Roundtable: The Future is Bright for the Maple Leafs

Following a disappointing season for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014-15, the beginning of a new era is unfolding for the struggling franchise. With a brand new front office and coaching staff, the Leafs are on the first step of the rebuilding staircase.

Recently, four writers came together to talk about the Leafs offseason acquisitions, how they’ll affect the direction of the team while taking a brief look into the future of the franchise. Joined by Scott Wheeler, Declan Kerin, Robb Ellis and Mike Wilson, I raised questions regarding the path the Leafs are taking in their franchise rebuild.

Meet The Roundtable

Scott Wheeler is the site manager at Pension Plan Puppets (PPP) where he covers the Leafs, Marlies, and prospects. He’s also a writer and contributing scout at McKeen’s Hockey covering prospects and the draft. [Find Scott on Twitter]

Declan Kerin is a writer at Maple Leafs Hot Stove (MLHS) where he covers all sides of the Toronto franchise from prospects to the parent roster. [Find MLHS on Twitter]

Robb Ellis is a writer at Leafs Hub where he covers the team. He also co-hosts Blue N’ White Tonight podcast – a new show devoted to the Maple Leafs and their fans. [Find Robb and BNWT on Twitter]

Mike Wilson is a Leafs historian who’s collected over 100 years of franchise history over the past 50 years. He hosts hockey nights called “Inside the Room” putting together a panel of guests from around the hockey world and from numerous eras of the game. [Find Mike on Twitter]

1. The Leafs offseason was a busy one, what hiring(s)/transaction(s) will have the biggest impact on the club’s present?

Wheeler: I’d argue the hiring of Sheldon Keefe will have the biggest impact. As the Leafs enter a rebuild, there are very few pieces in place on the NHL roster – acquired this summer or otherwise – who will be in the fold with the franchise longterm or have an impact that is significant in the present.

This is especially true for a team that almost certainly doesn’t contend for a playoff spot this season. It appears only James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly fit into those longterm plans. If some of the younger pieces are to join that nucleus, Keefe’s usage and mentorship this season will be integral.

Kerin: The hiring that will affect the Maple Leafs the most in the present will be the addition of Mike Babcock and his staff (Jim Hiller, DJ Smith, Andrew Brewer and – to a lesser degree – Jacques Lemaire). A structured, defensively-sound brand of hockey that has the forwards better supporting the defence and giving the goalies chances to be in most games could have a big impact.

Brendan Shanahan has a plan in place that seems to be unfolding in front of our eyes in Toronto. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Brendan Shanahan has a plan in place that seems to be unfolding in front of our eyes in Toronto. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Playing with support all over the ice and a determined brand of hockey should will the team to punch a little above their weight, if all goes according to plan. Babcock’s team’s have been possession-focused and ranked at or near the top of the league since possession has been measured. This helps all the players – except for the ones prone to cheating on offence and not playing within the team structure.

Ellis: Many things have happened with this organization in the past five months since Brendan Shanahan dropped the axe on 22 staff members within the organization. The trading of Phil Kessel was huge, as was the hiring of Lou Lamoriello. But the most impactful change occurred at the coaching position. It’s no secret that this is an infected dressing room. The infection occurred after the two most recent head coaches allowed it to get that way.

Star players were coddled and allowed to get away with things that no professional athlete should get away with. Lacklustre work ethic was the norm and so was quitting and without any consequences.

Leadership was pretty much non-existant and one only has to look as far as the ‘Salutegate’ fiasco to see that. Fortunately for Leafs fans, those days are now over. Babcock will put an end to this country club atmosphere. Things are about to change in Toronto and it all starts with the coach.

Wilson: The biggest impact on the club is the hiring of Mike Babcock. The obvious is his coaching ability, but what separates him from the average is the ability to manage egos and extract the intangibles from his players. Now having said that, a coach is only as good as the players he’s given.

So what Mike will bring is the ability to set the bar to the level it will take to wear the Maple Leafs jersey.

The hockey world and players will pay attention particularly to that aspect of the rebuild. They speak of accountability, well how far will they go to set that standard?

Will he sit a player of Kadri or Lupul’s stature if they don’t ‘buy-in’? Will he sit a Morgan Rielly if he fails to play to the standard? In situations like these the window for the ‘buy-in’ is short, but with a coach of Babcock’s standing he’ll be given a little more room to fall down. Now, we aren’t talking about the Mike Keenan or Pat Burns three-year window, but on opening day he has to set the bar to the level that will be acceptable to play for him. The key is to not falter from that.

The fear factor will be working in his favour also because players will know (or they better realize quickly) that every player is on a short rope. So you, as the player, better fall in place or you’ll be playing somewhere else pretty quickly.

Mike Babcock is one of very few coaches that can command this immediate type of respect and the players know it.

2. Which hiring(s)/transaction(s) will have the biggest impact on the club’s future?

Wheeler: For the future of the Leafs franchise, there’s no single move this summer that will be as closely watched as the return of Phil Kessel will be. If Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington can become regular NHLers and Pittsburgh’s 2016 first-round pick can be capitalized on, those three pieces could factor into the Leafs rebuild prominently.

