Armchair GM: We Can Rebuild It (Part 4 – Toronto Maple Leafs)

For this final installment of Armchair GM: We Can Rebuild It, we’ll be taking a look at the Toronto Maple Tanks – I mean Leafs. I have to confess, this is the team I probably care the least about, through no fault of their own. The media situation in Toronto is openly hostile, and that kind of bad juju makes me shy away. That said, I’m giving this my best shot, so here goes nothing.

If you missed any of the earlier parts, click here: Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, and Edmonton Oilers.

Where They Are Now:

On December 31st, the Toronto Maple Leafs were 20-14-3, and ahead in points of the eventual President’s Trophy winners, the NY Rangers. They were sitting in a wildcard spot, and looked good to make the playoffs. But something was already going wrong. By January 6th, they had only managed to win 3 of their last 10 games, and they fired Head Coach Randy Carlyle. They were still holding onto the last wildcard spot, and had a +9 goal differential.

By February 1st, their record remained almost unchanged, with only 22 wins. They were 12 points out of the playoffs, and had a -10 goal differential.

It only got worse from there. Quickly assessing the situation, the Leafs turned from contenders to tankers, selling off some of their best mid-salary players going UFA, and trying to stockpile picks for what was sure to be a deep draft class. But what went wrong?

Toronto - 3 season (xCF, yGF, sizeZSO, colorPDO)

X axis is their Corsi For % (a measure of Shots on Goal, Missed Shots, and Blocked Shots)

Y axis is their Goals For % (Goals For/Total Goals Scored)

Size is their Offensive Zone Start %

Color is their PDO (Shooting % + Save %, a measure of “puck luck”), with blue being more lucky and red being less lucky

All numbers are 5v5 and Score Adjusted.

Well, it’s hard to say. And honestly, there are smarter analytics people than I who are trying to answer that same question (one of them is Assistant GM Kyle Dubas). What we can say is that Toronto, over the last few years, has never really played a possession based game. And then this year, while they certainly made efforts in that direction, they managed to hit a run of bad luck with both their scoring, and goaltender duo Bernier & Reimer who posted a team Save % of 0.906, 6th worst in the league. Last year, their team Save % sat at a respectable 0.914.

What changed? Well, they were probably tired. Last season, Toronto’s goalies faced 2281 shots against at even strength. This year, they faced another 2094. That’s over 32 shots against per 60 minutes. And while their possession did improve year over year, they still ended at only 45%, 4th worst in the league.

These are all the Forwards and Defensemen who played over 250 minutes on 5v5 for the Leafs this season. A red line under their name means they’re no longer with the organization.

Toronto FWDs Toronto Dmen

X Axis is Offensive Zone Start % Relative (relative to the rest of the team, more negative = more defensive zone time)

Y Axis is Goals For %

Color is Corsi For % Relative (relative to the rest of the team – remember, the team’s average is 47% this season). Blue is higher, red is lower.

Size is Time on Ice

Listen, Toronto’s top line did not have a good year. It was just awful. Phil Kessel, who has been reliable his whole career, posted his worst 5v5 Points per 60 minutes ever at 1.58. Last year he hit 2.48. Add on top of that, a rough year for first line center, Tyler Bozak (PDO of 97.7, well below the standard of 100), and it’s going to be hard to win games.

And then you have the defense. This team is captained by Dion Phaneuf, who I have talked about before, who is languishing in his role as #1 Dman. Over 3 seasons with the Leafs, Phaneuf has put up a 5v5 CF% of 42.24%, less than Roman Polak who plays more frequently in the defensive zone. But it’s not all on him –  there’s a clear system problem, as literally no Dman on the Leafs with more than 250 minutes has managed to put up a CF% greater than 47% over 3 seasons of data.

Biggest Assets:

If the Maple Leafs choose to go full on “burn it to the ground” mode, they have a lot of valuable players that could fetch a pretty penny, as we saw prior to this year’s trade deadline. In addition to their 4th overall pick that they earned all on their own, the Leafs received the Predator’s 1st round pick for their trade involving Franson & Santorelli. This pick is likely to go anywhere from late teens to early 20s (there are 30 picks per round) because of the Predators losing the series with Chicago on Saturday.

There is talk of trading Phil Kessel, who despite the off year, is still seen as one of the elite scorers in the game, and at only 26 is just hitting his prime years. Another person rumored to be on his way out is Dion Phaneuf, who has a good reputation among the league managers, if not so much the analytics crew.

