I’m not quite sure what the Leafs are doing, and I’m curious to find out

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Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SPORTS

Since the exodus of Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis a little over a year ago, Brendan Shanahan’s “Shanaplan” has had sky-high approval ratings. Many shrewd and cautious moves that immediately followed gave a lot of reason to continue that, but after a stretch of moves that are hard to strongly identify as good or bad, you can’t help but wonder if it’s time to start shedding away the justifications and benefits of the doubts, and start approaching their process with more intrigue.

That might sound like an over-dramatic reaction to the current situation, especially when you consider some of the insanity that has been going on across the league. Certainly, I’m not about to call what’s happening the new “dark ages”. But I want you to consider the following.

  • Toronto received a lot of praise from the fanbase for their “tank” efforts, but this is also a team that went to great lengths to ensure that their team was filled with NHL-caliber players at the start of the year, even if they were short-term experiments. The team went on extending winning streaks and didn’t start looking like they had a shot at 30th until late January. If Nazem Kadri shoots at his career average and both Jonathan Bernier and Garret Sparks put up league average save percentages, this “tank” team sees their goal differential shoot up by 25-30 goals. The Leafs were a middling possession team who had a ton of bad puck luck, sold a bit like any bottom feeder would at the deadline, and still stayed good enough that they only finished last by one point. They then won a lottery, which got them a franchise centre.
  • For all the credit Lou Lamoriello gets for his ability to bend the rules, we haven’t seen a ton of evidence of that actually working yet. “Robidas Island” seems like a bit of an ironic name these days, as the 39-year-old has yet to actually spend any time on cap-saving LTIR. Lamoriello was brazen about buying out Jared Cowen, only to have his efforts formally disputed this week. Nathan Horton was a Nonis move, fixing another Nonis move. Maybe we’re giving Lou too much credit in this regard.
  • There are a lot of questions out there about this year’s draft still. After picking a bunch of hyper-skilled, undervalued players that excited both the spreadsheets and the scouts, the Leafs left people very confused by drafting a bunch of overagers, tall guys, and defensive defencemen. That might be fine; maybe they know something we don’t, but there’s no clear evidence of a market inefficiency. Mark Hunter mostly talked about his players being “big, strong guys”, something we all felt skepticism towards. Those who didn’t want to say the Leafs had a bad draft said there must be some form of next-level analytics because the Leafs used one of their eleven picks on a player on Zac Urback’s list. Maybe there’s something there, or maybe philosophies are being shifted again. 
  • The Leafs lost out on Steven Stamkos. That might not be a bad thing; getting him would’ve accelerated the team’s curve but likely wasn’t a necessity. But let’s not sugar coat the situation. A superstar from Unionville signed a second contract that brought him to UFA at 26, held out all season, and while he talked to other teams, he really only went through all the stops with the Maple Leafs. Something changed after his last meeting, and he spun around and accepted a discounted deal to stay in Tampa not significantly different from one he was given in January. Even Steve Yzerman was shocked. The same team that pitched Mike Babcock on the grand plan with the help of non-cap money tried the same thing with a player who seemed more than open to coming here and struck out. He might not be a necessity, but dropping the ball isn’t a “masterful bullet dodged” or a “fake kicking of tires”. The team tried, aggressively, and lost. Simple as.
  • Frederik Andersen is a good goalie, and one I feel reasonably confident in having on the roster for five years, but for a front office that is sold as hellbent on patience, it was really weird to see them be the ones who kicked off the goaltending market, and in doing so, paying the most in assets and in salary for their new netminder. Even if I had my own reservations about keeping him as the all-out starter, renting out James Reimer for scraps and seeing him go for $1.6 million less makes you wonder a little.
  • Speaking of trading for scraps, the deadline was a weird one, wasn’t it? The Polak/Spaling trade was a gimme and they deserve credit for it. Moving Matthias made sense, but they’ve already lost Colin Smith, the best asset in that trade. Connor Carrick was a nice get but Bob McKenzie has already theorized that the Leafs might just have to carry Brooks Laich as $4.5 million in dead weight next year. PA Parenteau wasn’t moved, in what was half a perceived need to prove negotiation strength and half a consideration of retaining him. He’s walked for nothing. Whether that game of chicken has helped the Leafs in further trade negotiations is unknown. It may have, it may not have. The only one who really knows is Lou. 
  • Now we head to free agency. Last year, the Leafs filled out the roster with Parenteau, Hunwick, Arcobello, Winnik, Froese, and Matthias in the first week. All seen as cast-offs, all with underlying reasons to give them a chance, none over $2.4 million, none for more than two years. It was conservative, it was reasonable. Matt Martin is probably a decent hockey player (we’ll talk about him in even more detail later today), but for a team that talks about capitalizing on market inefficiencies, giving a bottom six player $2.5 million a year for four years doesn’t seem like one of those.
  • As for Kris Russell, the fact that the team even seems interested in signing him and might need to be saved from themselves a la Dave Bolland is concerning. The numbers rate his performance over the past three years as worse than some of Toronto’s greatest defensive laughing stocks of this era, and he’s only had success when being sheltered, at which point you shouldn’t be paying a third pairing defenceman $5 million.

