After establishing who makes up the Leafs core and projecting how good those players will be over the next five seasons, it’s finally time to answer the big question on everyone’s mind: just how long until the Leafs are competitive again?
And it’s an important question to ask based on some of the events (and rumoured events) that have transpired over the last few days.
Two days ago, the Leafs traded pick no. 30 in this year’s draft and a second rounder in 2017 for goaltender Frederik Andersen, and then signed him for five seasons. As you’ll recall from previous parts to this series, goaltending was an enigma for this team going forward, but the Leafs have apparently found their guy (RIP ‘Mystery Goalie’).
Plugging that hole seems to signal a change in the Leafs plans; that the scorched earth part of the rebuild is now over, and it’s time to start acquiring pieces that will help the team consistently earn two points night in and night out. If that weren’t the plan the team would’ve probably continued playing Jonathan Bernier, right?
They’ll surely still be patient – Leafs Nation has already waited 50 years, so what’s a couple more really – but it’s clear that the focus has switched from losing on purpose to maybe trying to win sometimes. The likely reason is that the team is probably going to try and capitalize on the ELC window of their three stud forward prospects.
For the next three seasons, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be making pennies compared to what they’re worth while William Nylander will be doing it for two. If the team can get elite performance from the three of them before their second contracts take effect, it’ll be a huge competitive advantage towards building the rest of the team. Chicago’s first Cup with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane is a great example of this.
Will the team be ready in time?
Based on past Cup contenders, the value of their core forward group (1C, 1W, 2C, 4F) is worth around 10.7 wins. Let’s start putting all the pieces together to see when the Leafs group, The Big Three plus Nazem Kadri, will hit that.
Sidebar: Let’s keep in mind that the margin of error in projecting one year into the future is enormous, let alone five and that this is merely a general guideline of what we can probably expect for the Leafs future and not a hard and fast rule of what will happen.
The team shouldn’t be that far off over the next two seasons, but it’s the 2018-19 season where the foursome should be collectively championship caliber. That’ll also be the final season of the team’s ELC window.
Now, what if there was a way that the Leafs forward core could be competitive sooner to take further advantage of that ELC window? Perhaps by adding a pending UFA this summer?
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there have been some rumours that the Leafs are interested in just that kind of guy: Steven Stamkos. Seriously, though. Considering the team added Andersen, adding Stamkos seems well in line with their current direction. Him being extremely good probably helps make the decision easier too. (The potential dollar figure doesn’t though).
For his career, Stamkos has posted a WAR ranging from 3.5 to 7.0 wins in every season except his rookie season. That’s elite. Those were in his prime though and he’s likely to decline going forward, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest he’ll still be worth around three-to-four wins over the next five seasons based on his prior work and how he’s likely to age (health issues not-withstanding).
Let’s pretend for a second that the Leafs sign him and that their core forward group is now Stamkos-Matthews-Marner-Nylander. How soon will that foursome be ready to contend? How does next year sound?
That’s probably a tad optimistic, but Stamkos is one of the league’s best players, and it’s not unlikely that The Big Three come out of the gate running. Even if it’s Year 2 instead of next year, the move still probably puts the Leafs in the playoffs as early as next season.
Adding Stamkos moves the Leafs window opening up by one or two seasons, based on how good their forward core is projected to be. But as you’ll recall, the forwards weren’t the issue with the Leafs core. That part should be the backbone of this team. It’s the backend that was a bit iffy.
As uncovered in part three of this series, Morgan Rielly, the team’s de facto number one d-man, has looked shaky to start his career with replacement level numbers. That can still change, but he still has a lot to prove. Jake Gardiner has been solid, but will need to stay at his current playing level as he ages to continue being a strong second-hand man.
What we didn’t look at last time was goaltending, since it was a mystery at the time. Now with Andersen as the confirmed number one for the next five seasons, the picture becomes clearer. I’m still weary of projecting any goalie, but for the sake of this exercise, we need to put a number down for Andersen. According to hockey-reference, Andersen has saved 12 goals above average (which also happens to be replacement level anyways) in his 125 starts. Over 60 starts, a full goalie season, that’s about six goals, or one win; so that’s what we’ll use for all five seasons. It’s lazy, but projecting goalies isn’t worth the trouble.
Now let’s add all seven pieces together and see how they stack up. I omitted Rielly from this because his projection was negative, and if that is the case over the next five years, he’s not the number one guy anyways. For now, it’s a blank space, and any difference between the total core value and the average Cup contender’s core value (about 15 WAR) is roughly how good Rielly or whoever else becomes the number one d-man has to be.
Year 1: 10.4 WAR
Year 2: 10.7 WAR
Year 3: 12.4 WAR
Year 4: 12.4 WAR
Year 5: 12.8 WAR
As early as next year, the Leafs core on its own should be as good as an average team. Considering an average team makes the playoffs, that means as long as the other 13 players don’t actively hurt the team, Toronto could contend for a playoff spot. Depth matters and how the team assembles the complimentary pieces will be critical to the team’s success, but that’s less of a worry at this point.
At Year 3, the final year of Matthews’ and Marner’s ELCs, the Leafs core (without a 1D) should be worth roughly 12.4 WAR. That means whatever d-man they find has to be worth almost 2.5 wins to make them contenders. Ditto for Year 4, while Year 5 only needs a two win guy. You don’t need to have a 15 WAR core to compete, but it is the baseline for contention and the closer you are to it, the more likely a team is to succeed.
Of course, the forwards might be good enough to offset that, and the same goes for Gardiner and Andersen, but the point remains that a number one d-man is the team’s biggest priority.
If the Leafs add Stamkos, though, the equation changes. (Keep in mind the team will still have Kadri who’s damn good for someone who would then be a depth guy).
Year 1: 12.1 WAR
Year 2: 12.4 WAR
Year 3: 14.2 WAR
Year 4: 14.1 WAR
Year 5: 14.4 WAR
Where the Leafs project to be in Years 3-4 without Stamkos is where they could be by Year 2 or even Year 1 with Stamkos. By Year 3 the team can be a legitimate powerhouse, especially if they do find that number one d-man. He still needs to be an elite guy, but the need isn’t as strong as he only really needs to be worth at least one win.
Signing Stamkos is obviously no guarantee, but the idea that the team would be misguided to do so based on where they are in the rebuild is a bit off base. With Stamkos, the team becomes competitive quicker; their window should open sooner, and it’s not at the expense of building correctly. In fact, it aligns perfectly with Toronto’s ELC window. The team needs to exploit the cost effectiveness of The Big Three while they can, and Stamkos helps that cause. It’s not often a player of Stamkos’ caliber comes along in free agency, and that’s something a smart team needs to try and capitalize on, depending on the price of course.
Without Stamkos, the team will need to be a little more patient, but the target date remains: Year 3. It’s the final year of the ELC window, and it gives them two seasons to add the necessary pieces and depth. They’ll need to add a big piece on D to get there – or hope Rielly can become that guy – but 2018-2019 should be the year the Leafs aim for contending. After that, the second contracts will make things a bit trickier.
Everything depends on what happens over the next couple weeks, this summer, and next summer. But if everything goes according to plan, the wait for a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto might finally be over sooner than you might think.