Not to mention, for the first time in quite some time, the Leafs have several good prospects sitting in their AHL Affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Connor Brown, William Nylander, Brendan Leipsic (received from Nashville in the trade), are all making a big impact on that club this year, and look like they could be NHL ready next season.

The other huge thing they have going? Uh, they’re literally the most valuable NHL franchise ever.

With a team valuation of $1,300 million (yes, that’s $1.3 BILLION), they’re $200 million more valuable than the next highest team, the New York Rangers. And with an operating income of $70.6 million, they can afford to hire whoever they want for the front office, and for their new head coach, as Peter Horachek (their interim coach post Carlyle firing) will not be staying with the club. This is important, as there are a ton of good coaches on the market, including the much talked about Babcock, who will reportedly leave Detroit because they’ll no longer be able to afford him.

The Draft:

Despite their best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) intentions, the Leafs landed 4th worst in the standings, with only a 9.5% chance of getting Connor McDavid in the lottery. And well, we know how that turned out.

The Leafs are in an interesting position, as who they will draft/who they should draft will likely depend on Arizona. They should be hoping for Dylan Strome, as they’re in a very tenuous situation at Center, even among the prospects (Nylander being their best of the bunch), but they could certainly do worse than Noah Hanifin, as their defensive prospects are just about as thin as Edmonton’s, with only one Marlies defenseman in the 20-23 age range over 20 points on the season.

Assuming they do get Hanifin, it would go a long way towards their rebuild, because it’s much hard to trade for defense than it is to develop it.

Commitment to Change:

Full steam ahead! In probably the most stunning display of “We’re done with this bullshit” the hockey world is likely to see in a long time, Maple Leaf’s President Shanahan fired not only the interim coach, Horachek, and GM Dave Nonis, but also pink-slipped the Director of Pro-Scouting and 18 of their scouts as well as Director of Player Development all in one day.

You can’t get more committed to change in management culture than that.

Potential Stumbling Blocks:

The hardest part about being the Toronto Maple Leafs is, well, being the Toronto Maple Leafs. The city of Toronto is crazy about hockey, the NHL is headquartered in Toronto, etc, etc, etc. There are a lot of opinions around this rebuild, and while most fans and media agree it’s completely necessary, the Toronto media is not known for tempering their expectations. In fact, as mounting dissatisfaction with the team’s record grew, fans began throwing jerseys on the ice…and even worse, they just stopped going, snapping a 13 year streak of sellout crowds. If the Leafs are unable to post a winning record quickly, they could easily see profits drop drastically in 2015 & 2016.

Maple Leafs President Shanahan has acknowledged the problems of the organization in a big way by cleaning house, but filling all those positions with competent replacements is going to take time, and can be a difficult process. Especially when you consider they’ve fired most of their scouts right before one of the deepest drafts in recent history. I’m fully in agreement with Shanahan’s actions – the Maple Leaf’s current roster has only 4 players on it that were scouted or developed within the organization – but this does leave the Leafs at a disadvantage, especially with two first round picks on the line.

The other major issue is cap space. While the club did manage to pass off the horrendous David Clarkson contract on to the Blue Jackets (in return for the indefinite IR of Nathan Horton), they only managed to have $1.24m in cap space free this year. Both Richard Panik, and more importantly, Nazem Kadri, are RFAs this summer, and will have to be given offers. Kadri is arguably their most effective player right now – he’s only 23 and posted 1.63 P/60 this season, one of his worst career totals. His current salary? $3.1m.

Add on top of that Bernier’s RFA status and 7 other skaters going UFA or RFA, and that’s a lot of cash they’ll have to shell out just to keep the roster full.

This can all be offset by trading one of the biggest contracts, Kessel or Phaneuf, but that’s a difficult prospect in and of itself. After all, Kessel’s contract is an $8m cap hit through 2022, and Phaneuf is almost as large at $7m through 2021. I’m not saying they’re untradeable, but the Leafs will likely have to retain at least part of that salary.

Prediction for Next Season:

It’s going to be a growing year, which may not be good enough for some, but will be better for the Leafs in the long run. I have a hard time imagining a roster with both Kessel and Phaneuf still on it, but that’s still up in the air, as both have reaffirmed their desire to stay in Toronto. For the Maple Leafs to be true contenders, they’ll have to relearn how to play hockey in the new possession forward NHL, and a new coach will go a long way to getting there.

If the Leafs can shore up some of their defensive issues, and their scorers get anywhere close to where they have been, you will see the Leafs pushing for a wildcard spot. Do they get it? I doubt it. But in two years? Yeah, they could do it.

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