t NEED an elite center or an elite winger or elite D-man etc…. You need elite talent, the make-up of that talent doesn’t seem to matter. The Penguins won with all their strength down the middle, the Ducks won with elite D-men and a winger, the Devils won all their elite talent stacked behind the blue-line.

    Also, assuming Marner and Nylander both turn out as advertised, I think you put Marner at center and Nylander on the wing. Marner is the better two-way player while Nylander appears to be the more dynamic offensive play.

  • DragLikePull

    @CMPuck

    Crosby – 5’11”, 200 lbs
    Krejci – 6’0″, 186 lbs
    Datsyuk – 5’11”, 194 lbs
    Johnson – 5’8″, 185 lbs
    Stepan – 6’0″, 196 lbs
    Richards – 5’11”, 196 lbs
    Henrique – 6’0″, 195 lbs
    Elias – 6’1″, 190 lbs
    Nylander – 5’11”, 190 lbs

    Most recent Cup winners or finalists have had a player roughly equivalent to Nylander’s size as one of their top two centres. It’s not at all uncommon.

  • Capt.Jay

    Datsuuk is great but he wasn’t generational. You can win with him no doubt but generational is when you win scoring titles year after year unless you are injured. Crosby did that where as Datsyuk did not. Great player, not generational which means one player was the best when he played over 10 to 15 years without question.

  • Capt.Jay

    Also. I think generational talent gets used far too much. If it wasn’t for illness and injuries Mario would’ve been the last generational talent. When I think generational I think the Rocket, Howe, Orr and Gretzky. Esposito was great and so many other players as well but generational should be a term used sparingly and I don’t think Crosby falls into that category either. ( player without debate that was head and shoulders better than everyone else in his era).

    With that said. Whether you want to argue it or not, it is my opinion

  • Mitch92

    Nylander is going to be a fine point producing center for us. He will likely come into camp approaching 195 lbs which puts him in the same ballpark as Crosby and Datsyuk. I know many fans are ready to push Willie aside in favor of shiny new toy Auston Matthews. I think we win sooner if we go in a different direction. I would prefer we draft Puljujärvi (and Laine if at all possible) and sign Stamkos to lead and take some pressure off the young guys as they find their way. Then see if they can lure pending UFA Brent Burns at the trade deadline to solidify the defense. The final core would look something like Stamkos, Nylander, Puljujärvi, Marner, Brown, Kadri and possibly Laine up front with Rielly, Burns, Gardiner and Zaitsev on D. On top of that core we still have Soshnikov, Komarov, Hyman, Kapanen and Lindberg along with a slew of veterans up front and lots of exciting prospects on D as well. I expect lots of off-season action to keep us interested this summer starting with 12 more draft picks to work with.