Maple Leafs Rebuild Ahead of Schedule

The Leafs’ self-entitled painful rebuild started late last season when they revamped their front office. This past offseason, the organization went out and signed Mike Babcock and restructured their coaching staff. A few veteran signings later and the Leafs were ready to start the first season of their overhaul.

Almost 82 games and one trade deadline later, it’s safe to say the Leafs are taking this rebuild very seriously. Now, leading up to the deadline, the Leafs moved some of those offseason signings opening up space on the roster for their young guns to get a crack at the NHL. While they haven’t caught on right away, they have been able to make a difference in Toronto’s lineup.

While the franchise is still a couple seasons from being competitive, their prospects have shone a light on what the Leafs have to offer in the coming years. With the likelihood of a top-three pick in this year’s draft and the number of picks the team has racked up for the next three years, the Leafs are well on their way to becoming a club with significance in the NHL again.

Mike Babcock, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Mike Babcock still has a lot of work to do with the Leafs, but has the young guns on track. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With that being said, the Leafs have turned what was supposed to be a painful rebuild after years of lacklustre performances and sit well ahead of where they should be after just one season of the franchise renovations.

Maple Leafs’ Young Guns Making a Difference

Ten players have made their NHL debut for the Leafs this season. All of them have had some kind of impact, whether it be offensively or defensively. As was mentioned earlier, while none of them have made the jump and taken the league by storm, they are giving Leafs fans something to cheer about – helping the Leafs to a 6-7-1 record since the deadline. They’ve also won five of their last seven games.

“Babcock’s efforts behind the bench have moved the Leafs near the top of the league in puck possession since the trade deadline, when Toronto dealt a number of veteran players for draft picks and promoted young players,” writes The Canadian Press’ Jonas Siegel.

And that’s exactly what fans have been looking for over the past decade – some kind of systematic hockey with players skilled enough to carry it out. It’s a hope that finally seems to be coming true.

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Many argue that you build from the net out in hockey. The Leafs – while still figuring out the goalie situation in Toronto – have managed to find players that fit the mould of their system and are allowing them to take advantage of the situation the team finds itself in. Here’s how each of the Leafs first time NHLers break down statistically.

  • Connor Brown – 5GP, 1G, 2A, 3PTS, -1, 1PPG
  • Byron Froese – 50GP, 2G, 3A, 5PTS, -9, 16PIM
  • Frederik Gauthier – 2GP, -1
  • Zach Hyman – 14GP, 4G, 2A, 6PTS, +1, 18PIM
  • Kasperi Kapanen – 4GP
  • Brendan Leipsic – 6GP, 1G, 2A, 3PTS, -1, 2PIM, 1GWG
  • Viktor Loov – 4GP, 2A, 2PTS, +4
  • William Nylander – 14GP, 4G, 3A, 7PTS, +1, 2PIM, 1PPG, 1GWG
  • Nikita Soshnikov – 11GP, 2G, 3A, 5PTS, -4, 6PIM, 1PPG
  • Rinat Valiev – 8GP, +1

From those numbers, guys like Froese, Gauthier, Kapanen and Valiev don’t have the offensive numbers like their colleagues. But they filled a hole when the Leafs needed it. They found a way to chip in even with the Leafs playing bottom dweller – learning to win at the NHL level.

The Leafs youth movement doesn’t stop there either. The majority of the players they’ve dressed this season are 25 or younger – Nylander (19), Kapanen (19), Valiev (20), Gauthier (20), Leipsic (21), Connor Carrick (21), Garret Sparks (22), Josh Leivo (22), Stuart Percy (22), Brown (22), Soshnikov (22), Morgan Rielly (22), Hyman (23), Scott Harrington (23), Frank Corrado (23), Loov (23), Martin Marincin (24), Froese (25), Peter Holland (25), Nazem Kadri (25) and Jake Gardiner (25).

And the depth down in the AHL with the Marlies and in junior just furthers the future plans of the Maple Leafs. Even guys like deadline acquisition Tobias Lindberg has made it known to the Leafs organization that he would like to be a part of the youth movement and rebuild in Toronto, according to the Toronto Sun’s Terry Koshan.

The Leafs have put the future of the franchise in place. Even the presence of guys like Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek and Tyler Bozak give the Leafs a slight veteran presence that will be needed to advance and develop the young players within the organization. That being said, the team does have a number of pieces that could bring some sort of return and it leaves the future of others like Kadri wide open. But first, the Leafs will have to see where they land when the ping pong balls are drawn this April.

