“Someone once told me the definition of hell; on your last day on earth, the person you could have become will meet the person you became.” – Anonymous
This chilling quote was almost certainly never made in reference to pro-sports franchises, but as a hockey writer, it’s my job to find a way to shoehorn anything I find into a narrative about the Leafs. If there’s one thing sports fans love to do more than pay $12 for beer it’s complaining about the trades their team has made. Whether it’s shipping off a fan favourite or trading away a 7th round pick that will surely become the next Pavel Datsyuk, every move the GM makes gets scrutinized.
But how bad is it really? Sure teams make bad trades, but they also make some good ones. So here’s a question to ask ourselves. Could the Leafs beat a team made up entirely of players they’ve traded away?
Let’s set some rules.
- Only players still playing in the NHL can be used. This team won’t feature Wendel Clark, Tomas Kaberle, or whoever else your uncle still yells about.
- The players represent their current skill level. If Patrick Marleau makes the roster it will be the 2020 version, not 2006 or even 2018 Marleau.
- Players that were drafted with picks the team traded away can be used. This is a controversial rule since there’s no guarantee that the Leafs would have even picked the same player, but if the current roster can be built including picks they traded for, this nega-team should be allowed to follow the same rules.
- On the subject of rules, the team must be cap compliant. Some teams (see: Chicago) have had to trade away quality players simply because they drafted and developed exceptionally well. There’s no reason to punish for that, so once again, this team will be put together with the same rules as any NHL squad.
- Any players traded away can be used, even if they were once traded for each other. Because of that, this roster is purely a thought experiment and not something that could have actually been assembled on the ice at any point.
- All players will be assumed to be healthy. Injuries won’t be a factor.
With those rules set in place, I scoured through the Leafs trade history, found out what happened to every draft pick they sent away and put together a 23-man roster.
|Rickard Rakell||Tyler Seguin||Phil Kessel|
|Colin Wilson||Nazem Kadri||Brandon Saad|
|Patrick Marleau||Lars Eller||Ondrej Kase|
|Maxime Comtois||Sam Steel||Connor Brown|
Scratched: Carter Verhaeghe
|Roman Josi||Dougie Hamilton|
|Marcus Pettersson||Anton Stralman|
|Travis Dermott||Josh Manson|
Scratched: Carl Gunnarsson, Luke Schenn
Just Missed The Cut:
Alex Steen, Josh Leivo, Jimmy Vesey, Carl Grundstrom, Greg McKegg
Scott Harrington, Greg Pateryn
John Gibson, James Reimer
Cap Hit: $78,693,568
Cap Space: $2,806,432
Put simply, this is a very good team. The goaltending would arguably be the best in the league, especially when you consider that career .918 netminder John Gibson didn’t even make the cut. The defence has both depth and top-end talent with Josi and Hamilton instantly becoming one of the best two-way pairings in the league.
The offence is good but not great. Brandon Saad is the only player on the team to have crossed the 20-goal mark during the 19-20 season after down years for both Seguin and Kessel; although Kadri did hit 19 goals before going down several weeks with an injury. It’s an ageing roster with nine players over the age of 30 and only three under 24 – none of which are expected to develop into a top tier talent.
The team manages to slide nearly $3 million under the salary cap due largely to Roman Josi being in the final year of one of the most underpaid contracts in league history at just $4 million. With Josi and Pettersson both being UFA’s who should expect significant raises after this season, expect that defence to thin out quickly. Marleau, Wilson, and Schenn are other names who could test free agency, while Brown and Dermott will also likely see an increase in pay as they’re both in the final year of their RFA contracts.
As an ageing team that’s about to come under cap trouble, this has all the makings of a team that needs to win now. But are they good enough to do so? Are the defence and goaltending enough to carry the offence to victory? And is this team capable of beating the Leafs?
Using hockey-reference.com’s Point Shares statistic, this roster would be expected to finish with about 81 points, exactly where the Leafs found themselves before the season was cut short. On paper, it seems like the two teams would be closely matched and while we unfortunately can’t see them actually play against each other, we can take a look at an interesting comparable.
The Dallas Stars and our rejects roster share a lot in common. Both are ageing teams that lack scoring being carried by their goaltending and defence. This season, Toronto and Dallas have split their two matchups with one win apiece. Over the past three seasons, the Leafs come out slightly ahead with a 4-2 record over the Stars.
So could this assembled team beat the Leafs? Yeah, they probably could. But the Leafs are also just as likely to win themselves, and when given the option between two closely matched squads, I’m taking the younger one that has its stars locked up long term every time. When looking past this season, there’s little doubt that the Leafs roster is the better one here, but as it stands right now, there’s plenty to be jealous of within the team the Leafs could have become.
How Did This Happen?
While most Leafs fans expected to see Rask, Seguin, and Kessel on this list there’s still plenty of shockers. So how did this happen? Why are Josi and Grubauer there? And how can Dermott be on this team when he’s only ever played for the Leafs? The explanation can be found in the Leafs bad habit of giving away draft picks over the past decade.
Josi was taken with a 2nd rounder that was used to acquire 17 games of Yanic Perreault back in 2007. The Grubauer situation is one that can be forgiven as the Capitals received the pick used to select him from the Leafs by sending picks #116 and #146 to Toronto in exchange for pick #112 during the 2010 draft. Getting a free fifth-rounder for moving four spots down in the fourth is usually a winning move, Toronto just happened to get unlucky that time.
As an example of the dangers of trading up in the draft, look no further than what happened four years later. At the 2011 draft, the Leafs sent picks #30 and #39 to the Ducks in exchange for #22 which they used to select notable non-NHLer Tyler Biggs, while the Ducks used those two picks to take Rickard Rakell and John Gibson.
Lastly, the second-round pick used to select Dermott was actually traded from Toronto to Los Angeles in the 2013 move that saw the Leafs acquire Jonathan Bernier. Two years later, Toronto would reacquire the pick on draft day while righting their own wrong by trading down to select Dermott.
Six different GMs are responsible for these trades, seven if you include the Dubas/Hunter interim that traded Kessel to Pittsburgh while running the team for three months between Nonis and Lamoriello. Eight members of the 23-man roster were traded away by Burke, although arguably the two most talented members of the squad were shipped off by John Ferguson Jr. whose decisions to trade Rask for Raycroft and give away the Josi pick are still haunting this franchise 14 years later.
While there’s been a wealth of talent sent packing by the Leafs over the years, doing the same experiment with other rosters would yield similar results. Taking risks and making trades are part of what makes sports exciting, and we can’t always expect those trades to pay off every time. At the end of the day, it’s about learning from those mistakes and finding happiness with where they’ve brought you.
For Leafs fans, despite the mistakes of the past, the future sure looks bright.
(Data from hockey-reference.com and puckpedia.com)