There are other micro-analyzations that can be made, but the core point is that, while a lot of these things seem small, they add up to a very curious picture. I can’t claim that there’s an internal rift in the Leafs’ front office, because I have no idea if that’s true. But it seems like the philosophy and the team’s success in moving the project along has been bumpier since Lamoriello and Babcock, two former bosses of Shanahan’s, have come into the fold. We know that Babcock values toughness. We know that Lamoriello isn’t exactly getting any younger and that the concept of a 73-year-old leading the way on a slow, nuanced rebuild seems a little oxymoronic. Lamoriello mentioned in his post-Martin press conference yesterday that they wouldn’t make a decision like this unless everyone felt good about it, but also made a point to say that feeling good is different than agreeing. That’s a bit concerning. Not to say that they’ve hijacked the ship and gone for a joyride, but the situation is a curious one.

That’s what this comes down to, curiosity. Toronto’s overall scope still isn’t in laughing stock territory (though Russell would be a hard one to shake off if it happens). But maybe it’s time to start to wonder about the big picture again. Rather than collectively trying to justify every curious move that the team makes, maybe it’s time to start searching for counterpoints and questioning again. Because if you take the big picture and you read it all at once, this is starting to look like a team that’s recognizing a window, starting to adjust themselves to begin to win again, and are doing so in a way that defies what we believed was an ideal process. Maybe they’re smart to do so (I’m in no way saying that’s impossible), but maybe they’re proving that no braintrust is safe from the usual tropes and traps. Whatever the case, there’s enough unusual stuff going on to make me feel that it’s time to lower the trust levels from “complete and total” to “curious”. It’s time start asking questions and searching for answers again.

  • Gary Empey

    The “Shanaplan” plan was all about firing all the existing staff and hiring the best replacements available. Shedding as many of the undesirable long term contracts as possible. Then acquiring as many draft picks draft picks as possible. Allowing those draft picks the time to develop. Building a strong AHL franchise. In the meantime slowly rebuild the the team on ice, trying to be competitive in every game as you progress.

    Everybody agreed it was the best way to go.

    Everybody agreed it would take at least 4/5 years to accomplish all this.

    What’s changed?

    It has only been one year since our first big draft. Almost everyone of those drafted exceeded expectations. They now need to fine tune there skill at the professional level. AHL first then NHL

    This year’s draft was the same as last years. Number one pick was the best player available. Last year most wondered why the Leafs didn’t take higher rated players with the rest of our picks. Now we know.

    How has the “Shanaplan” preformed in identifying and acquiring young NHL players that compliment the rebuild.

    The team needed two top four defencemen. We got one KHL allstar. The other will likely come from the prospects.

