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Rebuilding the Maple Leafs: Part 1

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The "Shanaplan" is activated this summer. What does the new management group have to work with?

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The Maple Leafs organization is done for the 2014-15 season. The Maple Leafs failed to make the playoffs, and both their minor league affiliates (the Toronto Marlies of the AHL and the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL) bowed out in the first round of their league's playoffs. The focus is squarely on the NHL draft and the future. Before Brendan Shanahan and his management team set about rebuilding the team, we will go through the organization and assess what the team's strengths, weaknesses and key needs are, starting today with goaltending.

It's no secret that as an organization, the Maple Leafs need help in virtually every area. Some people may try to quibble that Player X or Prospect Y are a real great piece, but the overall point can't really be argued; the Leafs organization is thin in a lot of areas, and needs to bolster its talent pool at nearly all levels of the organization.

Not every area is as painfully shallow as others, and it could be argued that the team's greatest area of organizational strength is, amazingly, goaltending. After nearly a decade of having the team's lack of suitable goaltending options submarine the work that had been done to move the team forward, the team may have stumbled into some sort of consistency at the NHL level with intriguing prospects in the pipeline.

Here's a quick snapshot of the Leafs depth chart in net, first at the NHL level and then below.

The good news here? The Leafs have one of the youngest goaltending groups in the league, with two mid-20s guys in the NHL and three young prospects in the minor leagues learning how to be professionals. Over the last decade the team has cycled through an awful lot of goalies trying to hit on something that worked. While it's far from perfect, and they don't possess a top-flight goalie (in the Carey Price/Tuukka Rask/Henrik Lundqvist) class, they have two fairly young, NHL calibre goalies who were (and may remain) on inexpensive contracts relative to their performance.

Jonathan Bernier took a step backwards from his stellar campaign in 2013-14 when he supplanted the starting netminder job from James Reimer, and Reimer struggled with providing the levels of consistency you need from a backup goaltender who may start less frequently.

This is the default graph War-On-Ice generates from its goalie comparison tool. The fairly linear relationship between Unadjusted Save Percentage and Adjusted Save Percentage doesn't appear to me to provide much detail; we see here that Bernier's numbers were in the meaty part of the middle (his circle is just slightly above and to the right of Karri Ramo, if that helps to find him), while James Reimer is towards the bottom end of the curve (slightly below Alex Stalock).

The second graph here moves some of the information around, looking at unadjusted SV% against Shots Against/60, with the colouring representing High-Danger Save%. Looking at the graph in this fashion I think allows you to see more meaningful differences between goalies.

We see that both Bernier and Reimer faced a significantly high number of shots (Reimer actually faced the highest per 60 rate of shots in the league last year), while both were slightly above-average when facing High-Danger Shots. In fact, both were pretty well above-average at Medium-Danger shots as well, but below average facing Low-Danger Shots, which probably requires more study but could logically be a function of facing significantly more shots.

JP has done some good analysis on what pending RFA Bernier should be paid next season, and the question of whether Bernier should be moved or not is an interesting one.

The Leafs utilized a very small portion of their salary cap on goaltending last season, and received results that I would say were in line with that expenditure. However, the Leafs issues appear to be their inability to suppress shots, something that the goalies don't have much control over. Shots against came down considerably under Peter Horachek, but the statistics tell a story that improvements to Goals Against need to come from improvements on the Defence and Forwards (which we will get to in future articles).

As for the minor league spots? Going into last season, I would have expected Sparks to have been given the opportunity to be starting goalie for the Marlies, with Bibeau and Gibson splitting time between the AHL and ECHL. It ended up being the opposite; Gibson was 12th in the AHL in Save Percentage (and top 20 in every other basic goaltending category the AHL calls "stats"), while the rookie Antoine Bibeau was 29th in 31 games (fairly similar statistically to what Sparks managed in his rookie season in the AHL).

Sparks, meanwhile, missed out on his chance to compete regularly for an AHL spot because of a high ankle sprain, but led the ECHL in Save Percentage and was a major factor for the Solar Bears even getting into the playoffs.

The Leafs have two viable NHL goalies, and three prospects potentially capable of moving upwards in their careers. At this stage, I wouldn't feel comfortable moving any of the three minor-league goalies to the NHL, and you could make a compelling argument to move either or both of the NHL goalies depending on the circumstances and return.

The biggest problem facing the Leafs right now is that there is that right now the crease is simply too crowded; there are two goalies fighting for a starting spot in the NHL only one of them can have, and three goalies fighting for two spots in the AHL.

Sparks has proven himself worthy of a promotion to the AHL, but then you could argue so have Gibson and Bibeau. Somebody's going to have to move on at some point, though you can't fault Maple Leafs fans for having PTSD about such a choice given how Justin Pogge/Tuukka Rask turned out.

Further clouding the issue is the contract status of the group (Bernier RFA this summer, Gibson and Sparks RFA next summer and Reimer UFA next summer), since committing long-term to Bernier this summer limits the opportunities available to the rest (which shouldn't frankly be too much of a concern except for Reimer).

The Leafs go into the summer with numerous questions about the goaltending group that Shanahan and his team must sort through.

My personal opinion is that this is an area where a decision will be deferred to gather more information, because there are significantly more pressing matters that need attention, and goaltending is without question the most difficult position to assess and to project. The fact that the Leafs have capable options on reasonable cap hits (an assumption on Bernier's new contract), and for now, I think that's enough.