We probably shouldn’t even be talking about tanking

The Leafs have been bad for this long, so what’s another year, right? There’s a lot of chatter out there about the value of bottoming out for just one more season, to add another blue-chip prospect to the organization before heading into the gunfight that is the NHL.

It’s a noble thought from people who have taken the whole ‘patience’ thing to heart, but at this point, I’m not sure how necessary being at the top of the order is to the organization.

What do the Leafs have to gain?

Once again, it looks like there are a pair of very, very big noise makers at the top of the 2017 Draft Class. If you’re looking for another impact forward, Nolan Patrick is your guy at #1; the 6’3 native of Winnipeg destroyed the score sheets this year with 132 points in 93 regular season and playoff games in the WHL and is expected to do even more of the same next season.

Tank-favouring Leafs fans seem oddly content with losing the big lottery and settling for #2, though, and it’s easy to see why. In that spot, you currently find 1999-born Swedish defenceman Timothy Liljegren. He’s not overly big (6’0 and 190lbs), but he’s a right-handed shot, skates like the wind, and is already playing some encouraging hockey at the Swedish Junior and Pro levels. Both of these players would be huge additions to arguably the best prospect pool in hockey, but Liljegren, in particular, would fit a position of supposed need.

What do the Leafs have to lose?

To have the best chance of getting one of these two players, the Leafs need to tumble in the standings again this year. Last year, they finished in the 30th seed, had the 20% odds land in their favour, and picked up Auston Matthews. But people forget that the team didn’t get there easily.

For the Leafs to get to the 30th seed, James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, and Tyler Bozak all had to miss time to injuries in what appeared to be coming-out-party seasons for all three. Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland had to lead the way in having the absolute worst shooting years of their careers. They had to move on from Dion Phaneuf midway through the year, and they had to trade James Reimer and replace him with a rookie goaltender coming back from injury.

Even then, the replacement players still played well enough to make things too close for comfort. The team was still top-half in league possession, had the second best record of a last-place team in the Cap Era, and didn’t have the last spot secured until the closing moments of the season.

This year, the Leafs are going to have three or four potential Calder Trophy finalists (Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Nikita Zaitsev) in the lineup, supposedly more stability in net via Frederik Andersen and a list of secondary players that are fighting hard for the remaining spots on the roster. Many of those support players were young and/or unfamiliar with the system last year, so it stands to reason that they should improve now.

On paper, they’re likely a fair bit better than last year’s team. If last year’s team was one that needed a worst-case scenario on the ice to get the asset they wanted off of it, how far off of expectation do they need to be to repeat it this year? Sure, you get another Blue Chip player, but is the gap between that player and who they’ll pick in a regular first round spot worth more than having a dozen or so players have setbacks in their career progression to make it happen? I’m not sure that’s the case.

There’s also the whole “losing is bad for morale” argument, but I’m sure we’re all aware of that.

Looking Back

People who are in favour of another “tank” season will often point to the recent big-three powerhouses on the bottom ring of the Stanley Cup (Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles) as an example of why it needs to happen. After all, these teams built their cores through the draft, right?

Well, yes, but not a ton of it came through the drafting at the very top. Let’s look at the picks in the Top 10 that the three teams made in the decade prior to their first cup, and the self-selected Top 10 picks in the Leafs organization right now.

Chicago Los Angeles Pittsburgh Toronto
07-1 Patrick Kane 09-5 Brayden Schenn 06-2 Jordan Staal 16-1 Auston Matthews
06-3 Jonathan Toews 08-2 Drew Doughty 05-1 Sidney Crosby 15-4 Mitch Marner
05-7 Jack Skille 07-4 Thomas Hickey 04-2 Evgeni Malkin 14-8 William Nylander
04-3 Cam Barker   03-1 Marc-Andre Fleury 12-5 Morgan Rielly
01-9 Tuomo Ruutu   02-5 Ryan Whitney 09-7 Nazem Kadri
00-10 Mikhail Yakubov    

It’s pretty interesting how few of these players were pivotal in the team’s successes when the moments came. Kane and Toews were huge difference makers for Chicago, but nobody else was on that 2010 Roster. Doughty was the only homegrown top pick on the Kings roster, and while four of the Pittsburgh 5 were on the 2009 Roster, Staal was a secondary player, Fleury had a weak playoffs until “the save”, Crosby was won in the lockout lottery, and Malkin, who was their MVP that year, wasn’t even the guy they were tanking for in 2004. With that said, they’re the closest to a pure bottom out model delivering results.

