The lottery is over and the Maple Leafs do not get to fast-track their rebuild with Connor McDavid. That’s OK, the guys they might get instead are still going to be very good. But now that the excitement is behind us, let us turn our mind to the future. Specifically, how will the Leafs go about becoming competitive again?
The Leafs recently fired everybody they could, and will be going forward with a new coach and GM – although it does seem as if Shanahan is the GM in all but name. Since there is an opening at the top, I figure, why not me?
Now, obviously, I am not traditionally qualified, but I have a good resume and anyways, that’s beside the point – I can still write about what I’d pitch Shanahan if I got an interview.
So here goes:
1. A Plan for the DraftThe first thing I would say is that I believe that the salary cap all but kills a team’s ability to build slowly over a five years period (the typical length of time mentioned for so-called “proper” rebuilds). My reasoning is that the best value players can ever offer a team is when they are on their entry level contracts.
They might improve as they age, but they will also cost more. Just for example, the difference between Dylan Strome at age 18 to age 24 is probably quite large, but not as large in the difference between his ECL and a long term contract he’s likely to sign by that age, where, if he is successful, he will cost 8-15% of a team’s cap.
With this theory in mind, I posit it makes more sense to attempt to gather a bunch of young players around the same age than it does to dole them out one draft at a time. The idea being that if you can gather several players from one draft, you can them augment them with more expensive pieces during their ECLs.
Yes, traditionally you would take your time and add a player per year and hope it all comes together. This way, however, you can attempt to win while your young star players are on cheap deals. Keeping with the Strome example, under my proposal, you could dress him at 18 plus an additional six-million dollar player for the same price as you can dress him in five years when the traditional rebuild will be done. It’s a simple value exercise and I am surprised more teams aren’t trying to get an edge in this way.
People tend to think that young players need a lot of time to develop, and in some cases that is likely true. However, I think there is a bias towards youth in the NHL and there have been studies done that show that scouts rate older players higher, but that statistically the younger players out-perform them. So I think that if you could concentrate your players into a single draft year, you would have 3 year opportunity to ice an incredibly strong team. Then after that, if you are smart with your assets, you can all the more easily figure out a financial plan that won’t kill your mobility the way just randomly signing and drafting players tends to.
So if I was the Leafs, I would attempt to first work out a trade with the Coyotes to flip draft positions. They might want Strome too, but I am sure the Leafs could make it palatable to make the flip. I would over pay to do this if I had to because it’s key to my plan to have three great centres on the team.
Then I would trade Jonathan Bernier to the Oilers for their 16th overall pick (from the Penguins). (Note that I am perfectly comfortable using Reimer as the team’s top goalie). If the Oilers don’t want him, I am sure there are several teams who are seeking a goalie and would send a mid-round first for one as talented as Bernier.
Finally – and I know this will get shredded in the comments section, and I admit it is risky – I would use the Leafs reputation as a perennial laughing-stock and attempt to trade next year’s first rounder for a pick in this year’s top ten. I think a team would trade their already-not-winning the lottery pick for the Leafs (what they assume to be) for sure lottery pick next year.
With four picks in the first round, all of Rielly, Nylander, Panik, Holland and Leipsic on ECLs or very cheap bridge deals and tons of salary coming off the books, I would be prepared to load up and try to compete next season with all four rookies I draft this year – including two top-ten picks – jumping immediately to the NHL.
2. Clear Out the Old-Guard
The second thing I would do is work to get rid of the following players: Robidas – I’d even buy him out – Polak, Bozak, Lupul and all of the fringe players. (Erixon, Brewer, etc.)
Dion is a wildcard. I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the team to know if he has to go or if he can stay. I think he’s underrated and if you played him lower in the lineup he’d offer way more value. I think enough salary can come off the books that (at least for now) his cap-hit wouldn’t be detrimental.
3. Trade for Jordan Staal
Maybe it’s unrealistic to attempt to load up on this years picks. Maybe the idea to flip – say Columbus – our pick next year for their pick this year is too risky. O.K whatever. But this is a must do. If the Leafs want to not only win a Cup but compete for one every year, they need their own Kopitar, Bergeron or Toews.
Let me sell you on Staal: He’s only 26, he is signed to an incredibly team friendly deal with a $6 million cap hit running through the year 2022. He put up only 24 points in 46 games, but this was mostly because he was coming off a broken leg and had a terribly low shooting percentage and a PDO under 97. In short, he was very unlucky. Still, he amassed a CF% of almost 60 and ranked second in the NHL.
Staal is a big sized centre who dominates possession and is incredible at defense. The Leafs could use him as their top C and let Kadri exploit secondary coverage and have Strome dominate tertiary coverage. Jordan Staal is the kind of player you build your team around: he’s every bit the player of Toews, Kopitar and Bergeron – the top centres from the three best teams of the last five years.
In order to get him out of Carolina, the Leafs can offer Phil Kessel and the carrot of taking on Alex Semin’s salary. Now, most people think Semin is a bum, but he is secretly awesome and would fit in perfectly on the Leafs who can now afford his salary.
If the Leafs have to add to make this happen, they add. No big deal. Second rounders, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, retain some of Phil’s salary, whatever it takes to get Jordan Staal on the Leafs, it must be done. It is key to acquire Staal, because him, Kadri and Strome would be a lethal down-the-middle combo for years to come.
4. Target Two Very Specific UFAs
Sign Mike Green and Martin Erat as UFAs. Both are solid value players who give you excellent possession results. Green is a puck mover and he’s only 28. Erat, while 33, is still an elite possession player despite not scoring a ton in the last few years. His defensive game is excellent.
The Leafs could enter the 2015-16 season with this line-up:
JVR – Staal – Nylander
Erat – Kadri – Semin
Panik – Strome – Komarov
Leipsic – Holland – draft pick
Rielly – Green
Gardiner – Phaneuf
draft pick – Percy / draft pick
This team would be cheap, it would be loaded down the middle and it would have skilled players in a position to exploit weak match-ups. Holland, for example, is a much better than most teams employ on their fourth line.
The complete absence of checking forwards and defensive defenseman may look strange at first, but based on what we now know about which players are effective night in and night out, those kind of role players are just not needed in today’s NHL. Being the first team to go 100% skill will be risky, but it will make so many exploitable match-ups that it’s worth the risk.
The defense would be highly skilled and adept at moving the puck. Sure, the team is not very traditionally tough, but I think speed and talent can overcome that. Plus, there is “team toughness” and there is no reason this team can’t display that.. With three dominant centres and fantastic puck-moving from the back-end, as well as a plethora of players with consistently solid possession metrics, I think this team would hard to play against.
Also, they’d have a ton of room to grow, and the salary to sign them as they do. There are also tons of options: you don’t have to promote all five guys you draft directly to the NHL – it’d be cool to try it, but you have guys like Matt Finn, Tom Nilsson, Fredrick Gauthier and Josh Leivo who can fill in.
And there is the salary cap. With so many young players, the Leafs would have the ability to make trades and take on salary, once they determine how successful they can be.
The Leafs don’t need to compete for the Cup immediately, but this plan will get them to the Playoffs next season and cut the rebuild time significantly. It’s outside the box, but the box is getting stale.
Shanahan said he wanted people with ideas that were different, and while I am sure most people will write this off as the insane rantings of a guy with too much time on his hands, I really do believe that you can be patient and proactive at the same time, and that you can rebuild a team in a much faster way than anyone wants to believe.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.