If you followed me on my dearly departed Twitter account, you’ll know there were two things I spent most of my time doing. Making crass references to various genocides throughout history, and spouting out series’ of stat/team facts like I spend all day on Hockey Reference (I do). The latter is because PPP would often retweet them, and I love attention. The former is also because I love attention.
One thing that I think about a lot is how teams are built, and what kinds of moves are made in their development. One series of tweets in particular comes to mind when thinking about the current Maple Leafs team. I pointed out that from 1999 to 2004, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs every year, and over those six seasons, there were only three players to survive the entire time. Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, and Tie Domi.
While Sundin and Kaberle were undoubtedly stars, and having them in hand was important, it sort of struck me as crazy that teams could rebuild for years and years and the Leafs could turn over 20 out of 23 roster spots without missing a beat. They won a playoff round in every one of those seasons but 2003, a year in which they took the Flyers to seven games, and arguably could have won the series had Pat Quinn not shortened the bench in overtime.
A lot of these were straight upgrades. Mike Johnson was traded for Darcy Tucker. Curtis Joseph left as a free agent and was replaced by Ed Belfour, and Steve Thomas was effectively replaced a year before he left as a free agent by the signing of Gary Roberts. You could argue that the lack of a salary cap made it easier, with key free agent signings playing a big part, like Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny, Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Bryan Marchment, Ken Klee, and Shayne Corson at various points. I’m not totally convinced of this, since the free agent age was 31 at the time. The only player on that list that I’d argue is of a talent it’s hard to find on the free agent market was Alexander Mogilny. I’d argue it’s pretty unlikely that anyone on that list, Mogilny aside, was better at that point than Clarke MacArthur.
You can see how quickly rosters change just by looking at the current Maple Leafs team. Last year, they made the playoffs for the first time in a decade and turned over a third of the roster. Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Ryan Hamilton, Ryan O’Byrne, John-Michael Liles, Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin, Mark Fraser, and Ben Scrivens are gone. In are David Clarkson, Dave Bolland, Jonathan Bernier, Morgan Rielly, Troy Bodie, Mason Raymond, Tim Gleason, Paul Ranger, and Jerred Smithson.
You could even look at the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve won eleven playoff rounds since 2009. By my count, the only players left from that 2009 team to go to the Western Conference Finals are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, with two more players (Nikolai Khabibulin and Kris Versteeg) who left and came back. The best team in hockey for six years, and they’ve turned over 18 of 23 roster spots.
Now, there’s some debate about whether the Leafs are a legitimate playoff team, despite being pretty likely to make it for the second year in a row. I figure the Leafs are probably a legitimate high shooting percentage team. Their shooting percentages for the last four seasons are 9.0, 9.8, 11.5 and 10.1. Added together, since October 2010, the Leafs have been shooting just shy of what they’re at right now (10.1) at a total of 9.98%.
I also, think that they’re not a 42% possession type roster. Ron Wilson’s last Leaf team was a way worse roster than last year’s team, dragging around Luke Schenn before James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri became two of Toronto’s top players. That team was 46.7% in Fenwick close. They weren’t spectacular, but I sort of figure the roster as currently constructed is a bubble playoff group of skaters with two high end goaltenders.
So, I’m willing to concede that the Leafs are a playoff team, albeit not a team that can take the playoffs for granted.
All of that is a long way to establish where I’m going with this, but because I’m posting this at Pension Plan Puppets, I feel like there’s still some healthy and realistic skepticism about this team. For someone with at least a mild interest in statistics (I can read them and I trust them, but I’m not exactly going to be able to write anything with them that anyone really gives a shit about), I think I’m fairly optimistic about this team.
Considering what I said at the beginning, that the team from 1999 to 2004 involved a series of straight upgrades, I think it’s important to recognize what kind of upgrades the Leafs are capable of. I’d also like to put forward that this is a more long-view look into the summer, though I’m going to bring up guys who might be available at the trade deadline too
I think the fourth line could use work, although I thought the Jay McClement post by Not Norm Ullman was a real strong piece of work, but for the most part, I think Nonis needs to take away Carlyle’s buddies McLaren and Orr, and because he’s forced Holland into the lineup, I’m not convinced Nonis hasn’t learned he can’t give Carlyle any leeway. If I’m being honest here, I think Nonis probably isn’t in love with Carlyle, and just doesn’t feel he has the capital to take a risk and fire him. That’s for another post, though.