Kerin: Without a doubt, the addition of Mark Hunter overseeing the scouting will have the biggest impact on the club in the future. Having the most impact on the direction of the players chosen at the draft, Hunter will dictate whether or not the Leafs are able to build a contender in the immediate future.

The players drafted this year certainly have high offensive ceilings and the Leafs brain trust is obviously using statistics in hopes of finding draft inefficiencies – or players that slip through the cracks but possess the traits they look for and a track record of producing at a high level against their peers. They’re all in on high-skill and that’s a good thing when mixed with the safer picks they’ve made in the past few years.

Phil Kessel
The Leafs trading Phil Kessel could be one of the biggest indications of where this team is headed. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Ellis: Any transactions that the club makes to acquire picks in the next couple of seasons will go a long way in impacting their future. In the 2012, 2013 and 2014 NHL Entry Drafts, the Leafs chose a total of 17 players combined – averaging less than six picks per year. It’s never a good combination when a team who is having little to no playoff success is also trading away their draft picks.

They chose nine players this past June and will have another 11 in 2016. In July, the club took advantage of the free agent pool signing five players (Parenteau, Arcobello, Hunwick, Winnik and Matthias) to short-term, low-money contracts. They also acquired centre Nick Spaling in the Phil Kessel trade to give them six new players that may not be in the blue and white when the season ends.

These players are all perfect depth players that teams with little cap room look for when making a playoff run. I would expect that at least two (possibly three) of those six will be wearing a different jersey in late March bringing even more draft picks/prospects into the Leafs organization. Stockpiling these assets will go a long way in impacting the future of this organization.

Wilson: The obvious answer is Shanahan and Babcock because no matter how you slice it with Lou or Jacques coming on board, they will be the guys on the front line. However, having said that, Mark Hunter may be the most important in all of this rebuild because it’s one thing to accumulate draft picks, it’s a whole other ball game picking the right players – and that takes a lot of leg work and luck.

Kyle Dubas has Shanahan’s ear as well and those two will have the pulse on what’s available at the junior level. The upgrade in scouting had to be done, the key will be finding and uncovering the Daniel Winniks and Mason Raymonds because you need role players to fill the voids as the kids develop. But all eyes will be on Mark Hunter.

3. The Leafs have managed to gather a relatively impressive prospect pool, which player is flying under the radar with his development?

Wheeler: Toronto is such a hockey hotbed that it’s difficult for any one prospect to fly under the radar, especially for those who play televised games in Canada. For those who play overseas, there’s slightly less exposure.

This is probably true for Andreas Johnson, who has put together three strong seasons consecutively in Sweden and is off to a strong start already in the Champions Hockey League (CHL). Many fans frequently ask me about the CHL, either because they weren’t aware of its existence or confuse it with the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) but it has been host to some of Johnson’s best play. He’s become a legitimate prospect, with real NHL upside.

Kerin: It may not be obvious as he’s the best prospect the Leafs have at the moment, but what William Nylander has done throughout his career in Sweden and what he did in the AHL last season was remarkable. While he got off to a somewhat slow start with the Marlies, he improved month after month – even as the hockey got progressively harder. Add in the fact that Nylander was only 18 and playing against men and at a high level.

Ellis: There are so many good young players in this organization right now and it’s easy for some to get lost in the shuffle. However, there is a young defenceman about to enter his first pro season this month. Rinat Valiev is big (6’2 and 208 lbs.) and still growing. He skates well and a quick YouTube search of his name will show that he is not afraid to drop the gloves and get involved in the rough stuff.

Valiev played two games for the Marlies at the end of last season and played very well. I recently had ‘The Voice of the Marlies’ – Todd Crocker – as a guest on my podcast and asked him about the 20-year-old Russian. Crocker was quick to shoot down my suggestion that due to the unbelievable depth on the backend, Valiev may find himself playing in Orlando as a first-year pro.

“He won’t be playing in Orlando,” said Crocker. “He’s a good player and you’re going to see a lot of him with the Marlies.” Sounds like he may be just a little bit better than a ‘mediocre prospect’ which is what one Leafs blogger recently labeled him.

Wilson: It’s a tough call on this because I haven’t seen them enough, but the top kids like Nylander, Marner, Gauthier are expected to turn heads (they better). But kids like Carter Verhaeghe, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown are the ones that have to come up and surprise you. Like Tyler Bozak did when the Leafs ran out of players. He wasn’t playing very well with the Marlies but came to the big club, clicked and became a mainstay. It’s why it’s so critical to build the system with as many kids as you can.

And with the team wide open for jobs it’s like an open camp for kids to step up and be noticed. So, if you are a prospect in the Leafs organization today, you should be thrilled and excited because if you make an impression lots of eyes will notice.

In part one, the roundtable discussed the Leafs offseason transactions and and their impact on the organization’s present and future. For more from these four, be sure to check out the second part of the roundtable discussion where we’ll talk about the low-risk contracts on the current roster and how the Leafs overall development looks going forward.

For now, be sure to follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or his THW column at @Tape2TapeTHW.