If you pulled up five articles about the Leafs at random, you’d almost certainly come across the phrase “total rebuild,” you’d hear about how it’s going to be “four or five years at least,” before the team is good again, you’d hear that there is “pain ahead” and that they’re going for a “scorched earth approach.”
You’d hear all that – and you no doubt have – and you’d remember that the Leafs were the fourth-last team in the NHL last year and assume it is all true. But it isn’t.
Now, I’m not going to say that the Leafs are going to make the Playoffs next year or even that that should be their goal. I’m not saying it won’t be rough.
What I am saying is that this isn’t your typical rebuilding team.
Most teams decide to take a rebuilding approach after their competitive window of opportunity closes. Whether from the age and deterioration of core players or from salary cap pressures, teams typically seem to follow a cycle of re-building, adding, competing and then tearing it down.
Though this seems typical, it’s really just a general outline of how people expect professional sports to work, whereas in reality, no two teams are alike and teams tear down and rebuild for a variety of more nuanced reasons, and they all do it in different ways.
In the Leafs case, they got new ownership which lead to new management, which combined with several collapses over concurrent seasons to demonstrate that the team was extremely flawed. Thus, the timing and the general crappiness of the Burke/Nonis era has combined to put the Leafs in the position they are in today.
But because of that, they are in a great position for a rebuild since they actually have a much better team than the majority of rebuilding teams start with.
Worse Than the Sum of Their Parts
Yes, the Leafs, collectively, were terrible last year. But, they have a whole host of great players to keep or trade, which means that they will be competitive much faster than anyone is willing to admit or even ponder.
To start with, the Leafs have three former top-ten picks on their roster, age 24 or younger. Nazem Kadri has wonderful 5v5 stats that suggest he could be a legitimate top-line centre, William Nylander has the talent and skill to be a superstar, and Morgan Rielly looks like he’s eventually going to be a Norris Trophy contender.
That’s three great prospects before they’ve even begun to “rebuild.”
Besides the blue-chippers, they also have several other former (but recent) first-rounders on the team including Stuart Percy, Tyler Biggs, Frederik Gauthier, Peter Holland and Jake Gardiner. All of whom are 24 or younger and most of whom have high odds of becoming above average NHL players.
Let me ask you, does a team with eight former first-rounders seem like a team that is just starting its rebuild? Or, I guess the better question is, isn’t it automatically a great start to the rebuild if you already have eight former first-round picks?
Soon to be ten, assuming they keep both their picks this weekend.
Beyond having potentially ten former first-rounders on the team by 11pm Friday night, the Leafs also have quite a bit of trade inventory.
Now, there is obviously Phil Kessel (and LA is on his trade list, they have lots of bad contracts the Leafs could take and they have Jake Muzzin….it’s a perfect match, in my opinion) and he’ll bring back some solid assets, but there is also Bozak, Lupul and Phaneuf who are for sale.
Even if the Leafs do not fulfill our wildest fantasies and hit on big returns for these players, at the Least they’ll be adding valuable young assets to an already decent stable of talent.
Beyond the obvious names, there is Jon Bernier and JVR, and you can make great arguments either way for both of them. If they keep them, they have a first line winger and a starting goalie. If they move them, they will bring back some decent assets as well.
For the sake of our final tally, let’s just assume the Leafs keep them, bringing the total number of first-round picks on the roster to twelve after Friday night (and not accounting for players who are not expected back). Both of those players are just 26 so it’s not like they’re too old for the team, especially if the rebuild is shorter than expected.
Assuming the Leafs trade Phaneuf this summer, and not accounting for anyone they might also pick up, they’ll be entering next season with a top-four of Rielly, Gardiner, Percy and Brennan, and then they’ll have guys like Polak, Robidas, Erixon and some rookies or whatever.
Now, that D isn’t going to strike fear into anyone, but Gardiner, Rielly, Percy and Brennan all range from above average to close-to-the-best in skating ability and all of them can move the puck and likely play a strong possession game.
That’s four decent – likely above average – NHL defenseman under 26 ready to go in October and the team hasn’t officially begun rebuilding yet.
Hypothetically if you added Noah Hanifin or Jeremy Roy to this group, they could be among the best skating and puck moving groups in the entire league.
Other Assets and the Final Tally
When you break it all down, the Leafs – just a couple of months since they decided to “tear it down” have ten first-round picks on the roster (JVR, Bernier, Kadri, Gardiner, Reilly, Percy, Biggs, Gauthier, Holland, Nylander) and they will be adding two more tomorrow bring the total up to 12 First Round Picks.
In addition, they already have a more-than-decent starting goalie, four defenseman to build around, and four name-brand players that will almost certainly bring back several very nice assets (Kessel, Bozak, Lupul, Phaneuf) as well as Richard Panik, Leo Komarov, Brendan Leipsic and Connor Brown.
When you add it all up, the Leafs seem like a team that is several years into a rebuild instead of just several months. If they score an elite centre or defenseman in the draft and/or Kessel trade, you’re talking about a team that will be competitive far sooner than any article you read about the team will suggest.
Except this one of course. I think it’s going to be fun as hell watching this team from now on.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.