Building A Champion Part 2: Evaluating The Big Three

The first step to building a Stanley Cup champion is establishing a core. We’ve done that already in the first part of this series.

To recap quickly, there’s seven key pieces on almost every Cup contender that make up the core: an elite number one centre, 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.

On the Leafs, these are the likely candidates for those spots going forward:

  • 1C: Auston Matthews
  • 1W: Mitch Marner
  • 2C: William Nylander
  • 4F: Nazem Kadri 
  • 1D: Morgan Rielly
  • 2D: Jake Gardiner
  • 1G: Mystery Goalie

So now the key questions are, is it good enough to win a Cup, and just how long until the team consistently competes for one? I’ve outlined how good a contending team needs to be at each position here. Let’s look into the crystal ball to find out if the Leafs have the right building blocks, starting with the big three pieces: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.

METHOD

All three of these guys are prospects, so really, we don’t have much of an idea of how good they’ll be. They might all be superstars in the making – and they kind of look like it already based on their pre-NHL success – or they could all bust at the same time. There’s no certainty in projecting into the future and that’s especially true for guys who haven’t played an NHL game yet (or just 22 in Nylander’s case).

So how do we get around that? Using an average of comparable players that have already played in the NHL. I already did a similar study for Matthews for THN, but that used NHLe and it was before I saw fellow Nation Network person Jeremy Davis unveil a new prospect grading model called pGPS. He gave me comparables for each of the Leafs Big Three (sidebar: it feels nice writing that) and so I looked at how all the comparable players performed in their age-appropriate season.

Then we’ll compare that to the baselines I measured for each core position in this piece.

Those baselines are based on war-on-ice’s wins above replacement (WAR) stat, which is easily the best barometer for a player’s true talent level as far as total value stats go. It measures all the things we value towards winning (scoring, shot rates, penalty differential and even faceoffs) and weights them appropriately to their worth in goals. Like any stat, it’s not without its hiccups, but it’s still the best way to measure a player’s worth.

There are four projections for each player:

“Best” Case: The average of the top half of the comparable players

Average: The average of all comparable players

Above Average: The average between best case and average

“Worst” Case: The average of the bottom half of the comparable players

Realistically, their value won’t be so straightforward anyways. There’ll be good seasons, bad seasons and great seasons. They’ll likely fall anywhere within the spectrum between best and worst case and it’s impossible to judge when at this point in time. Keep in mind this is just a rough guideline for what to expect.

The one we’ll focus on, for the most part, is the above average projection. Here’s why. The average likely underrates them as it’s a conglomeration of the best and worst comparables listed. That makes it tough to compare to the Cup contender position baselines which were derived off elite players on elite final four teams in their own “best” case seasons. If the Leafs do contend, it’ll be because The Big Three are closer to a “best” case season than an average one.

As elite level prospects, it’s probably more likely that The Big Three fit in more with the top half comparables over the bottom half. It’s presumptuous to say that about players who have little to no NHL experience, but I think we’re allowed to be optimistic based on what they’ve shown outside the NHL.

So without further ado, here’s how good The Big Three will probably be over the next five seasons.

1C: AUSTON MATTHEWS

1C Baseline WAR: 3.4

Comparables: Phil Kessel, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Colin Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, John Tavares, Mikkel Boedker

As you probably know, not many players go from the Swiss League to the NHL. That made finding comparables tough. Jeremy had a workaround for that, though; use the World Juniors. It’s wrought with small sample size issues, but it should be fine. After all, star prospects usually shine at the World Juniors and doing so is a good sign for the future. Matthews did just that scoring 11 points in seven games for the US. Of his comparables, only Tavares had a better points-per-game (he was tied with Kessel). If Matthews turns out anywhere close to as good as Tavares, the Leafs will have their elite number one centre very soon.

