Building A Champion Part 3: Evaluating Core Roster Players

First, we identified the Leafs core. Then we projected the young studs that’ll be the main building blocks of that core. Now it’s time to look at the pieces already on the roster that could make up the rest of the core.

We’ve already projected whether The Big Three will be championship calibre players with a possible timeframe in mind (3-5 years). The question now is whether the surrounding core pieces will be good enough. In my initial THN piece, one of the main rules was that a team needs to have about four elite players and one excellent player on top of that. 

All three of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander project to be elite pieces (although there is no absolute certainty in that whatsoever), so realistically the Leafs only need one more core player to be an elite piece; preferably their number one d-man.

That’s between Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Can either player turn into a legit number one d-man? If not, that’s a big hole the Leafs will need to fill to be truly competitive. Think of how beastly Kris Letang and Brent Burns were during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Aside from the top centre and his wingman, the top d-man is the most vital piece to a championship puzzle. If it’s not either of Rielly or Gardiner, finding someone who can be should be the Leafs biggest priority over the next few seasons.

Then there’s goaltending which is something we’re not going to even bother forecasting here. They’re just so hard to project, and it’s tough to predict who’ll even be between the pipes for the Leafs.

Lastly, that leaves forward no. 4. Not a critical piece, necessarily, but it helps to have four very good forwards on a team as it makes for tough matchups. The Penguins had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on different lines, plus a very useful Patric Hornqvist playing with Sid. On San Jose, there’s Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. You can stop one, two, maybe even three, but with four players of that calibre, you’ll have the other team on the ropes most nights. 

For the Leafs, that role belongs to Nazem Kadri for now. I saw some comments questioning whether it should be James van Riemsdyk instead, but at 27 his age doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the core as he’ll be over 30 by the time they’re ready to compete. There’s also a wildcard candidate that fits who could accelerate the Leafs timeline, but we’ll get to that after July 1st… if it happens.

So we’ve got Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Are they good enough to be core pieces on a championship team? Let’s find out.

Sidenote first though to go over the methodology: Again, we’re using war- on ice’s WAR to project future value, and luckily, this time, we have some career numbers we can use. Unfortunately, WAR wasn’t publicized last season (because the guys who made it got hired by NHL teams), so as a workaround to that, I generated comparables using Corsica’s similarity calculator. It’s not ideal – especially since it only looks at 5-on-5 data – but it’ll be good enough for this exercise. To estimate aging effects I used the age curve’s generated by Moneypuck from his How To Build A Contender Series at Canucks Army.

Nazem Kadri

Projection:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 1.08.17 AM

This might be news to some, but Nazem Kadri is very good. He draws penalties like no one else (think about how useful that is with a PP1 featuring the Big Three, Kadri, and Rielly), pushes play in the right direction and produces well. The two seasons above four wins weren’t full seasons and were aberrations of his real talent – specifically his monstrous 2012-13 campaign – but since then he’s settled into the role of an accomplished player at around two WAR: good for either 2C or 4F. 

Is he a legit first line center on a contender? No. But he doesn’t need to be anymore. As a second-line centre, he’s just fine, and he works well as a fourth forward too. A centre depth of Matthews-Nylander-Kadri would be a nightmare for other teams. For the next five years, he likely hovers just under the two win mark and considering the other talented forward core pieces, that works just fine.

Is He Good Enough For Contention: Sure.

Jake Gardiner

Projection:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 1.08.10 AM

Gardiner was a bit controversial in the comments from the previous posts. The Leafs are frankly low on high-end defensive talent making Gardiner the natural choice at the moment.

Gardiner is probably not, and probably won’t ever be a number one d-man. Not for a team with Cup aspirations at least. But he’s been a solid number two, and that’s on a very weak Leafs team. With a better supporting cast, his numbers would likely be a bit better. WAR is notoriously tricky for d-men making it difficult to predict how they’ll perform in the future. Still, at 25, it’s likely his play starts slipping by the time the Leafs are ready to contend. He’s a solid 2D now, but will he be one in 3-5 years? It’s hard to be certain about that.

