Strip-Mining the Maple Leafs

(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last week I wrote about what I would pitch to Leafs President Brendan Shanahan if he interviewed me for a job. What I proposed was a way for the Leafs to get younger, more talented and to have a well planed salary cap based on the idea of competing sooner rather than later with a lineup full of high draft picks from the same year.

The idea was to take advantage of paying players on entry-level contracts virtually nothing and to use Phil Kessel to acquire Jordan Staal and Alex Semin.  My reasoning was that with the salary cap and the NHL’s bias against younger players, and the ability to take on some underrated high-salaried player (Semin and Erat) the Leafs could go against traditional team building clichés and try something slightly different.

But one thing I know is this: you don’t ever go to a job interview armed with just one pitch or idea.

Shanahan may be a fan of outside-the-box thinking, but he’s unlikely to appreciate the risk/reward breakdown of my first plan because he really has no need to rush things.  So I propose the following; a complete strip-mining of the Leafs and a Buffalo-like tanking of next season.

Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Hockey
Converting Kessel into a package of picks and prospects is the best thing for the Leafs (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

Breaking It Down

My original hypothesis is good: Entry Level Contracts are an excellent tool to use to give yourself a chance to win during one concentrated three/four year window where all your most talented players are cheap and can be augmented by expensive additions most other competitive teams wouldn’t have the cap space for.

Secondly, my idea of concentrating these players into draft is also a good one, but it can be expanded on.  The Leafs should be aiming for as many draft picks this season as they can get, but if they are willing to tank next year’s season, then they can compound this strategy over two seasons.

The Payoff would be in 2016-17 when they can ice a team with two top-five drafted rookies and William Nylander and a few of other young guys on ECLs.  With so much young talent on the team then, and so much salary cap room, the Leafs would be in a position to be competitive very quickly.

All that has to be done beyond deciding to intentionally ice a bad team next season, is to keep Nylander, Leipsic and whoever they draft this season out of the NHL next season so as to avoid wasting a year of their ECLs.  Since they won’t be drafting McDavid or Eichel, they don’t have a single player in their organization who is really going to be hurt by continuing for another season in the AHL or junior.

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
One more year in the AHL is what I propose for Nylander. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

The Fun Part

Now that the team has decided to ice a bad team and keep it’s best young prospects out of the NHL for another season, it’s time to strip-mine the roster.  Almost everyone goes.

Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, Jon Bernier and Dion Phaneuf would all be traded for picks and players under 21.  If the Leafs really do trade all four of these guys, even if the returns aren’t the same as we’ve been dreaming about, they’ll still give the Leafs an incredible foundation to rebuild upon.

Secondly, all the second rate guys who are movable have to go as well: Lupul, Bozak, Komarov, Polak, and nearly anyone else that would fetch anything needs to go.  Like I said, strip-mine the entire team for picks and prospects.

Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, Morgan Reilly,  and Nazem Kadri are four players that I would not, under any circumstances move.

Trade James Reimer
I am huge fan of what James Reimer brings to the Leafs (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

The Not So Fun Part 

If the Leafs take this approach, next season will be terrible.

But, it will be worth it.

The Leafs currently have a prospect pool of William Nylander, Brandon Leipsic, Connor Brown, Stuart Percy and then a bunch of mediocre guys we don’t really know enough about to get our hopes up on too high. Matt Finn, Josh Leivo etc., we hope they work out, but who knows?

By moving JVR, Kessel, Phaneuf and Bernier, they should be able to add at least 4-6 excellent pieces,depending on the quality of them.  i.e  Four really good pieces or six or more OK ones. The rest of the players they have to move should give them some nice late round lotto tickets and maybe a surprise keeper or two.

Then, they ice a team next year that gives your Gauthiers, Biggs, Finns, Leivos and other B-level prospects a chance to impress in the NHL.  Players like Lidstrom, Holland, Booth, Erixson, Brennen, Brewer etc.  can be retained to ice your 30th place 2016-17 team.

Then the team picks high in 2016 and immediately begins adding pieces to an insane core of young superstars.  The goal will be to get Austin Mathews, but like the Sabres this year, settling for a for-sure top 3 pick will be fine.

When the Leafs hit the ice in 2016-17 they can have a wonderful core of two top-five picks, Leipsic, Nylander, Reilly, Kadri, Brown, Percy, Gardiner and whoever they get in return for JVR, Kessel, Phaneuf and Bernier.  Potentially they could have one of the deepest, most exciting groups of prospects and young players in the NHL as well as a tonne of free cap-space.

At that point they’d have 2-4 years of cost certainty and a nice little window to load up, max out the cap and try to win a Cup.  Better still, however, is that they’d set themselves up to be competitive annually for the next decade.

All it would take is a willingness to be patient with what they have and a willingness to strip-mine the team and punt next years season.