    The team needed better goaltending. Anderson was the best young one on the market.

    The team needed a number one center. Matthews filled that hole. Still give him some time to hit his stride.

    Team needed scoring. That looks like it will come from JVR, Matthews, Nylander, and Marner and throughout the rest of the lineup to a lesser degree.

    Free agents. There were no top four defencemen available. All we have done so far is replace Grabner for a more versatile penalty killer. Brought back Polak for one year for his defensive skills. He will end up bottom 6 or even 7th. If anyone can play better they will get his job.

    The are a few top four restricted free agents that may be very expensive options or we wait for one of our prospects.

    This rebuild started after Carlyle’s/Nonis firing about a year and a half ago.

    What’s Changed? The Leafs are much faster, more skilled, with a stronger prospect pool and AHL team. Better coached, Better scouting team. Better trainers. Better analytic’s. Better GM who knows how to get a fair contract signed quickly.

    Wasn’t this the “Shanaplan” all along?

    The Leafs are on the cusp of kicking some serious ass. We are not there yet, but not all that far off.

  • Gary Empey

    As for this article by Jeff Veillette he says he is curious. He read the recent comments and sees people asking if we have changed the plan. CM Puck has been asking “When can we talk about the plan?”. Jeff listed the areas of concern. He wrote this article so we could voice are opinions.

  • FlareKnight

    I want to be clear, I feel as though the Leafs are in the best position they’ve been in since 1998-2004 and that they are headed in the right direction. However, I think that the narrative for year one of the rebuild is a bit of a sham.

    The Leafs get credited with tanking, but other than trading away Kessel they didn’t do anything last off-season to make the team worse. They went on to sign a bunch of good, underrated players that improved the post-Kessel roster. My question would be, why? What was the point of signing a bunch of solid players to play for the team last year? You could say it was to acquire draft picks at the deadline, but this is a league where Roman Polak fetches a second round pick. Roman Polak isn’t particularly good offensively or defensively, but still has value in the eyes of general managers because he is big and physical. My point being, why didn’t the Leafs sign players like Polak, players that aren’t very good but have traits that are seen as valuable? That way they would be doing a better job of tanking and still be able to acquire draft picks. I just find it odd that Shanahan and Babcock went on and on about “there will be pain”, then had Dubas/Lamoriello go out and sign a bunch of decent players.

    The Leafs then sold at the trade deadline and let the kids take over. That was all well and good but one of those kids was William Nylander. Out of skaters that played at least 250 minutes at 5v5 last season, Nylander ranked 27th out of 651 in primary points per 60 at 5v5. Now, I can understand management wanting to see what Nylander was capable of and letting him play some games, but why did they burn a year on his entry-level contract? Why did this team that was “intentionally tanking” decide to add a first line center to the team after the trade deadline? Why take the risk of him costing you last place? It just doesn’t make sense.

    The fact is that the Leafs did not tank, they genuinely tried to be somewhat competitive. Once again, I have to ask why? Leafs management had the approval of ownership and the fans to go through a true rebuild. Clearly the Leafs were in need of elite talent if they wanted this rebuild to succeed. The most reliable way to acquire elite talent is with high draft picks. Therefore, Leafs management should have done everything they could have to ensure a last place finish (besides selling off van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Gardiner, Rielly and one of the goalies). The fact that they didn’t leads me to wonder what the real goal of year one was in the Shanaplan.

    This team definitely lucked out by coming in last place. Besides the points that Jeff mentioned, the Leafs were lucky that van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Komarov missed 42, 25 and 15 games this year. They were lucky that Babcock thought it was a good idea to play Hunwick 22:33 a game. They were lucky that 16 out of 24 of the skaters that played at least 20 games for the Leafs had shooting percentages below their career average, some by a wide margin. Finally, they were lucky that they won the draft lottery and drafted Matthews.

