The Toronto Maple Leafs Lack Direction
Since the first NHL lockout, Leafs’ fan have been subject to mediocre teams (at best) that frequently teeter on the edge of making the playoffs, but generally fail to do so. It has now been a decade since the first lockout, and the Leafs are on their third General Manager and fifth Head Coach. Although to be fair, John Ferguson Jr. and the late Pat Quinn had to endure the beginnings of the post-lockout world in which free-spending was prohibited, and the Leafs’ already-bare prospect cupboard would have taken a full re-build to replenish.
A decade should have been more than enough time to put together a perennial playoff team, and recent departure of Randy Carlyle has placed a lot of scrutiny of the Leafs’ players; most notably, the players who make up the core of the team.
However, should blame not be placed on those who put the players together, those who chose the coaches, those who drafted the prospects, and those who were tasked with developing the prospects? The media continues to put blame on a lack of leadership, poor culture in the room, and the capabilities of the core players. Perhaps it is not the fault of the players, but the management who has assembled said group of players who may not be capable as a group to compete in today’s NHL.
It seems that every year the goal is to make the playoffs – the GM goes into a press conference stating his expectations, trying to correct the ship quickly, and turn a mediocre team into a playoff team with few negative consequences for the long term with every move made. While being bad and accumulating high draft picks can lead to building a good team (don’t tell Craig MacTavish), being bad at the right moment is equally important, as is uncovering serviceable players later on in the draft. Herein lies the current Leafs conundrum – to continue trying to improve the current squad and turn them into a playoff team, or to blow up the team and start from scratch?
Let’s start by looking at the average age of the current Leafs team versus the average age of teams who have won the Stanley Cup since 2000.
|Average Age of the ’15 Leafs vs. Stanley Cup Teams|
|*2014-15||Toronto Maple Leafs||28.3|
|2013-14||Los Angeles Kings||27.4|
|2011-12||Los Angeles Kings||26.18|
|2007-08||Detroit Red Wings||31.7|
|2003-04||Tampa Bay Lightening||27.83|
|2002-03||New Jersey Devils||29.36|
|2001-02||Detroit Red Wings||31.17|
|*Average age at the start of the season|
Looking at the chart, you would expect a team in the Leafs’ scenario to be at the very minimum playoff contenders. That should be a baseline for a team of that average age, and whose main core (and most of the team) are around what are considered their prime years. However, they continue to be an outside-bubble playoff team, and unless interim coach Peter Horachek can make some notable improvements in this team’s play, there is no reason to continue with this group of players.
On a positive note, it is not unreasonable to think that a coaching change could make a significant impact on this group of players. Prior to the arrival of Randy Carlyle, what is considered a worse Leafs’ team on paper had three of four years with an above 50% Corsi rating and very poor goaltending.
Regardless of the media criticism Ron Wilson received, he managed to coach a team to be on track for a playoff appearance if not for some of the worst goaltending in the league over the course of his tenure. Randy Carlyle on the other hand is escaping blame entirely in some media corners, even though he managed to coach the team into the ground possession-wise.
That leads us to an impasse, one must either decide if this team can still become a playoff contender or not. While many in the analytics community are firm believers they can be, a long term look may be more applicable in this unique and opportunistic environment. Taking a look at the current points effecting the decision:
1. Rebuild Time
A proper rebuild, as the term has been coined, can be expected to take 4+ years at the minimum and possibly longer available players in the draft not be the superstars teams expect (looking at you, Edmonton). However, with the expected long rebuild time, a team can also expect to be closer to the cap floor vs cap ceiling opening many windows.
2. Trading Players
Many of our best players are in their prime years and thus at their highest trade value. This might be a perfect year to begin a tear down of the team and get the greatest possible return. The retention of salaries would also become much easier to negotiate as a re-building team – one wouldn’t expect to be anywhere near the cap ceiling opening up a vast number of trade scenarios. While the Leafs could retained salaries for many years to come, the impact would be negligible during the rebuilding phase and by the time the team reaches a competitive state again, the cap should be high enough where the remaining retained salaries amount to very little.
3. Players to Retain
Selecting which players is a vital, but easy decision. The Leafs would retain their younger and high potential players and surround them with adequate veterans on short term contracts as they acquire and develop young talent. The chosen veterans would need to provide an excellent example, both on and off the ice, on how to play the game well during years in which the losses will pile up. The selection of veterans will be key to prevent an Edmonton-type scenario where good talent is acquired, but not developed or coached properly.
4. Salary Cap
There are a large number of teams expected to be facing serious cap concerns next season and possibly beyond as the fall of the Canadian dollar has a significant impact on the salary cap. This is another opportunity for the Leafs to not only acquire cheap talent both through trades and free agency, but also picks and prospects in exchange for cap relief. If the Canadian dollar continues to struggle we could even be nearing the peak of the salary cap for many years to come, and being once of the first teams in that scenario could allow for a proper cap structure among the Leafs’ players and not base star player contracts on a projection of what the cap might be.
This has been one of the biggest flaws of the Leafs’ organization as it seems that the people selected to run the team continue to do everything with a short-term outlook instead of a long term one. This is an organization with no limit to their funds and one that doesn’t need the playoff revenue to stay afloat. There should be a General Manager put in place that will strive to achieve a long-term goal, and a coach who from the start of the rebuild is expected to teach the players how to win the right way, even if they are not capable of it for a number of seasons.
6. Media and Fans
The fan base has been in a constant state of turmoil experiencing extreme highs and lows with this team throughout each season. While planning years of losing would be frustrating, a clear message and direction from management could easily be accepted by the fan base with the knowledge and hope that the poor years could lead this organization into consecutive years of playoff appearances and potentially deep runs into the post season. The negative media that plagues the team could also turn into a positive outlook for players and the team. Their articles would turn from a negative distraction into a outlook on the future, and from upon completion of the re-build, a positive outlook on the team as a whole.
The decision to tear the team apart or move forward with this group will likely be determined by the play of the team from now until the trade deadline. It will shape our expectations of the team for the next decade to come, and be a point of great debate in the future on if this was the moment it should have occurred. It will be with great interest that Leafs Nation pays attention to the next few months of this team’s play, and makes their own decision on what they believe is best.
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