The average age curve suggests he won’t be, but Gardiner has been solid enough that it’s possible his play doesn’t decline so soon and so quickly. In any sense, he’s a good piece to have. Whether he’s enough for a championship squad is much more debatable.

Is He Good Enough For Contention: Maybe, depending on how he ages. But the Leafs need someone better to put above him on the depth chart.

Morgan Rielly

Projection:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 1.08.04 AM

Now here’s the big question mark.

Morgan Rielly has three seasons under his belt, and he’s improved steadily in each one. It takes a while for a defenceman to become acclimated with the NHL, especially one whose primary focus is on the offensive side of things. Rielly’s biggest issue so far has been in his own zone where he routinely bleeds shots compared to his teammates (who are notably not great either).

As it stands now, Rielly’s play suggests he’s a replacement level d-man. Projecting using his career numbers might be unfair since he’s still young, but it’s all we have, and it’s all we can reasonably expect going by the numbers.

Still, Rielly is just 22 and entering his fourth season. There’s a lot of potential he hasn’t realized yet, and I do think there’s another level to his game that he hasn’t reached. He will almost certainly be a much better player over the next five years than what he’s shown so far.

Just how good is tough to tell. For the Leafs to find consistent success, they need to hope Rielly can turn into a player like Letang or Burns. A guy who may have some defensive gaffes from time-to-time, but whose overall play is overwhelmingly positive thanks to elite offensive ability. 

From what he’s shown so far, I’m not so sure Rielly can be that. Next year will be a huge season for him to show otherwise (and believe me I hope he does). If he doesn’t take a big step towards becoming a number one guy, the Leafs may need to find someone else who can.

Is He Good Enough For Contention: Not right now, no. But he’s still young enough that things can very well change, I’m just a bit skeptical of that happening to the extent it needs to.

CONCLUSION

The Big Three should be great, but the other three, the ones who are already Leafs, have some question marks attached to them, especially on D. The Leafs have a boatload of legit and potentially elite forward talent, but the same can’t be said about their blueline.

Right now the top two options on the backend probably aren’t good enough. Yes, the two can become better, especially with better players surrounding them, but if they can’t be, the Leafs will have a big hole to fill, and it’ll be the biggest impediment to their Cup aspirations.

You might see the Penguins winning the Cup with elite forward talent and a sketchy d-core and think the Leafs can do it too (mainly thanks to Babcock’s system), but they still had an elite guy in Letang. That’s the type of player the Leafs need to develop or acquire.

There’s time for it to happen, and this year will be telling for whether Rielly is that guy, but it won’t be long until the Leafs championship window opens. Determining when exactly that’ll be will be the topic of part four.

  • Ive loved this series so much.

    but I don’t think you need to base Reilly’s ability to be a number 1 d-man solely on his offensive output. Babcock spent all of last year getting Reilly to focus on the defensive aspect of his game. Once he gets that down and he can truly focus on offence I believe it’ll come in spades. Unfortunately his numbers don’t look great because he’s played against all the top lines in the league with Matt Hunwick for a defence partner. I have full confidence Reilly can become the number one defenceman the leafs need . . .

    but less like Burns or Letang and more like Peitrangelo, or Ekman-Larsson.

  • I think with Rielly you can look at his performance at the World Champs to get an idea of what he can do with a more capable partner and more defensive minded forwards. Sure, the team was stacked but Rielly was matched against every top line at the tourney and he played like a #1 D should.

    • He was widely considered the Leafs best player last year. That’s a lot to shoulder for a kid. He tried to do everything himself a lot of the time. Once he can focus on just being the team’s best D, he will take a big step forward.

    • Gary Empey

      he needs a steady, veteran, modern day defensive defenceman like tanev who can also move the puck but stays back, support their d-partner and let the offensive defenceman do what they do best. they were excellent at the world juniors and rielly really stepped up and focused on his strengths: offence, moving the puck. that’s when he takes games over. he was good with marincin too. if we could pry tanev out of vancouver, i’d be very happy.