That’s not to go full Brian Burke and say that amassing top draft picks won’t help you win. That’s ridiculous, but I think people overstate how long you must amass and how many top picks you have to add to your roster.

Chicago went to the conference finals in Toews and Kane’s second year and won the cup in their third. Los Angeles made the playoffs in Doughty’s second year and won in his fourth. The Penguins made the playoffs in Malkin’s rookie season (Crosby’s second) went to the finals in the year following, and won in their 3rd and 4th years respectively.

What set these teams apart wasn’t dressing a roster of top picks, it was the fact that they built their support cores out of an abundance of picks, and made the most out of most of their “whiffs” near the top of their draft board. The Hawks picked players like Keith, Seabrook, Wisniewski Crawford, Byfuglien, Bolland, and Hjalmarsson in spots a non-tank team could’ve accomplished. The Kings did the same with Brown, Quick, Kopitar, Lewis, Bernier, Simmons, Martinez, King, and Voynov. The Penguins did it with Letang, Malone, Orpik, Armstrong, Talbot, Christensen, Kennedy, Goligoski, and a ton of others (most oddly: it was them, not Los Angeles who originally drafted Jake Muzzin).

The teams recognized found their core superstars at the top of the draft, but were quick to surround them with support, and once the team got moving, got mildly aggressive in free agency and traded players that seemed like they would be held back by systematic depth for more advanced roster talent. 

Toronto might not be in the position where they can afford to try to use trading as a leapfrog, or push youth to the side to sign middling free agents, but if Matthews, Nylander, and Marner are as good as we’re led to believe they are, it’s not insane to think that this should be the “go for it with what you’ve got” year that those three teams all had before starting to make their ascension.

Looking Forward

At this point, the concerns about draft picks should be about quantity more so than placement. Even once the team is competitive, having talented players on entry-level deals is going to be important, as Chicago has shown in recent years. Toronto currently sits at seven picks for next year and eight in 2018, and with so many extra depth players in the lineup that can play regular NHL shifts, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them add a few more over the next few months.

But that’s really as far as the draft quest should go. I don’t believe that the Leafs actually “tanked” for Matthews last year, if only because so much had to happen for them to just barely get to 30th. Most metrics imply that the team, while still not powerhouses, did underachieve last year, and it would take a severe pessimist to say that this year’s roster isn’t a good chunk better on paper.

Too much would have to go wrong for the Leafs to find themselves in the same position again, and if recent micro-dynasties have any merit to their blueprints, there’s probably not a whole not of necessity to being there. The Leafs are top heavy enough as an organization to head into the wilderness in due time; it’s just a matter of maintaining the conveyor belt of cost-controlled talent to support them. As it stands right now, I personally believe that that having the 20-25 players on the roster right now play to their expectation would be more beneficial in the long run than finding out that there’s a lot of permanent misses but also having another high profile rookie.

Besides, pro sports are entertainment and goals attached to ambitious progression are more fun than a controlled demolition, but that’s a subject for another day.

  • wallcrawler

    They might not get first overall in the draft, but they still have a good chance of winning the number 1 pick. Columbus, Vancouver and maybe Carolina might have better odds.

  • Newleafs

    I don’t think the Leafs will be able to tank even if they tried. Last year as soon as the Leafs graduated some of the kids, they started winning. They were winning so much that the Leafs were trying to find ways to lose (Sparks) to stay in contentions for Matthews.

    I feel the Leafs could surprise some and actually make the playoffs or finish just outside the bubble.

    The bottom line the Leafs have players that are not part of their future. These players have to play to up their value. In contention or not, these players will be moved during the season/trade deadline.

  • wallcrawler

    I agree with the author, the Leafs shouldn’t try to tank this season and I don’t believe they actively tanked last season until the last week or so. The Leafs should improve upon last season and most fans (including those who supported the ‘tank’ last season) would like to see them do so this upcoming season. That being said, based on their current roster and the amount of youth, the Leafs will still likely finish in the bottom third of the league and obtain a top 10 pick in the 2017 entry draft. They will likely get a blue chip prospect while their top young players get a year of NHL experience.

