No. What ever happened to that Maple Leafs rebuild?
By Ken Campbell One of the first things that came out of Mike Babcock’s mouth after he was hired to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer was, “If you think there’s no pain coming, there’s pain coming. The path we’re taking has to be different. There’s no chance for a quick fixer here.” Well, apparently that pain threshold isn’t quite as steely and strong as we all thought. That path that was supposed to be so different? Well, accelerating rebuilds is a path so well worn in Toronto that the organization still has too look up to see ground level. And no quick fixer? How’s that working out? Well, the first chance the Maple Leafs had, they went out and got a quick fixer. Whatever happened to that rebuild that was supposed to take place in the Center of the Hockey Universe™? Well, it went out the window when the Leafs traded two draft picks in exchange for goalie Frederik Andersen, then handed him a five-year contract worth $27 million. It’s a move that makes no sense on so many levels for a team that says it’s committed to rebuilding properly.
First, if Andersen is as good as the Maple Leafs obviously believe he is, judging by what they gave up to get him and the commitment they made to him when they signed him, he’s going to make the Leafs a better team next season. How much better? Well, let’s say his goaltending steals them five wins. Based on this year’s standings, that would have given them 79 points and placed them 24th in the league, giving them almost no chance to win the draft lottery. And if he’s not, they’ve made another mistake and are stuck with another onerous contract. That’s not what rebuilding teams do. Because there’s nothing that can make a team better than it really is than good goaltending. And while there’s no guarantee Andersen will provide that kind of difference-making puckstopping next season, it’s certainly a possibility. And that is not what the Leafs want. Nothing would have enhanced their chances of finishing last overall once again more than a goaltending tandem of Jonathan Bernier and Garret Sparks/Antoine Bibeau, particularly with a young team that will be as prone to making mistakes as the Leafs have the potential to be. The Leafs clearly tanked last season in order to give themselves the best chance at the first overall pick and the opportunity to draft Auston Matthews. The evidence was overwhelming. Every time Byron Froese was put out on the second power play, it was clear for all to see. So why mess all that hard work up by speeding things up at this point? If this move was designed at making the Leafs a true contender, then it would be more understandable. But now you have people in Toronto saying this team might just qualify for a playoff spot next season, which is the absolute last thing you want to hear if you want to see this team rebuild properly. Because after just one year of the pain Babcock talked about, the Leafs becoming a ‘maybe-in, probably-out’ playoff team is nothing more than a Groundhog Day rerun of the last decade and nothing that resembles what was supposed to happen with this organization. If you’re going to bottom out, do it properly. Build up all the draft picks and prospects you can and get a good run of at least two or three years of getting the best talent available in the draft. And by the time you’re really ready to contend, there will be a goaltender out there to help you. There always is. There are 30 spots open for No. 1 goalies in the NHL and hundreds of outstanding athletes chasing them. By the time Andersen is ready to truly help this team contend, he’ll be in the back half of his contract. And you’ll still be able to go outside and shake a tree and have quality NHL goalies fall out of it. And that’s without even delving into whether or not Andersen, who played behind a defensive juggernaut the same way Bernier did before him, is even a goaltender that will ultimately lead the way to the kind of success the Leafs are seeking. This is a move that looked an awful lot like a coach who hates losing pressing management to go out and get a guy who could consistently stop the puck. It also reeks of accelerating the rebuild, a movie Toronto Maple Leaf fans have sat through countless times and left the theater feeling as though they’ve been sold a bill of goods.
