If someone were to try and guess the current state of the Leafs based only on what is said on social media, and not watch any games, check the standings, or look up any stats, you would probably assume that the Leafs are doing terribly. But, if you follow the team a lot more closely, you’ll notice that they’re doing quite well, but it’s a team that has their flaws.
And it’s not just one portion of the fanbase complaining. The old school fans are mad that Dubas didn’t get that defenseman that they need or that heavy forward that they need in the playoffs. The more analytically inclined fans are starting to pull out their pitchforks and torches to Babcock for continuing to play Ron Hainsey on the top pair. Everybody seems to have something to complain about.
And even though some will tell you that you shouldn’t complain because three years ago we were in last place, that shouldn’t be the case. This is a team that is arguably capable of winning a Cup THIS YEAR with their current roster, when deployed optimally, and with a bit of luck, and if you think that a couple changes can make them even more capable of that, you’re allowed to point it out. Whether you think they’re too soft or Hainsey plays too much, just accepting it because they’re doing well isn’t the right way to go about things.
But, a lot of the problems are being thrown at the wrong people. A lot of the complaints are going to the players, coach, and current management, and while they should get some share, there is one common link to a lot of our current problems if you look at the bigger picture – Lou Lamoriello.
Lou had an interesting three year tenure with the Leafs. On one hand, he brought a culture change to the Leafs, turning them from the laughing stock of the league to one of the most tight knit, professional ones. But, on the other hand, his transactions were very hit or miss, and continue to plague the team when it’s trying to truly be competitive.
So, I’m going to look at a lot of the Leafs current problems, and show you how the Leafs past- particularly Lou’s tenure- are haunting them.
The Veterans and “Toys” Are Overplayed
A lot of the reason that people are beginning to think that Babcock should be fired is because his line deployment has been extremely suboptimal at times, especially right now. Until a couple games ago, Marleau was strapped to Matthews on the top six despite not being capable of that role anymore. Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev *both* continue to be in the top four, despite the fact that we have four defensemen in the starting lineups that are much better, and another 3-4 sitting in the press box or in the minors that should probably be in the lineup over them. William Nylander has rarely played with Matthews, despite the fact that history shows that the duo generate a lot of offense together.
Babcock has done this for a few seasons now, and aside from the odd epiphany, he’s mostly stuck to his stubborn ways. And while Dubas’ has sometimes tried to take his toys away from him (case in point, the Par Lindholm trade), a lot of them got here, and are still here because of Lou.
Patrick Marleau: Lou signed him to his slightly too long contract for slightly too much.
Zach Hyman: The trade occurred right before Lou came in, but his current four year deal was signed by Lou.
Connor Brown: Drafted by Burke, but Lou signed him to his current three year deal.
Ron Hainsey: Lou signed him to his current two year deal.
Nikita Zaitsev: Lou first brought him in, and signed him to his current seven year deal.
That’s just the players on the team. Lou also brought in Matt Martin on a terrible contract, kept bringing back Roman Polak, all to appease Babcock, and give him the terrible, “gritty” players that Babcock thinks he needs, but more often than not holds the Leafs back.
The last couple years of Lou’s tenure saw him give Babcock what he wanted, and you could argue that they might be further along if that hadn’t been the case.
We Did Nothing at the Deadline
One of Dubas’ big complaints was that he couldn’t make any moves at the deadline, and it’s really hard to legitimately blame him for not doing much (aside from Jake Muzzin). The Leafs are in a weird spot where they can contend for a Cup, but are also stocked with youth, mostly on the roster, that you don’t want to mortgage the future by dealing picks and prospects that could fill the gaps when the cap crunch comes.
But, you know what would really help the Leafs ability to make deals at the deadlines. More prospects. Taking a look at the two drafts that Lou and Hunter were a part of, and you’ll notice that not even two and three years later, a lot of the prospects already show little signs of being anything close to NHL talent.
In 2016, Matthews was a gimme, and Grundstrom, Woll, and Brooks were solid picks in the early-mid rounds. In 2017, Liljegren fell on their laps, and Scott looks to be like a good goalie prospect. But of those six picks, the only with real trade value are Matthews (obviously), Grundstrom (that’s how we got Muzzin), and Liljegren (the kind of prospect you don’t trade when you have a young core).
After those six picks, the remaining 12 have basically no shot at making the team. In fact, none of them have a contract with the Leafs, and likely won’t.