  • GY99

    It would be interesting to read an analytic comparison between the Oilers and the Black Hawks. Both teams built through the draft with the young core of players developing pretty well at the same time with two very different results.
    With the Pittsburgh comparison and any of the other modern cup winners they had veterans mentoring their youth and sculpting them to be winners (i.e Lemieux or in Chicago’s case already a proven winner in Toews).
    How on earth could Kadri be that key piece moving forward?? His career in the NHL so far has been a very rocky road to say the least and he is certainly not turning out to be a successful 5th overall pick. Toronto has no mentors, so for these future key pieces to be to become the core of a winning team, T.O. needs to go outside and bring them in. They are certainly not on the roster now.

  • silentbob

    If Matthews, Marner and Nylander all turn out to be franchise talents, they won’t need to add a 4th on the blue line (I do think Rielly has a good chance of being that level of D-man, while the ship has sailed on Gardiner), though it woiuldnt hurt. The Penguins won two cups with Letang, who is certainly a good D-man, but he is a step down from that Nonis winning, build your team around them guys.

    Now only a few teams have won the cup the last few years, and except for the Penguins they all had some of the best D-men in the league. But we go back past that period the Canes won in 06 with some guy named who as their #1 D-man. The year before that the Lightning won with Kubina. These teams all won with elite talent in other places and that made up for the lack of it on the blue-line.

  • CMpuck

    Looking at teams like Calgary that never had a top 2 pick for quite sometime, what they’ve built is abundance, core pieces without the franchise horses. We’re exceptionally fortunate to have won the lottery however we still have some abundance to build, we mirror Buffalo in that we have 2-5 years of drafting in the top 14.

    • Gary Empey

      Re- “2-5 years of drafting in the top 14.”

      In this you are dead wrong. The Leafs are a lock to make the playoffs.

      I expect Toronto to finish 2nd or 3rd in the Atlantic division.

      You must be overlooking the fact the MVP in the CHL will likely make the team.

      You must be overlooking the fact 24 year old, two time KHL allstar just signed.

      You must be overlooking the fact Nylander is now NHL ready.

      You must be overlooking the depth of our prospect pool. Other Marlies look ready to make the NHL.

      You must be overlooking the fact Leafs #1 pick will likely be Auston Matthews.

      You must have forgotten JVR should be back firing on all cylinders.

      You must have forgotten we lost over twenty games last year by one goal.

      The only way we mirror Buffalo is by looking in our rear-view mirror.

      No team in the NHL has made the improvement the Leaf management has accomplished this year, and they aren’t done yet.

      I think Tampa is in slow decline. Big management problems there.

      Detroit is old and finished without Babcock.

      Ottawa out and out sucks.

      Montreal’s slide is no fluke. Montreal management seems to have taken too many pucks in the head.

      Buffalo will continue to struggle and make some dumb trades.

      I good steady goaltender is now our top priority. Look to the trade deadline or sooner for Lamoriello to fill that hole.

      We may not be ready to make a run for the Cup but we are ready to get some much needed playoff experience.

      I will grant you there is the remote possibility the Leafs could TANK for one more year. They have the personnel already signed to end up at the bottom again. That would involve sending Marner back to London. Keeping Nylander on the Marlies. Sending Matthews to the Marlies. I know you keep track of the up and coming juniors. How deep is the next draft?

  • Capt.Jay

    If we do find an elite d-man then our defence will be stacked with Reilly and Gardiner as supporters. That’s some pretty good depth because I think Dermott can be a 4th d-man and 5-6 can be signed. Although we have lots of those guys in our system already.

    I think a potential excellent forward can be Connor Brown.

    Hyman, Soshnikov, Gauthier, Lypsic, Leivo, Kappenen all have potential to be very serviceable 3rd and 4th liners. Kappenen perhaps a 2nd liner.

    I wonder if our 30th or 31st plus JVR is enough to pry Seth Jones away from Columbus?

    • Gary Empey

      Good point. If Matthews is drafted and Nylander makes the team, that leaves Nazem as the 3rd line center. In today’s game this is a role he may excel at. Teams are attempting to run with three offensive lines these days. If we sign Stamkos then that would leave 4th center left for him. That spot is normally taken by penalty kill specialists.

