The Maple Leafs came into the season with high hopes of the beginning of a new era in Toronto. Brian Burke drafted several key players in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, including the promising Nazem Kadri, and then addressed the goaltending situation with the signing of the highly-touted 24 year old Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson. Burke also put an emphasis on improving the defensive game of the Leafs by adding the likes of Garnet Exelby, Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, who also added an element of toughness to the team. Toronto didn't expect to be a one dimensional hockey club though, as they added offense to the franchise in the form of Phil Kessel in a blockbuster deal with Boston that involved a 2010 1st and 2nd round pick, as well as a 2011 1st round pick. The Maple Leafs weren't a Stanley Cup contender yet, but they were looking to make an impact in the Eastern Conference immediately.
Then, the season started and bad things began to happen to Toronto on and off the ice. Canucks GM Mike Gillis filed tampering charges against the Maple Leafs over two separate incidents. The Leafs showed great effort in their first game against Montreal, but unfortunately lost. But the losing didn't stop. They kept losing game after game after game until they finally got a victory against the Anaheim Ducks. Kessel's comeback from an injury improved the talent on the team, but the season still appears to be bleak with Toronto's second-worst 23 points total.
What should the Toronto Maple Leafs do to compete in the future? Stay the course? Rebuild? A mixture? Focus long-term on the salary cap? Accummulate draft picks? Improve certain aspects of the team? The Puck Prospectus staff share their thoughts on the matter:
The Toronto Maple Leafs need to accept that their team is in a rebuilding cycle. Failure to acknowledge that leads to making bad moves to fight it, turning them into a new version of the New York Islanders and prolonging their last-place slump even longer than it needs to be.
By embracing the rebuilding phase, the Chicago Blackhawks went from 59 points in 2003-04 to 104 in 2008-09, and the Pittsburgh Penguins went from 69 points in 2001-02 to 105 in 2006-07. The Maple Leafs should also consider this Year 1 of a 5-year cycle that leads to them becoming a 100 point team once again by 2013-14.
The first step is to review their lineup and look for all the players earning at least $1.0 million who will be past their prime in 2013-14. These are the players that are least likely to be part of the great 2013-14 Maple Leaf contender: Jason Blake (40), Jamal Mayers (39), Wayne Primeau (38), Vesa Toskala (37), Tomas Kaberle (36), Mike Van Ryn (35), Niklas Hagman, Alexei Ponikorovsky, Francois Beauchemin and Jeff Finger (34), and maybe Mike Komisarek and Garnet Exelby (32). These players can be offered up to try to attract draft choices, prospects, and young players aged 19-23 who can be part of the next great Maple Leaf team.
The Maple Leafs can then design a new system designed around their existing young players, like Phil Kessel, Jonas Gustavsson, Nazem Kadri, Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin, Philippe Paradis, Viktor Stalberg, and whoever they can draft or acquire in a trade, complemented by the chosen veterans that remain.
Toronto's primary asset is Leafs Nation -- a legion of devoted fans that would continue to sell-out the Air Canada Centre even if the Leafs' first line were me, Michael Farber, and a trained bear (who would probably be the leading scorer) -- so they have nothing to fear from putting a less competitive team on the ice while the younger players develop. GM Brian Burke needs to worry about filling holes that might exist in 2013-14, not those that exist today.
Unless your team is really good or really bad, you're stuck with the key strategic question: retool or rebuild?
Rebuilding means stripping a team down of high priced or underperforming veterans, while picking up draft picks, prospects and expiring contracts in exchange (and ending up with lottery picks as a side effect of diminished performance). Teams in big media markets are often fearful of rebuilding, wondering if their rabid fan base will stand for a season or two of basement dwelling. In particular, general managers and coaches are often worried over their own job security unless they're just starting out and thus given more leeway to dismantle the previous regime's mess. That shouldn't be a concern for Brian Burke, as he has enough cache to survive a rebuilding process if he begins now.
Retooling is a tricky process. It generally doesn't produce championship-level results unless a team is very good to begin with and just requires a carefully selected extra piece or two. Some teams will retool with an infusion of youth to sustain a run. Failure is common in the approach, though. Even when a successful older team seems in position to retool––like this season's Detroit Red Wings or Carolina Hurricanes––you see how that can go.
All the theorizing aside, it’s pretty much a given that Burke and the Leafs won’t be rebuilding. Unfortunately, another nice win for the Maple Leafs last night only serves to further brainwash their fan base and management, putting the franchise further along the path towards the Fool's Gold of retooling. Sure, Toronto can be retooled to be a playoff team in 2010-11, but it’s tough envisioning their current course taking them any further than that.
We're barely into the second year of Brian Burke's rebuild of the disastrous John Ferguson Jr. era in Toronto. Was someone expecting the Stanley Cup? When a rebuilding process is successful, you don't hear about it in year one, but rather in year five. This was a team with a 50/50 shot of making the playoffs that expected to have Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson in the lineup. For the first eight games of the season, they didn't, couldn't score, and ended up calling 1-800-rent-a-goalie to try to stop the bleeding. Since that early-season swoon caused all 17 remaining Leaf fans to take their own lives, they've gone 6-5-7 in regulation with 54 goals for and 51 goals against. They lead the league in shots for at 5-on-5. This is the 91-point team we thought they were before the season started, and they'll likely finish with 81 or 82 points because they blew the first eight games of the season and Boston will get a nice first round pick. Burke needs to pick up some forwards for the penalty kill and it would be nice if Toronto had another scorer. Otherwise Burke's looking at a first-round exit next year. But if it wasn't for the NHL's arcane overtime and shootout setup, we'd be talking about about what needs to be done for the 4-13-10 Canadiens.