Projection:

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 9.44.47 PM

How Long Until He’s Ready For Contention: All signs point to a learning curve in year one, modest growth in year two, and a giant step in year three. Whether the breakout in his third year will be big enough is the question, but three-to-five years feels like a reasonable estimate for when Matthews can become a legit contender-calibre first-line centre, but it’s more likely that it’s sooner rather than later.

1W: MITCH MARNER

1W Baseline WAR: 3.1

Comparables: Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner, Bryan Little, Mike Richards, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry

That’s an odd group of comps, but that’s mostly because Marner’s draft+1 season was incomparable. Marner put up 116 points in 57 games and was somehow even more sensational in the playoffs leading his London Knights to a Memorial Cup. Only Kane and Gagner were above 90 percent similarity and neither were the correct age (an exception I had to make here). Marner is uniquely gifted and thus tough to peg down. If he can be a Patrick Kane-lite for the Leafs, that would be a huge asset to the teams’ Cup aspirations.

Projection:

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 9.44.54 PM

How Long Until He’s Ready For Contention: Best-case scenario, he’ll be ready by year three like Matthews, but it’s more likely it takes a while to get there for him, especially considering his frame. Anywhere from three-to-five years (sensing a trend here?) sounds reasonable again, but this time, we’d lean towards a bit later in the time frame. He should still be very good almost right away at the very least.

2C: WILLIAM NYLANDER

2C Baseline WAR: 2.2

Comparables: Jordan Eberle, Jiri Tlusty, Logan Couture, Claude Giroux, Dustin Brown, Sergei Kostitsyn, Drew Stafford, Patrice Bergeron, Bobby Ryan

Again, it was difficult to hammer down comparables for Nylander mostly because there are not many 19-year-olds that play in the AHL – and do so well at it too. Nylander mustered 45 points in 38 games which is great for a teenager in the AHL. The guys who did similarly are a decent mix of elite, very good, and okay players. Couture, who’s currently anchoring a second line for a Cup finalist, would be a decent baseline for Nylander. If he can get to that level, the Leafs would be in good shape.

Projection:

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 9.45.03 PM

How Long Until He’s Ready For Contention: Now? I mean, yeah it’s probably a little shocking, but he played at a 49 point pace in his small stint with a team trying to lose in his first real taste of the NHL. This kid is for real, but he’s also the farthest along of The Big Three, as he’s now entering his third season after being drafted. Nylander should be very steady for the next five seasons, and very good too.

CONCLUSION

The Big Three are going to be very good, and it shouldn’t take too long either. Around years three-to-five, all three should be playing at an elite level if everything goes well. There might be a learning curve over the first few seasons, some possible dropoffs after high-level play, injuries, you name it. But right now, there’s very good reason to be optimistic as a Leafs fan as these three are a damn good trio to build around.

As for the rest of the core, mainly the ones already on the roster, we’ll get to them in part three.

  • silentbob

    Reading this post makes me giggle with a rosy-cheek glow. Still difficult come to grips with the type of young talent the Leafs have managed to amass in 24 months.

  • silentbob

    How would a Stamkos signing fit in all this?

    Assuming his production deteriorates through to years 3-5, would still have him grouped in with the above average Nylander comparables at that point… albeit for more money than Nylander but that’s okay as the big three will still be in affordable contracts.

    I like the set of 4 forwards with Stamkos, with Kadri being a bonus/hedge if Marner or Nylander do not live up to expectations.

  • silentbob

    Wow Dom that one must have kept you up all night. Thanks for the good chuckle, Jake Gardiner a number two defenceman. Maybe in your dream world. But , but, but he has puck possession all night except when he coughs it up allowing a break away or two on one and how many points has this guy averaged with all that wonderful skating between the two blue lines. What about that powerful shot that can almost break glass. Jake of course is dynamic in the corners except when he hears foot steps coming his way.

    Keep all those fancy dancy new stats a coming.