Yes. It's okay for the Maple Leafs to start trying to win
By Matt Larkin The Toronto Maple Leafs have rushed their share of rebuilds. They’ve even done it recently. They drafted defenseman Luke Schenn fifth overall in 2008. He was their first top-five pick in 19 years. They fast-tracked him to the NHL less than four months later. It was a lot of responsibility for a teenage D-man in hockey’s ultimate pressure-cooker market. The Leafs also lacked core players to build around other than Schenn. THN Future Watch graded their prospect core 29th in the NHL at the time. They were a franchise in turmoil, months away from hiring Brian Burke as their next GM. They had missed the playoffs three straight seasons. There was no point sending kids to scrub the deck on a sinking ship. Burke took over and, in September 2009, after a fourth straight playoff miss for the Leafs, he decided they could accelerate a rebuild by trading a 2010 first-round pick, a 2010 second-round pick and a 2011 first-round pick to Boston for Phil Kessel. The picks became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton, respectively. At the time of that deal, Toronto’s prime prospect core consisted of Schenn, drafted in 2008, and Nazem Kadri, chosen seventh in 2009. Even with Kessel added, it wasn’t nearly enough to become the team’s foundation. So, yes, what the Burke regime did was absolutely a too-fast rebuild for a team nowhere near contention. But that’s not at all what’s happening in Toronto today. The Leafs jumped from 27th in Future Watch 2015 to sixth this year. That means our panel of scouts, NHL executives and GMs ranked Toronto’s farm system sixth-best in the league. Add potential superstar Auston Matthews to the mix after this Friday’s draft and the Leafs should easily finish top-three in next year’s Future Watch, as the team rankings factor in all players in the system 21 or younger, including NHLers. The Leafs chose Morgan Rielly fifth overall in 2012; William Nylander eighth overall in 2014; Mitch Marner fourth overall in 2014; and will nab Matthews first overall in 2016. Nylander and Marner rank as the NHL’s No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in Future Watch 2016. The Leafs have missed the playoffs four times in their past five season and have picked in the top 10 four times in their past five seasons. How does half a decade of suffering qualify as “rushing”? The Leafs essentially buried their NHL-ready talent, from Nylander to Brendan Leipsic, in the AHL for much of 2015-16, opting to do things like use Byron Froese on the power play. The franchise will never admit it, but that was a tank job. That was the “pain” Mike Babcock promised. The Leafs threw away a season so they could up their chances at winning the draft lottery. That’s the opposite of rushing. Now, they have an elite prospect core of players selected early in the first round, not to mention Kadri, whom they’ve extended long term, and James van Riemsdyk, drafted second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007. That’s exactly the type of high-upside crop you hoard by not rushing a rebuild. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings built their empires that way. Trading for Frederik Andersen is not a panic move to hurry a rebuild. It’s the signalling of Phase 2. Teams can’t tank infinitely. With all due respect to Nolan Patrick, who looks like he’ll be an excellent NHLer, the 2017 draft class does not project to yield a generational talent like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Matthews. There’s no “guy you tank for.” The Leafs have enough blue-chip prospects now that it’s OK to nudge the arrow ever-so-slightly upward and start trying to win. If and when Matthews sticks in the NHL this year, he’ll activate his entry-level contract, meaning he’ll be a restricted free agent by 2019. Same goes for Marner. Nylander began his ELC last season and becomes an RFA after 2017-18. It wouldn’t hurt for the Leafs to have their goaltending figured out by then. The window to contend in the salary cap era isn’t endless. And goaltending is Toronto’s primary organizational weakness. Garret Sparks tasted the NHL in 2015-16, but neither he nor Antoine Bibeau profiles as the next Matt Murray or Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Toronto brain trust, led by president Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello, evidently decided this team will improve soon enough that it can’t wait too many years to develop a goalie. Andersen, youngish at 26, is ready. Even if he takes a season to adjust to a full workload, it’s not like the Leafs need to make the playoffs this season. They have a chance to do so a year later, though, and Andersen will still have four years left on his deal by then. When his five-year, $25-million contract expires, he’ll only be the age Marc-Andre Fleury is now. The Leafs’ rank in 5-on-5 Corsi from 2010-11 to 2014-15: 25th, 18th, 30th, 30th, 27th. Last season under Babcock, they improved to 13th. They finished last in shooting percentage and second-last in power play percentage. In other words, they improved their fundamental play dramatically but seriously lacked skill. Now drop Matthews, Nylander and possibly Marner, a.k.a. The Skill, into the mix and you have a team primed for sneaky improvement. What’s wrong with giving that team a veteran goaltender with many prime years left as a backbone? Just because Babcock and Lamoriello only joined the fray a year ago doesn’t mean Toronto’s scorched-earth rebuild started a year ago. This franchise is several years in. It’s time to start competing to win games. You can’t lose forever. Right, Edmonton?