Right now, there’s tight cap space, and fourth liners are going to be overpriced at the deadline, even ones of the "not Colton fucking Orr" variety. I think both short and long run, your best option is probably playing small-contract kids like Jerry D’Amigo and Carter Ashton. Hell, if you’re convinced of Peter Holland on the third line (essentially the same points/sixty as Mike Cammalleri and Cody Hodgson), then you could make a real solid fourth line out of Dave Bolland centring Jay McClement and one of D’Amigo or Ashton. Once the summer comes, Bolland’s going to cost too much to keep, but McClement will likely come back at essentially the same price, and can probably centre both of those kids.
I’m pretty comfortable with second and third lines of Kadri centring Lupul and Kulemin and Holland centring Raymond and Clarkson. Clarkson’s deal is one of a small number in the NHL that I’m fairly convinced is unmoveable, but I think he’s a whatever third liner. The 2010 Blackhawks won the Cup with that much money sitting on the bench as their backup goaltender, and were one of the best few teams ever. The Leafs almost certainly won’t ever be as good as the 2010 Blackhawks, but the point is, Clarkson will be here for six more years or until the buyout, and it’s best not to try to daydream him off the team.
I’m a big fan of Nikolai Kulemin and Mason Raymond, but they’re definitely spots that could be upgraded. They’re 171st and 172nd in terms of even strength points per sixty minutes played. In other words, on a good team, you’d probably rather them on the third line. You could probably afford to keep one as a third liner (I assume Kulemin will be cheaper), but if you’re going to make an upgrade on the second and third lines, it’s probably letting Raymond leave in place of a better second line winger. I don’t want to get too into "options" because it’s so speculative, but some options include Florida’s Brad Boyes, Calgary’s Mike Cammalleri (if the Flames will eat his contract for the last few months), Colorado’s P.A. Parenteau, or maybe even a trade for Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle in the summer.
The two biggest areas of improvement are probably the first line centre and number two defence. Centre we’ll get to in a minute. Gunnarsson is a fine D-man, but he also is in way over his head on the top pairing with Dion Phaneuf. Hell, Phaneuf is in over his head in those minutes. Zdeno Chara aside, I’m not sure who wouldn’t be. F
There are options. Because of how big a disaster Calgary is, Mark Giordano is pretty constantly in the rumour mill, but he’s the definition of Burke type player, and I think we can all see the Calgary rebuild going a little like Toronto’s in terms of doing its best not to actually be a rebuild.
Another intriguing option is San Jose’s Dan Boyle. He’s old as hell, but the Leafs are probably in a position where they won’t hate themselves for signing a player with the intention of a Cup run. Another reason I bring him up is because David Alter tweeted the idea the other day, and later that day I either listened to an interview with Claude Loiselle on the radio or read the transcript on Hope Smoke’s Twitter feed. Apparently Loiselle was an assistant GM with Tampa Bay, and made specific reference to his dealings with Dan Boyle. Hyper speculative, sure, but I could see Boyle as a target this summer if the Leafs can manage to create the cap room.
The top line centre spot is one of controversy and a lot of interest. Paul Stastny is a free agent, and I’m still a decent fan of his. Bozak is putting up points, because of course a centre playing between a 30 goal scorer and a 40 goal scorer, getting over 20 minutes a game, loads of powerplay time, and shooting nearly 25% is going to put up points. Bozak isn’t much of a hockey player, and I don’t think he ever will be. That said, any replacement is a tough get. Paul Stastny, Mikhail Grabovski or if he’s bought out, Brad Richards, they’re all pretty hard targets. That said, maybe if you can get a guy like Richards, or Derek Roy, on a short term deal, you pull the trigger now just because this may be the easiest time to unload Bozak.
Of course, this a tediously long post, but there’s a real point here. We can all be a little alarmist about Caryle and Nonis and the players the team is locked into, and the idea of wasting whatever "window" comes with having Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk, and Jonathan Bernier, but every team turns over pretty constantly, and the real test of Nonis’ mettle will be if he’s willing to do with Pat Quinn did, or what Glen Sather often does, and turn over his own players, and improve on guys he personally likes. That, more than anything, is going to be the test for the Leafs over the next three or four seasons.