    • Gary Empey

      24-year-old Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev will become Leafs #1 defenceman. Followed by Reilly then Gardiner. I think Babcock devoted a lot of his time last year teaching Reilly and Gardiner the defensive aspects missing in both their games. While your criticism may have been overly harsh, it really wasn’t that far of the mark. While analytical stats may be fun to look at they really tell you two-thirds of fukc all.

      PS – Did you notice if Corrado ever got one shot on goal last year? Closest I seen was a couple over the net.

  • Oilers Rule

    Not quite sure what to make of this article????

    Nylander was what a 7th overall selection, but he sure gets pumped up by Leafs and Leaf fans as if he was a top draft pick. Historical NHL odds of players drafted 7th overall is that are he will be no more than a typical 7th overall selection i.e. ok so-so NHL player, far from being a superstar

    Edmonton’s core is arguably far, far superior to the Leaf’s above (don’t think one expert would disagree, as Oilers have serval Auston Mathews caliber players).

    Bottom line is Edmonton has a far superior core that has gotten them nowhere. Leaf’s will likely need a few more high draft picks gems to upgrade their core above until they are on par with the elite teams.

    Perhaps we put too much emphasis on a team’s core and maybe the real key to success is assembling the best overall team from top to bottom with adequate goaltending???? The elite teams do have decent cores (from sucking a long time and drafting lots of high picks) but perhaps we are focusing too much on that and not enough on the balance of the team playing behind them??? Perhaps the stars aren’t the main driver of their team’s success at the end of the day, but predominantly just behind the marketing success?? Maybe a team of 18 $4m/year players would mop up in today’s NHL????

    • Oilers Rule

      You can’t build up the wing (Hall, Eberle, Yak) and expect to win. Now that the Oilers have McDavid and Leon, your core looks like it’s going to do some very good things in 2-3 years.

      You’ve also had no defense and goaltending for years so the “strong core” conversation pretty much ends there. Both positions look like they’re improving though so kudos.

      The reasons we’re so high on Nylander is because he’s got some very high-end skill. I remember as soon as he was drafted the Draft commentators said, he may be the most talented in the entire draft but there were concerns about his team play which is why he was still available at 7. Now that he’s shown he’s got a solid character, of course we’re going to focus on his high-end skill.

      Regardless, we’re projecting Nylander as a great 2C here, not one of the leagues best 1Cs…I think the expectation is pretty fitting.

      Lastly, if you Oilers ever want to practice your $4MM for every player on the team theory, please send McDavid our way. We’ll give you Brooks Laich. He’s making $4MM and he’s a very nice guy.

    • Oilers Rule

      You’re using draft position to determine Nylanders future? Funny coming from an oilers fan. One out of your 4 top picks are actually as good as his draft slot. The other three have dropped in their after draft years, with yak being the worst of them. Edmonton’s core is rotten, that’s why they’re in year 7-10 of a rebuild.

      The leafs aren’t doing what the oilers did. They’re developing their draft picks before throwing them to the wolves. Guys like hall, eberle, yak, RNH aren’t prospects. They’re nhl’ers that have mainly underachieved. So yes the oilers do have a better core, because the leafs core is built primarily of prospects.

      There you have it, a failed core vs a core of prospects not yet in the nhl.

    • silentbob

      No, the core of a team is not just there to drive marketing.

      You can’t take Crosby and Malkin off the Penguins and expect them to be as good as they are right now.

      A core without good support won’t win either, which is what the Oilers have learned.

      Its not an either or situation.

    • Gary Empey

      Re- “Edmonton’s core is arguably far, far superior to the Leaf’s”

      One point separated Leafs and Oilers from being the worst team in the NHL.

      In 82 games, Oilers scored 5 more goals than the Leafs.

      Oilers allowed one less goal against.

  • silentbob

    Agree wholeheartedly with @FrankRandall and @TheRussianRocket.

    The Leafs are at a better position than the Oilers were 3 years ago.

