Still Interested After A 5-Year Rebuild

Bruce Bennett

The Leafs have been rebuilt a couple times since Brian Burke took office, but how much better shape are they in?

It was exactly 5 years ago today that Brian Burke took the helm as President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and proclaimed that fans didn't have patience for a five-year rebuild. With Burke at the helm, the Leafs were to turn the proverbial ship around in far less time, and famously, he said the Leafs would "require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence".

After his first (abbreviated) season with the Leafs, Burke made a big splash jettisoning several players for picks, acquiring Phil Kessel, and signing Mike Komisarek and François Beauchemin to shore up the Leafs' defence. Just a season earlier, the Leafs had finished 24th in the league with 83 points, and with some stabilizing veterans on the back end, the team was expected to reduce their goals against. Unfortunately, defence is a problem that has yet to be remedied, and the only time the Leafs have made the playoffs was during a fluky partial season.

Here is a look at the Leafs' 5v5 score close numbers throughout the years:

CF/60 CA/60 CF%
2008-09 57.7 60.3 48.9
2009-10 61.4 57.5 51.7
2010-2011 57.1 63.6 47.3
2011-2012 54.4 59 47.9
2012-2013 50.3 65.2 43.6
2013-2014 49.5 66.4 42.7

It appears that the offence has taken less shots every year except in '09-'10 and the defence doesn't look like they're going in the right direction, either. The Leafs' current CF% is the lowest they've had since who-knows-when, because these numbers only go back to 2007-08 when Paul Maurice was around.

As far as I can tell, two main things have changed since Burke took hold:

1) The Leafs fight more often.

2) Goaltending.

It's not like there has been some game-changing revelation in coaching or shooting or hitting, or whatever else you want to talk about. If you think it's fighting, you should probably read a different hockey blog. The Leafs have put a couple of good goalies in net, and things look OK for now.

Outside of the crease, the Leafs still look as bad, if not worse, than they were when Paul Maurice was fired. It's been five years, and we've been (sort of) patient. We still get to watch a team that performs as well as a rebuilding hockey club, which should be on full display tonight as the Leafs face Buffalo.

Now, just hold on a minute.

When I look at the Leafs' current roster, I see some very talented players. The Leafs' wingers, in particular, are very strong, but Nazem Kadri is a strong 2C (maybe at some point a 1C), and there are some good pieces on the back end. Is this roster truly worse than the one assembled back in October of 2008? Let's just step back from the statistical window ledge for a moment and just take a look at some of the regular box stats.

In 2008, the Leafs had seven forwards break the 40-point mark:

Player Pos Age GP G A PTS
Jason Blake LW 35 78 25 38 63
Alexei Ponikarovsky LW 28 82 23 38 61
Matt Stajan C 25 76 15 40 55
Mikhail Grabovski C 25 78 20 28 48
Nik Antropov RW 28 63 21 25 46
Niklas Hagman LW 29 65 22 20 42
Dominic Moore C 28 63 12 29 41

Not so bad. There aren't any superstars, but the Leafs managed to score by committee that season, and wound up 11th in the league in goals for. The only player with an elevated Sh% was Grabovski's, at just over 16%, but the others were all within a percentage or two of their career averages.

Here are the Leafs who are on pace to put up 40 points this season:

GP G A Pts
Phil Kessel 82 43 30 73
James van Riemsdyk 80 38 28 66
Nazem Kadri 79 25 36 61
Mason Raymond 82 26 30 56
Joffrey Lupul 79 29 25 54
Tyler Bozak 70 22 22 44

Six players. Now, admittedly, the Leafs are out David Bolland, who would give them a seventh, but them's the breaks, and the Leafs' next-highest-scoring forward is Trevor Smith, with 6 points. He would be on pace for 30 points, assuming he got into all the remaining games, which seems pretty unlikely. The 2008-09 Leafs managed to have two players in the 30-point ranger in Nikolai Kulemin and Lee Stempniak, with John Mitchell getting 29.

Here are the Leafs' top seven defencemen, as sorted by total ice time:

Player Pos Age GP G A PTS TOI ▾ ATOI
Pavel Kubina D 31 82 14 26 40 1808 22:03
Ian White D 24 71 10 16 26 1622 22:51
Luke Schenn D 19 70 2 12 14 1507 21:32
Jeff Finger D 29 66 6 17 23 1352 20:29
Tomas Kaberle D 30 57 4 27 31 1337 23:28
Anton Stralman D 22 38 1 12 13 592 15:34
Jonas Frogren D 28 41 1 6 7 551 13:26

This is certainly an older defence corps, but were they better than what the Leafs have now? Finger? Frogren? A young Luke Schenn? Kaberle was injured for a good chunk of the season, too. Their possession stats certainly look better, and maybe the players simply were. I always liked Anton Stralman, and was disappointed to see him traded. But hey, he was a Euro, and you can't expect the likes of Brian Burke and/or Dave Nonis to like many European players.

The one area that looks marginally better for the Leafs at the moment is their system of prospects. It's not like the Leafs have a pile of players in the minor leagues waiting to break out as offensive weapons, though it can be tough to gauge just how good some of your later-draft prospects are going to be. Case in point: James Reimer was drafted back in 2006, when we were still bemoaning the loss of Tukka Rask. Thank goodness they didn't trade him to the Bruins, too.

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