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.
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.
|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.
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.