The Leafs are just starting on what might be a 3-5 year journey to return the team to relevance.
But, to my eye, they’re off to a very good start.
The rebuild, of course, began with the hire of Brendan Shanahan
- Three-time Stanley Cup champion – 1997, 1998, 2002;
- Played in the NHL All-Star Game – 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2007 (captain);
- Named to the NHL First All-Star Team in 1994 and 2000;
- Named to the NHL Second All-Star Team in 2002;
- Awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2003;
- Won the Primus Challenge Bowl with World-Stars team in 2004;
- Led NHL in short-handed goals in 1994;
- Led NHL in powerplay goals in 1997;
- Second-most goals by a left winger – 656;
- Second-most consecutive 20 goal seasons – 19;
- Only player with over 600 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes;
- Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After a storied NHL career, which includes 3 Stanley Cup wins, a stint as league disciplinarian and an election to the HHOF, Shanahan was tasked with returning one of the NHL’s iconic franchises to respectability.
Shanahan knows what it takes to win and virtually every move he has made in Toronto shows it.
Of course, since that date, on July 1 specifically, Shanahan showed he was serious about the task at hand when he traded Phil Kessel:
The Toronto Maple Leafs have traded Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In return Toronto gets centre Nick Spaling, forward Kasperi Kapanen, defenceman Scott Harrington, plus first- and third-round picks from 2016. Toronto will retain $1.2 million of Kessel’s salary in each of the next seven seasons.
While it’s almost impossible to get quid pro quo for an elite scorer like Kessel, the Leafs did exceptionally well in the transaction receiving two blue chip prospects, Kapanen and Harrington as well as Pittsburgh’s 1st round pick in 2016. Spaling appears to be a serviceable 3rd line player but, in reality is nothing more than a throw in in this trade.
While not only signalling the beginning of the rebuild, the Kessel trade further stocked the Leaf’s prospect pipeline that will undoubtedly swell even further as pieces of the old guard are moved out and, really, it is the prospect pool that will be important in this process.
So, let’s take a look at where the Leaf’s stand heading into the 2015/16 season from the perspective of players who will likely be around when (if) the Leafs return to respectability.
I think we have to start with 2009 1st round pick Nazem Kadri.
The 24 year old will finally get a chance this season to show he can become a true 1st line centre. There is some doubt he is up to that task but, even if he should fall somewhat short, he would still be considered a building block as a skilled #2.
Beyond Kadri though, the Leafs drafting of late has been heavy on centres and has produced very solid depth at C.
Nazem Kadri – 7th overall 2009
Mitch Marner – #4 overall 2015. (projects as #1C)
William Nylander #8 overall 2014 (projects as #1C/RW
Frederick Gauthier – 21st overall 2013 (projects as #3C)
Carter Verhaeghe – 82nd overall 2013 (projects as #3C)
But that is just the draft.
Going under the radar was the free agent signing of 6’3″ 200 centre Casey Bailey who had a stellar junior season with Penn State.
A competitive power center who brings to the table ruggedness and determination. Works hard to get the puck when he doesn’t have it, and is always productive with his ice time. Is able to come up big when his team needs him most, elevating his game to heightened levels at both ends of the ice. Possesses a tremendous shot, with the focal point being its accuracy. Decent hands and skating ability, but could be worked on. All-in-all, that one player who, by the end of the game, you definitely want to have had on your side. (Curtis Joe, EP 2014)
It’s also worth noting that Peter Holland, drafted 15th overall by Anaheim in 2009, is still only 24 and could have more upside.
Nevertheless, the Leafs have seemingly already addressed depth down the middle in a significant way although I expect Marner and Nylander will not be full time Leafs this season….Marner likely headed back to junior and Nylander to the Marlies.
On the wings, things are a little more cloudy.
Kasperi Kapanen, who came over in the Kessel trade, seems like a surefire top 6 winger sooner rather than later and James Van Reimsdyk, at 26, is likely young enough to stick around for better days but, after that, the Leafs have to hope that another pair of under the radar picks turn into players.
Strengths: The Leafs have a trio of exciting prospects around whom a restructuring might occur. Center William Nylander is a dynamic and creative player in the Patrick Kane mold, and new Head Coach Mike Babcock is tasked with making him a complete and responsible presence.
Wingers Brendan Leipsic and Connor Brown are also smaller-framed players, but each topped 100 points in a season during his CHL career and, most importantly, showed the ability to translate that junior offense to the AHL last season.
A new regime in Toronto might mean that there is little allegiance to incoming prospects, but there is some additional depth in players like defenseman Stuart Percy, checking center Frederik Gauthier, and 2013 third-rounder Carter Verhaeghe. A European prospect like Pierre Engvall, or puck-moving defenseman Matt Finn, might also be ready for extended looks.
The real issue though is that the Leafs prospects are blocked to a large degree by long term contracts to players I am sure management would like to move,
Players like Tyler Bozak ($4.2M X3), Joffrey Lupul ($5.25M X3) Stephane Robidas( $3M x 2) and Dion Phaneuf ($7M X7) are pulling down way too much of the cap for their production and moving any of them will prove to be very difficult.
So, if this is a 3-5 year rebuild, Bozak, Lupul, and Robidas will be gone so there is that.
The biggest issue, of course is the legacy of Phaneuf’s horrible contract although, the Leafs do have some very promising young D coming up.
Jake Gardiner (at 25 just entering his prime)
Morgan Rielly (#5 overall 2012 – projects as a #1D)
Travis Dermott (#34 overall 2015 high scoring OHL defenseman)
Matt Finn (#35 overall 2012 – projects as second pairing)
Rinat Valiev (#68 overall 2014 – high scoring WHL grad)
Scott Harrington (54th overall 2011 – acquired in the Kessel trade)
Stuart Percy (25th overall 2011)
That may not be the strongest D prospect pool in the league (see Dallas) but it’s a decent place to start and if you take a close look at what the new braintrust in Toronto has done this offseason, Leafs fans should be pretty satisfied with the progress being made.
Toronto has been very aggressive in signing players to short term deals who should be able to be flipped at the trade deadline to load up on draft picks and they already are stocked.
The Leafs have 12 picks in the 2016 draft, five in the first three rounds. They have each of their own plus Pittsburgh’s first-rounder, New Jersey’s third-rounder, Anaheim’s fifth-rounder, St. Louis’s sixth-rounder and Tampa’s seventh-rounder.
The players who it’s possible the Leafs will move at the deadline for even more picks is a long one.
It’s obvious that Shanahan, new GM Lou Lamourello and Mike Babcock have agreed that hoarding assets that can deliver another raft of draft picks is a smart strategy and I don’t disagree.
If the Leafs enter the 2016 draft with, say, 15 or more picks, they should be able to restock their prospect pool in very short order).
If, as I expect, they finish close to last in the league, they will have a tremendous chance to draft a generational player in LW Austin Matthews but will also have Pittsburgh’s 1st round pick and another high second round pick of their own in what appears to be another deep draft.
Add another 3 or 4 decent picks in return for some of the above rentals and the Leafs could be rebuilt even faster than their management thinks.