    My point is that if the Leafs didn’t end up drafting one of Matthews, Laine or Puljujärvi this year we would be a lot less enthused about this team going forward and I don’t think they put themselves in the best position to draft one of them. I think that the Leafs should have followed in the 2014-2015 Sabres footsteps and taken the future of the franchise more seriously.

    Sorry about the length of the “comment”.

    • Gary Empey

      Don’t worry about the length of the comment. It is nice to see some comments with a lot of thought behind them. This gives us new things to consider and the opportunity to rebut certain parts.

      I gave my general thoughts on the “shanaplan” above. I will rebut only your point on the tank.

      As tanking became more prevalent the NHL and GM’s realized if it continued, it wouldn’t be long before it brought the whole league into disrepute, damaging the value of each franchise.

      In my opinion they had two choices. They could go after the teams they thought were intentionally playing to lose, with fines and loss of draft picks. That would of turned into a public relations nightmare.

      They choose to address the value of the tank. Instead of a great chance of getting the #1 pick overall with a guarantee of a #2 as consolation prize. They changed it up, to a 50/50 chance of 1st overall or 4th overall to see if that worked.

      I believe the NHL and GM’s were prepared to continue in that direction until the tank ground to a halt.

      So how did it work this year? Some of the teams kept on playing their best others were questionable.

      I don’t believe most fans really grasped the lottery change until just before the lottery was drawn. There normally is a big difference between 1st overall and 4th. This year turned out to be a bit of an exception.

      Let’s face it. The high draft picks should be going to the worst teams who need to legitimately rebuild. Not teams that are manipulating their roster looking for an edge.

  • Kyle Becker

    I shouldn’t have ended my comment saying the Leafs should have taken the future of the franchise more seriously. I’m sure they are very serious about their jobs. I should have said that they should have made a very high draft pick a higher priority for them.

  • TGT23

    Okay… overall a little hyperbolic but I don’t fully disagree with everything. I would like to know how Hunter and Dubas felt about the Martin/Polak signings, though.

    Something tells me Luo and Babs outrank both, and I wonder how for or against these signings those guys were.

    I’m starting to worry that the old-school minds are ignoring the analytic guys. And if that’s the case we’re wasting their talents.

    As for me?

    I can rationalize the draft a bit. Still not 100% happy but they’ve earned the benefit of doubt on this one thing.

    Martin’s contract won’t stop the team from extending their kids in a couple years. He’s a bottom six forward and I’d be shocked if he spent the entire length of the contract in T.O. It isn’t a great signing, 4 years is longer than I’d like, but people make it out to be worse than it is (comparing it to Clarkson? Gtho).

    I stand behind Andersen. He’s a better goalie than Bernier and Reimer, he’s played a starting goalies share before. 5M is the going rate for a goalie. Deal with it. 5M is 18th or so in the NHL among goalies. We’re paying him to be the 18th best goalie and I bet we get better than that.

    Polak is… I don’t know. If it stops the Russell signing I’m okay with it. Trade him at the deadline. Use him on the PK and rarely anytime else. It’s not a terrible signing at 1-yr, but it does put up some red flags.

    Overall I’m concerned for the first time in the Shanaplan. I don’t know where they are headed. I’m not sure who is running the ship and I’m worried the smart guys in rhe room are being shouted down by “experience”.

    And it could turn out I’m entirely wrong.

    I’m giving this team the benefit of the doubt that they’ve earned (management team, I mean) but I’m concerned.

  • Mitch92

    your team told you that there was going to be pain before gain the turn around after getting a great player at 1st overall is not going to be instant as he needs a team of good players behind him leafs should be better but time will tell needed to get a couple of good veterans to lead the team but so far still searching for those players maybe the battle between those who know hockey and the geeks sitting at a computer is playing out in the end they will find a balance of the two and start moving forward.

    Go Canucks Go, hope Leaf fans enjoy their October, but remember this year there are less games in October. The tank was not planned it just happened injuries are part of the game which led to picking first.