      Most of us do like Naz though. He has worked hard to make the NHL. Fact is he just may get pushed out by top draft picks or new signings. I expect him to fight hard to keep in the lineup.

          • Gary Empey

            I think it would be a lot easier to shift a wheeler and dealer like Kadri to the wing and limit his defensive responsibilities. His faceoffs have got better but they’ve never been his strong suit. The major selling point to bringing in Stamkos is to get him back at his natural position and off the wing that Cooper has forced him to. We can argue all day whether or not he belongs on the wing but I doubt he signs unless we commit to at least putting him at C this year. Again, this is all assuming that Stamkos signs at all but I think Kadri on the wing forces Komarov properly down the lineup to play on the wing with a Nylander or Matthews on the third line.

    • magesticRAGE

      He was part of the rebuild the moment that a 6 year extension was given. He’s not going anywhere. Those trade rumors are from fans and writers trying to stir things up, nothing substantial.

      • Gary Empey

        That contract could be a double-edged sword. There is not a no movement clause. With the term and cost it also gives him some nice trade value. Lets not forget the upcoming expansion draft. Teams will be receiving around 15 million each for one player. Teams will have to expose a couple of decent players. Unlike in the past where teams were able to dangle some aging veterans. This time the NHL wants Vegas to be competitive right from the start. They finally realized breaking in a new market with a team that will struggle for 10 or more years kills any chance to build up a fan base.

        I am not saying Kadri is going to go, but it is a given we will have to lose one good player.

        • magesticRAGE

          Kadri’s contract is a deal. It’s fair now, a steal later. The fact that it’s a 6 year is a statement, a belief in his ability. In a couple years, he will be the best 3rd line center in the league, while still being under 28. He will be protected because of these things.
          I have looked over the lineup repeatedly, and yes, as of now, a good player will need to be exposed. If Bozak is traded this off-season or during the year, pretty much all the quality players are safe or can be protected. It’s a real fortunate position, but they still need to get something for Bozak. They might get more for him this summer, especially before he gets hurt.

          • Gary Empey

            I see 5 forwards with no movement clause that automaticly have to be protected. Bozak and Lupul are two of them. With expansion draft coming Bozak becomes even harder to move with his limited no movement clause. Whomever takes him in a trade will have to protect him. This whole expansion draft looks to me is going to be tricky. I am not fully up to speed on it yet. I do see a lot of talk of it being an opportunity to pick up a good goalie, but I wouldn’t be too sure on that yet. A team like Tampa just may expose Bishop to the draft.

  • magesticRAGE

    Hey Dom, good series.
    I do think Rielly will be the elite D-man. The way he is trending says so to me. He’s not even an offensive defenseman anymore, but a two-way beast. If Zaitsev is as good as I think he is, that is an elite pair.
    After seeing a full season and a brief NHL stint, Rinat Valiev could be a top 4 beast. If he has a good off-season in getting stronger, he will have all the tools. I really don’t think he gets enough attention. Next year, he may become of of the best all-round defenseman in the AHL.

  • Eddie O rules!

    Interesting read for a Jets fan. I’d say we have ehlers, Scheifele, Laine, Connor as our young forward core. Trouba fits in age wise on D, and Hellbuyck in net is the right age too. Then we have the old core guys that will likely finish their contracts but aren’t part of the new core: Little, Wheeler, Buf, Enström. Maybe buff could be considered the allstar D core peice if the window is within the next 3 years. Myers is just kind of there as a support piece, I don’t think he’ll ever be considered core.

    Trouba is a bit hard to predict, some people compare him to Rielly, which seems pretty fair. When I tried to compare the two the first thing that I noticed was that they are both carrying a deadweight partner. Hunwick is not good. He’s probably slightly better than Stuart though and at a fraction of the cost, so good on the Leafs there. But add a poor group of forwards up front to playing with a lousy partner, I think it’s hard to only look at Rielly’s stats to evaluate him. He HAS to be better then what they show. I think both Reilly and Trouba are near locks to be top 4s with a lot of potential to be number 1s. If either is ever allstar level, well that’s pretty tough to say.