And they passed on some easily better picks, the most notable being Korshkov over Alex DeBrincat or Sam Girard. Not only have they whiffed on their own picks, but it’s cost them some good players too.
Going 33% in those two drafts left the Leafs with a pretty bare prospect pool these last couple years, which doesn’t help when you want to either use them for depth or trade them for good players.
Now, that’s not to say that Dubas isn’t guilty, but at least his picks have *some* NHL potential at this point (although it’s only been eight months).
But, if you need someone to yell at for not doing anything at the deadline, we could’ve gone for some good players if we drafted well in 2016 and 2017 and got some good prospects with trade value.
“This Isn’t Dubas’ Team”
Another complaint for Dubas is that the current team isn’t really his team, and that he shouldn’t be credited for the team that “Lou really built”.
First off, John Tavares, and more recently, Jake Muzzin, would like a word.
Secondly, Lou did very little to this team either. In fact, Brian Burke did as much for the team as Lou, and in a much more impactful way.
A quick look at the Leafs current NHL depth chart and who brought them in (note: for the little time between Nonis’ firing and Lou’s hiring, I credited all trades to Dubas, and all draft picks to Hunter), and it’s pretty obvious not only that Dubas has already made his mark, but a lot of Lou’s acquisitions are the few bad spots on our team.
Now, he did bring in Matthews and Andersen, that much is true. I don’t really count Matthews because he was a pretty obvious first overall pick, so the only credit I’ll give him is for not picking Laine. But, Andersen has been a huge part of this team, and both the trade and contract look pretty good for the Leafs right now, so full score to Lou.
But, look at his other three acquisitions: Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, and Nikita Zaitsev. One is a solid forward whose contract will be problematic next year. One is an old man who Babcock plays way too much, and is the cause of a lot of my pain this year. And one is a defenseman on an albatross contract that only knows how to chip the puck off the boards.
You could make the argument that all three of these players have had the biggest negative impact on the team this season, and two of them will cause us lots of problems next year when the cap crunch starts. But more on that in a second.
The Cap Situation
The cap crunch is arguably the most talked about event in hockey. Not just the Leafs, but *everybody* is talking about how the Leafs can’t afford all of their young players, especially when they brought in Tavares.
Dubas infamously said “We can, and we will” when asked if they can keep everyone, and I’m still confident that we can. But, the job would be a lot easier if Lou didn’t cause problems in The Summer of 2017.
While it doesn’t even come close to Nonis’ unintentionally nuking the team in 2013, the 2017 offseason is something that Leafs fans should maybe talk about more as a summer that may have set the team back a bit, or at least caused a lot more problems than it should. An underrated bad summer, as I like to call it.
Now, in 2017, the Leafs had just made the playoffs and had a solid series against the Presidents’ Trophy Washington Capitals, keeping it close and holding them to six games when many called for a sweep. While they could definitely compete going into next season, it was important to keep an eye on the future, especially with Matthews, Nylander, and Marner’s contracts up in 2018 and 2019.
Now, in my opinion, the smart thing to do that summer with every deal they made was to try and keep every contract that would cost $1 million or more to two years or less. That way, come 2019 when Matthews and Marner are up, you can focus on them, and then work your way down from there.
So, this is what Lou did that summer with those kinds of contracts:
-signed Nikita Zaitsev to a seven year deal
-signed Ron Hainsey to a two year deal
-signed Patrick Marleau to a three year deal
-signed Zach Hyman to a four year deal
-signed Connor Brown to a three year deal
Of those five contracts, only one expires at the start of the cap crunch: Ron Hainsey’s. The other four will be around when all the young stars are making their money, and it’s going to cause problems.
Zaitsev and Marleau’s deals are the more obvious ones, as they’ll combine for a cap hit of $10.25 million for players that could be replaced pretty easily, even on this current roster.
Hyman and Brown’s aren’t as bad, but you’re still paying $4.35 million for something that Trevor Moore can do for $925k.
That’s more than $14.5 million you’re saving, and all for players with very minimal, or negative, impacts.
But, Lou signed those deals, and here we are, stuck with them when we need money most.
Just to reiterate, there are some aspects to Lou’s tenure that I really appreciate. He did an excellent job in 2015-16 of tanking for the first overall pick, all while changing the culture of one of the biggest laughing stocks in the league.
But, his tenure also created a lot of problems for the team that you could argue is holding us back from being in the tier of Tampa Bay.