  • Trevor5555

    Any scouting department worth its salt should be able to draft good support players beyond the top 10 of the draft. Depth comes from the 2nd round onward.

    Typically teams need 3-4 elite players to lead the way and they usually come from the early 1st round.

    The Leafs have Matthews who should be a franchise center. Reilly who should be solid top pair offensive d-man. Marner who should be an elite scoring winger. Nylander who should be a high end support forward.

    Matthews/Marner look like they will be pretty close to Crosby/Malkin and Toews/Kane, not quite at that level but close enough. It looks like they did very well building the support group. Guys like Gardiner, Zaitsev, Kadri, Nylander look like they could be great support players. Vetrans like JVR and Komarov bring scoring depth and experiance.

    If 3-4 of their other prospects can emerge as quality NHLers(Carrick, Marincin, Carrado, Hyman, Brown, Soshnikov, Rychel) and Andersen continues his strong play the Leafs are primed to challenge for a playoff spot this year and in 2-3 years they could be contending for a stanley cup.

    If their scouting keeps turning out prospects who go on to have NHL success they should be able to stay competitive with the top NHL teams.

  • Newleafs

    The Leafs won the jackpot with Auston Matthews. As a long time Leafs Fan, I am ecstatic we got him. I went in the draft lottery assuming that it was impossible. Well that was sure fun to see the result.

    Looking at this player, we got something special. Part of the reason Edmonton has been so bad is not every #1 overall is a game-changer. To see what I mean, compare the stats of Leafs draft pick Mitch Marner… he could have went #1 overall some years.

    So the Leafs got VERY lucky in being able to draft players like Marner and Matthews. They will be the backbone of this team. Our top 3 forwards are pretty much set for the future barring unforeseen developments.

    The Leafs aren’t as strong on defense, but defense isn’t always taken at the top end of the draft (Karlsson was drafted the same year as Luke Schenn… end of story.)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_NHL_Entry_Draft

    It’s not really a question of if the Leafs should tank, but if they will, given the state of the roster. I don’t believe the Leafs will finish last, but I believe a bottom 5-10 finish is possible. If Matthews gets injured, all bets are off, and injuries can change the results dramatically next year.

  • FlareKnight

    I do think the Leafs most definitely tried to tank it up last year. Especially at the end when Sparks was getting played way more than was warranted. It was clear enough after a few games that he wasn’t ready for the NHL level. Playing Bernier who was doing better would have been prudent. Not that I have a problem with it, got us Matthews.

    I doubt the Leafs finish 30th, but who knows how far away from that they really do finish. The Leafs got lucky, but plenty of teams under-performed around them last year to make it a race. You think Edmonton plans on being 29th this year? Columbus sure as heck hopes to improve. Everyone wants to have a better season. But, even if they all do, someone has to finish at the bottom.

    I’m not calling for a tank or anything. I do think bottom 5-10 is completely realistic. Although I wouldn’t discount finishing as low as third last either. Someone is going to end up there.

    Leafs should be better and frankly I’m all for it. We have a good group of prospects and the lotto nature of the draft, I’m not beyond focused on getting to the bottom. Wherever we finish is fine. Will trust the scouts.

    • Gary Empey

      According to NHL.com, “Las Vegas will be inserted into the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery with the same odds as the team that finishes with the third fewest points in the 2016-17 season. It will be guaranteed to have no lower than the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and will own the third pick in each subsequent round.”

  • Gary Empey

    At this time of the year most teams have added the players and coaches, they feel they need to climb up in the standings. On paper it always looks good. Fans are optimistic. When I look at past history, for some teams instead of improving they have gotten worse.

    With parity, I see the Leafs “challenging” for first overall in the Atlantic Division.

    The Leafs will ice a team that plays hard for the full 60 minutes, with speed, skill, heavy on the back-checking, with a goalie who can make that big save.

    For those who are thinking about tanking or ending up in the bottom five, it is time to for you to come in out of the wilderness.

  • Kanuunankuula

    I’m not sure I completely agree that the Leafs tanked last season.

    JVR was having a career year before he missed 43 games. Bozak was having easily his best season post lockout season before he missed almost half the season as well.

    Team play was much better over the previously Carlyle and Horachek years and pretty much every player saw their Corsi improve which lead to closer games as evident by the absurd amount of 1 goal games we lost.