When you see someone use the "last X games" argument in support of a team, it's usually a tell that they're trying to make a point. The smaller the sample you take, the better chance it will not reflect the overall quality of the team. For example, Toronto is 3-3-3 in their last nine games, being outscored 26-28 (excluding shootouts). Montreal is also 3-3-3, being outscored 20-22. Therefore these teams are precisely equal, both at .500 with a -2 goal differential.
So yes, Toronto had been good in regulation if you ignore 31% of their games. But they're also 0-4 in overtime in those games (0-5) for the season, and unlike the shootout, overtime still has two teams playing hockey, so excluding it from your analysis leads to misleading results. (Overtime in the NHL is not arcane, playing 4-on-4 is still playing hockey, unless you want to go back in history and take out all the goals scored during coincidental minors - Oilers fans will be disappointed). The Leafs are 6-9-3 in their last 18 games, excluding shootouts, which is hardly cause for celebration or optimism. There may be some legitimacy in only looking at the games since Kessel returned from injury, since that gives them something like their optimal lineup. (But of course, if you want to do that you have to excuse the entire season for Montreal, who have been missing their best player since their first game, and are 8-13-6 excluding shootouts).
The Leafs need more than a couple of forwards to help their penalty kill, which is dead last in the league (just like last year, I guess those truculent defensemen didn't help), and their team goals against average, which is second-worst in the NHL. They need to jettison Toskala as soon as possible, and perhaps acquire more defenseman who clear the puck rather than the crease. Kaberle isn't going to be around forever.
The Leafs are rebuilding. Unlike most bad teams that are rebuilding, however, they lack their first-round draft choices over the next two years. That means they're more likely to throw money at the problem, since they don't have the draft resources to call upon. And if Burke has another offseason like this last one in terms of signing players, it'll be another long year for Leafs fans.
As Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane once said, you're either contending for a championship or rebuilding, being anywhere in between is foolish. Brian Burke has to look over his roster and determine whether his team has what it takes to win a championship in the next 2-3 years. I don't believe he would have traded three valuable draft picks for Kessel if he was thinking about going through an extensive rebuilding process. He could take advantage of one of the most inelastic fanbases relative to the product on the ice in the NHL if he wanted to, and elect to take his time rebuilding a contender.
Brian Burke needs to do two other things in his evaluation process of the team. Realize you have a promising core of players- Nazim Kadri, Jonas Gustavsson, Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak, Luke Schenn, Jimmy Hayes and Jesse Blacker are the future of this franchise. Everyone else should be available for the right value. Brian Burke and the Toronto front office should also be integrating objective metrics into their evaluations of the club. For instance, in looking to add good for value players, they should be looking at performance relative to salary, which could be done by targeting as many players with a GVS, Goals Versus Salary, of + 10.0 as possible. Kessel had a +14.3 GVS (15.3 GVT, $0.85 Million) last year, but he obviously won't be as good of a value player with his new contract. They should also consider using metrics similar to Iain's Projectinator and Gabe's junior league translations to identify which players are likely to have an impact at the NHL level.
Theo Epstein, GM of the Boston Red Sox, once wrote a paper as an intern for the San Diego Padres on the top 10 characteristics of a quality General Manager in any sport. Number one was an emphasis on Theory Y management, which includes being open to opinions around you, listening to the advice of others, taking in as much information as possible and leaving many issues open to a group discussion. The second most important characteristic that Theo wrote about was that a General Manager should be open to the use of objective analysis. Toronto got into this current mess by acquiring players of a certain height, of a certain toughness and of a certain grittiness. Anyone could tell you from the beginning that this was a recipe for disaster. It doesn't matter what I add to the discussion in this piece because I could give the Maple Leafs all of the suggestions in the world, but as long as they're not willing to mold (and it doesn't have to be a complete change) their beliefs from within, they're not going to win anything.
I admire Brian Burke's ambition. He has tried to accelerate Toronto's rebuild at every turn through the Phil Kessel trade (swapping future 18 year olds for a current 22 year old), signing older college players and Europeans instead of drafting youngsters, and trying to plug the remaining holes on his team via free agency. Burke’s moves make sense given that objective, but his time frame was optimistic. Burke is also running out of good bargaining chips and the constraints of the salary cap mean it is tough to recover from free agent mistakes. Unfortunately there is not a lot of margin for error in a quick turnaround. Gustavsson has been decent and has helped the Leafs address a weakness but the big defensemen signings have been lacklustre and none of the Leafs’ young players appear to have taken a step forward this year.
Even though this season is a write-off, part of it was because of bad luck and injuries in the early going. The Leafs should contend for a playoff spot next year. But to remake the franchise into a true contender Burke will need to improve the forward depth with some good penalty killers and add one or two very good players at the top of the roster. I think Burke is counting heavily on Nazem Kadri being a star, because I’m not sure where else he will be able to find the elite player he needs to support Kessel. Burke will likely have to overpay to bring in some extra talent, so I’d advise him to continue to lobby the league to allow teams the freedom to take on the salaries of players in trades. Perhaps the Leafs would also consider demoting some underperforming players to the minors to free up cap room. This would allow Toronto to take advantage of its financial advantages and have more flexibility to complete the trades Burke needs to make.
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.