Digging For Gold at the Draft

Drafting beyond the first round has long been a struggle for Toronto. Aside from the past couple years where they’ve been able to stack up on guys like Jeremy Bracco (2nd round, 61st overall in 2015), Martins Dzierkals (3rd round, 68th overall in 2015), Dmytro Timashov (5th round, 125th overall in 2015) and J.J. Piccinich (4th round, 103rd overall in 2014) – it’s been their first round picks that’ve really stood out.

This year, the Leafs also revamped their scouting staff and will look to take advantage of a handful of picks they’ve acquired. If the balls fall properly for Toronto, they’ll likely find themselves with a top-three pick in the upcoming draft. Add that to the possibility (and right now it looks more like a probability) of Pittsburgh’s first round pick acquired in the Kessel trade and the Leafs have a chance to grow their prospect pool twofold.

From there the Leafs have two second round picks (their own and Washington’s pick which was acquired in the Daniel Winnik deal), two thirds (their own and New Jersey’s which was acquired from Pittsburgh in the Kessel deal), two fourths (their own and Colorado’s acquired in the Shawn Matthias deal), their own fifth and seventh and two picks in the sixth round (their own and St. Louis’ which was acquired in the Olli Jokinen deal last season).

That being said, the Leafs owe New Jersey their third round pick in 2016, 2017 or 2018 for acquiring Lou Lamoriello as well as owing Detroit their third rounder in either 2016 or 2017 for signing Mike Babcock. These both occurred prior to the NHL changing the conditions of coach and management compensation.

Only four other teams since 2005 have had 12 or more picks in any single draft – the 2005 Blackhawks (12), 2008 Islanders (13), 2006 Islanders (13) and the 2010 Panthers (13). So while the Leafs are hoarding picks, the key will be for them to find a way of maximizing the value of these selections.

This is certainly one of the deeper drafts in recent years and even if the Leafs don’t move up, there are players like Ivan Kovalyov, Nicholas Caamano and Hudson Elynuik that will likely be picked later in the draft. The best way for the Leafs to continue this rebuild is through the draft – finding a way to make those fifth, sixth and seventh round picks turn into NHL calibre players. That’s why they restructured their front office – to get the hockey minds in place to make this rebuild worth something.

Toronto’s Hockey Minds in Place

Babcock. Lamoriello. Dubas. Hunter and Shanahan. This is the core of the big club. But it doesn’t just end with them. While Babcock’s put a system in place with the Leafs, Sheldon Keefe has changed the atmosphere with their AHL affiliate Marlies. He’s bought into the Leafs system and in return has delivered with a winning mentality for the future of the Leafs.

“But wherever Keefe coaches, winning happens. His winning percentage in Pembroke? A tidy .800, again, to go with five straight league titles in his first five years and a national championship in 2011,” writes Michael Grange for Sportsnet.

“At the Soo? He took over a .500 club at the midpoint of the 2012-13 season and had them go 23-12-1-3 in the second half,” Grange continues. “His .720 winning percentage in 175 games with the Greyhounds is the best in franchise history.”

That’s when the former GM of the Greyhounds – Kyle Dubas – recommended that his current employer (the Leafs) hire Keefe. And the winning followed Keefe to Toronto where he’s led the Marlies to a 47-15-5-0 record through 67 games and a goal differential of plus-89. They’re the first team to lock up a playoff spot in the AHL’s North Division and sits atop the Eastern Conference (11 points higher than the next closest team).

T.J. Brennan, Toronto Marlies, AHL
With the guidance of coach Sheldon Keefe, T.J. Brennan sits among the AHL leading point getters. (Ross Bonander/THW)

He has players like T.J. Brennan – a defenceman – sitting second in AHL scoring with 67 points (24g-43a) through 66 games. And he’s managed to coach the Marlies through the call-ups and constant roster moves between the Leafs and their AHL club.

After all, after the draft, the development of players in junior and the AHL is how teams are able to make players NHL ready when they finally make the jump. Keefe’s goal is to make that jump almost flawless. And to this point, the players who’ve played for Keefe and seen some NHL time with the Leafs have done so without too much trouble.

So are the Leafs ahead of where they wanted to be following the first year of their rebuild? Of course they are. They likely never wanted to have so many Marlies make the jump this season, but they did. They’ve found a way to buy into Babcock’s system and have the Leafs winning games. They’ve built up a collection of draft picks for the next few years and their farm team continues to succeed.

Not only is the rebuild on track, but the estimated time of arrival is ahead of schedule and Leafs Nation should be getting excited for what’s around the corner. While they still might be a couple years away, it’s going to be a fun offseason and an exciting team in 2016-17 regardless of where they finish.