    They are developing prospects properly. Nylander spent an entire year in AHL and did very very well for a 19-year old. They are focusing not only on the top 3-4 prospects but also the lesser role players like Kapanen, Brown, Leivo, Soshnikov, Hyman, C. Carrick etc; all of whom have spent considerable time in the AHL.

    Plus, they are mindful of the fact that you still need good veterans like Rielly, Gardiner, Kadri, Komarov, JVR etc; all of whom will be there to support the youngsters.

    And they hired one of the best coach in NHL in Babcock.

    In contrast, the Oilers handed out $6M x 6yr contracts like candy to their top prospects (Hall, RNH & Eberle). None of them spent any time in the minors. Poor Yakupov has to learn how to play in D zone in NHL. In about 1-2 years, they will be in cap hell when these contracts start to expire.
    And where is your D?

    Oilers also failed to recognize that veteran help is needed and proceeded to first mis-allocate good veterans like Petry, Hemsky, Gilbert, even Schultz etc. and then trade them away for cents on the dollar.
    Fired a good coach like Crawford after a good season.

    Yes, McDavid will help you and will iron out a lot of your failings but he cannot do it alone.

  • silentbob

    Dom, why are you maintaining that an elite number one centre, an elite winger, an elite d-man etc… are the pieces needed to build a cup contender?

    A quick look at the last 10-15 years worth of cup winners (and probably cup finalists) will show you that 2-3 franchise players & 3-4 elite players are needed to make up the core of a winning team but there is no position specific make-up needed to win.

  • Foximus

    Lots of good comments coming in. The comparison to the Oilers is interesting if nothing else. The Oilers are in “win now” mode and they better start winning next season.

    I’m loving the way the Leafs are rebuilding. This coming from a Canucks fan. I don’t disagree with the “Big 3” model but I think they have a “Big 4” already (assuming Matthews is picked 1st). Reilly needs to be that dominant, elite dman for the Leafs to contend. I think he’s on his way. Having Babcock as a coach is helping him greatly and the international experience is giving him even more confidence. An elite Dman is essential to a cup contender.

    I’d usually mention a goalie as well but teams have won it without an elite tender. (see Detroit and Chicago) Toronto still needs to find a solid, consistent, dependable goalie for this work. They aren’t there yet.

    Matthews, Marner and Nylander will be excellent NHLers. Time will tell if they are all elite. More pieces required for them to start challenging. I’m saying 3-5 yrs away.

    This mgmt team will get them there.

  • silentbob

    The problem I see with these charts is that they track were teams have their elite talent (and it makes sense most are going to have their elite players in the #1 center and #1 Winger and #1 D positions) but then seems to conclude that teams need talent in all those positions. This isn’t the case.

    Lets just compare the Hawks and Penguins. The Hawks are a fairly well spread out team. They have one of the best centers, one of the best wingers and one of the best D-men in the league. The Penguins, in 08-09 had two elite centers (maybe 1-2 in the NHL) and a strong #2 guy on the 3rd line but not elite winger, no elite D-man, Letang is good, but he is a step down from the best in the NHL. The current Penguins lost Staal but replace him Kessel, who Id argue is on the same level as Staal, just on the wing, without adding the elite or franchise D-man or goalie.

    The other issue I see with that article is that they seem to only be using WAR to judge the players. Because of this he put Alex Steen (a very good player) in the same catagory as Crosby, Thornton and Stamkos (elite/franchise players). Even though his WAR is similar I don’t think many people would be convinced that Alex Steen is the elite, #1 center that a cup winning team can be built around.

  • silentbob

    I would really love to see a projection graph for Connor Brown, he’s a really interesting player to me. 7th round draft pick (after leading a terrible team in scoring with ~55pts in his draft year), then two amazing OHL years (albeit beside Connor McDavid), then a top-12 scorer in the AHL (and then unfortunately injured most of last year). Can you humour me, please? 🙂