    Where people seem to lose sight is around Feb and approaching deadline when JVR and Bozak were still out, along with other injuries than lead to the kids being called up because they needed bodies, so why not see who could be ready for the big show this year instead of just using training camp as a measuring stick.

    I understand people point to Sparks as evidence but I think management were actually trying to gauge him. Could he split with Bernier and/or take over in 2017 or should they develop a plan B (Andersen) because he is not ready.

    I don’t view any of this as tanking. Management took a snapshot of the situation and played their hand accordingly. The bodies that were traded out I’m sure would have been moved regardless of the standings (because its smart to leverage assets) and management would have just rode the lineup in the playoffs if that was the case and get those kids the experience of what it takes to be a champ in this league.

    • Gary Empey

      The general sentiment/speculation is that Komarov, JVR, and Bozak’s injuries were the kind that were the team serious about pushing for the playoffs (3 points out of 8th at the time of JVR’s injury), the players could have played through.

      Sparks had a groin injury, which, as a goalie, I can tell you takes a much longer period of time to have the same level of comfort mentally as well as physically, even at the beer league level. So Sparks not being shut down for the year but those guys not returning is the biggest tank banner for me.

      I agree with you for the most part, but I do think that MGMT pulled the rug out from under a lot of these players that were having great seasons with Matthews in mind. Just a hunch!

  • Stan Smith

    To Tank or not to Tank, that is the question. Everyone wants to win. From the team president, right down to the equipment guys, they all want to win.

    To purposely tank has to be the biggest morale sapping situation for any team. I can’t see any NHL player willingly want to tank. What would the upside be for them? Ruin their careers? Cost them a roster spot? Hurt them in the wallet their next contract?

    Management can do subtle things if the timing is right, late in the season, if the team is low enough in the standings. But, to start a year with an actual plan to finish last? I really can’t see that happening.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Did they tank in the sense they knew they were finishing bottom-5? Absolutely. Did they think they were going to be dead last? No. But I bet they knew it was a possibility. If you think they were not tanking in this sense, you really don’t think much of our management. For them to think this was a playoff team was the same as for Nonis to do so. Also I 100% think people above Babcock made some decision to further this (Polak, Hunwick, Sparks, sending kids down). Babs might or might not done so.

    Do I think another season of bottoming out is necessary? No, but it’s not the worst thing to happen. Playoffs the same. I think we’ll finish 25-20 range.

  • magesticRAGE

    If the Leafs are in last place again, parity would have to be at an all time high. There are too many players who can score, and more importantly, do score. They are a fast team, complete hard, and are structured. If there are injuries, another will plug the hole seamlessly. I’m not saying they will light the league on fire, but at least a bubble team. I can see them challenge the rise of Buffalo, surpass Carolina and Columbus, surely Edmonton until the work their defense out. LA may slide further this season, Ducks too with Carlyle at the helm. Senators is hard to predict, but at the most a bubble team.

  • magesticRAGE

    If the Leafs are in last place again, parity would have to be at an all time high. There are too many players who can score, and more importantly, do score. They are a fast team, complete hard, and are structured. If there are injuries, another will plug the hole seamlessly. I’m not saying they will light the league on fire, but at least a bubble team. I can see them challenge the rise of Buffalo, surpass Carolina and Columbus, surely Edmonton until the work their defense out. LA may slide further this season, Ducks too with Carlyle at the helm. Senators is hard to predict, but at the most a bubble team.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Good article. Last year’s team would have finished 20th-25th without the intentional tanking. This year I see them anywhere from 15th (and just sneaking into the playoffs) to 25th depending on how well/quickly Marner adapts to the NHL.
    I think he’s a lock (barring catastrophe) to make the team – but may struggle a little at first considering his size. Nylander and Matthews are virtually certain to be impact players immediately, on the other hand. Matthews is already playing in the World Cup at the absolute highest level of competition in the sport, and Nylander has already proven to be an NHL-ready high-end scorer at training camp last year as well as during his stint with the Leafs.
    So looking at the team you are essentially adding 2-3 top-line forwards to a team whose biggest problem was scoring. Barring a catastrophic series of injuries or Freddie Andersen bringing back nightmare flashbacks of Vesa Toskala, I don’t see any possibility of a bottom-5 finish.