I think the general consensus surrounding the Leafs is wrong: They are not just starting a rebuild, they’re close to competing.
Now, a couple of points before we unpack that statement:
- I didn’t realize this either until recently.
- Just because you have what you hope can be a decent core in place, doesn’t mean you don’t continue to build.
- Just because you recently decided to tear-down what you were building, doesn’t mean you need 100% new players.
The Leafs are in their second season with Shanahan as president, their first full season of the post-Burke/Nonis era and they still have a ton of players they need to move out in order to be out of, what I would currently term “the Transition Phase.” That doesn’t, however, mean that they need to ditch every player that Shanahan didn’t have a hand in acquiring.
If I look at the current roster and identify the players I think should make up the team’s core heading forward, then I have no choice but to determine that the Leafs are in the latter stages of a rebuild. This does not mean I want to rush anything or that I want to immediately start trading futures for help in the present – it is simply a function of looking at the facts.
Fact #1: The Leafs are loaded with top-ten picks from recent drafts. Excluding Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul (who are on their way out; if not now, soon) the Leafs feature James Van Riemsdyk (#2) Nazem Kadri (#7) Morgan Rielly (#5) William Nylander (#8) Mitch Marner (#4) – that is five players who make up five successful (if you allow me to assume that Marner and Nylander will work out) drafts.
If you add in Jake Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen, Stuart Percy, Frederik Gauthier and Jon Bernier, the Leafs have ten first-rounders of which the 26-year-old Van Riemsdyk is the oldest.
If having ten first-round picks (and five top-ten picks) on the roster isn’t an example of a “proper” rebuild, then what is?
Fact #2: Historically, even if you continue to draft high, you have very low odds of assembling five top-ten picks that all end up as above average NHL players.
Fact #3: Great players are available at all levels of the draft. If you are smart, if you draft for skill and if you make moves to draft as many players as possible, you will have a continual supply of renewable resources.
Fact #4: You need players of all ages to win. The average fan’s idea of a “proper” rebuild is unrealistic. You can’t just draft high for as long as you want and then flip a switch and be good. You need a far more balanced approach.
Fact #5: If you combine Fact #’s 1-4 it’s apparent that since you only have, at best, a 20% chance of adding projected top prospect Austen Matthews, that a playoff race to add to the experience of your core players would be far more beneficial in the long run than tanking the season and playing the lottery. As long as the Penguins make the playoffs, the Leafs will have two first round picks next season and they already have one of the best prospect stockpiles in the league.
Conclusion: The Leafs essentially started their rebuild when they drafted Kadri and traded for JVR. I think that, going forward, a core of: Van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Rielly, Gardiner, Reimer, Nylander and Marner is way, way above average and better than anything they could hope to build five years from now if they were as patient as everyone seems to think they should be.
Add in a pipeline that includes Kapanen, Connor Brown, Bredan Leipsic, Jeremy Bracco, Travis Dermott, Andreas Johson, Scott Harrington, Martin Marincin, Percy, a bunch of UFA trade capital, two first-rounders in 2016, progressive management and the best coach in the NHL, and what you have is a team that is not just on the rise, but rising fast.
The Leafs – if you look at any of the evidence – are CLEARLY closer to being rebuilt than they are to being in “year one of a rebuild.” They are a team with five players (Kadri, Gardiner, JVR, Rielly and Reimer) who either are, or are just on the outside of being “elite,” and two of the best players in the world not currently playing in the NHL (Marner, Nylander).
This is a team that, with just a few smart moves, could trade the players it has to (Lupul, Phaneuf, Bozak, everyone who is a pending UFA) and actually get better. For example, Holland could take Bozak’s minutes; Nylander would be the team’s third best forward, Harrington, Marincin, T.J Brennan, Percy and Frank Corrado either don’t or barely play.
The best thing for this team is to try to make the playoffs. People tweeting that the playoffs would be a “disaster” are flat-out wrong.
The Leafs are a good team, one that will only get better. But, bottom line: they’re closer to being competitive than they are to being a lottery team.
And I say that with full knowledge of what the standings currently say.
The Leafs play the Jets tonight at 7:30 in Winnipeg. Joffrey Lupul has hit the I.R. in perhaps the most unsurprising news of all time, and we are not too sure who the goalie will be tonight, whether it will be Garret Sparks or James Reimer.
It was excellent to see Sparks get a shutout the other night, although I don’t know why it was supposed to make me cry. He won a hockey game, he didn’t cure a disease or end poverty. Still, massively hyperbolic to the point of hilarity faux-emotional gravitas aside, it’s pretty awesome to get a shut-out in your first game, and to be simultaneously reminded of just how bizarre the Toronto Media Machine can be at times.
I hope Sparks has a great career, but you’d think the Leafs just got the reincarnation of Dominik Hasek into their line-up. I guess when expectations are low, you take what you get. Even if what you get is a sickening amount of puns (“Spark Plug?” “Sparkling?” ….does no one have any shame?).
Anyways, no matter who is in net, I look forward to the game – this team gets more exciting and more interesting by the day.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.