It's become common for Leafs fans and media to trumpet the idea that the team is 'tanking' for the next few years (note the plural). There's certainly a lot of evidence for that claim. New coach Mike Babcock famously said "there will be pain" before the Leafs are restored to their former glory.
Both Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan have stressed the need for patience, and not trying to make quick fixes in a roster that needs a dramatic overhaul.
This leads to the idea in the fanbase that the Leafs are going to suck, and suck miserably for the next two or three years, at minimum. If the Leafs subreddit (reddit.com/r/leafs) is any indication, it’s pretty easy to find comments that expressed this belief. I found two, both highly voted (here and here).
These aren't isolated posts, either. I've observed that this is a rather common sentiment. In addition, there seems to be contentment with this plan for the team. Fans seem to be alright with the team tanking for multiple years, as long as it means our management won't make shortsighted or illogical moves (
like the Kessel trade).
I, on the other hand, am not entirely thrilled with the idea of abjectly tanking for any year beyond 2015/2016. To be clear, that doesn't mean I want a playoff team by 2016/2017. But what I think is necessary is that the team start to graduate its star prospects to the NHL (Mitch Marner and William Nylander should be full-time NHLers at this point) and begin to augment that core with useful players.
We may still be a bad team in 2016/2017, but we should be aiming to win games, and build a roster that can compete long-term (as opposed to this year, where our only goal, by all accounts, is to evaluate whether current players like Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner fit into our long-term plans).
Something that often gets forgotten when fans say that the Leafs need to tank long-term (for the purposes of clarity, I mean two to three additional years of tanking) is that we've been terrible for three of the past four years already. Since 2012, the Leafs have selected in the following positions in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
|Year||Pick #||Player Selected|
As shown above, the Leafs have selected in the top 10 in three of the last four years. As a result, the Leafs already have three blue-chip young assets, one of whom is already an impact player in the NHL (Rielly).
Add another top 10 draft pick this year, and you're looking at four potentially foundational players, assuming Marner, Nylander, and the 2016 pick pan out (which is basically a necessity for any sort of rebuild plan anyways). We also added another highly rated prospect in Kasperi Kapanen.
Why would we want to pick in the top end of the draft for years beyond that? The benefit to tanking is that you bolster the very top end of your prospect pool. The Leafs have spent three of the last four years doing just that. They'll do so again this year. The top end of the Leafs prospect pool is good – if not great. Rielly is among the best young defensemen in the league and is already elite offensively. William Nylander's historical production is almost literally unprecedented.
Mitch Marner is on a very short list of players who dominated the way he did in his draft year. There's nothing wrong with the top end of the Leafs prospect system. The issue is depth (especially since the attrition rate of non-elite prospects is so high).
If the Leafs continue to tank beyond this year, they start eating into the entry-level contracts of Marner and Nylander. Perhaps more importantly, they waste the beginning of their primes, as well as the prime of Rielly. That doesn't even mention the asset depreciation you experience in slightly older players like Kadri and Gardiner, both of whom are good enough to be cornerstone pieces of a great team.
Proponents of a long-term tank also fail to consider the natural progression of a contender. It's impossible to just flip the switch from "we're tanking" to "we're building a contender". That's a process that takes time - you can't throw your blue chip players to the wolves.
They need to be accentuated carefully and smartly; it's exactly what Edmonton has failed at doing, and what Buffalo must do now if they're going to be anything besides the Eastern Oilers. To illustrate this, lets look at the last four (unique) Cup winners, and how they fared in the seasons prior to their first championship.
|Team||Year of First Cup (YOFC)||YOFC - 1||YOFC -2||YOFC - 3|
|Chicago||2009/2010||WCF||10th in WC||13th in WC (drafted Kane)|
|Los Angeles||2011/2012||WCQF||WCQF||14th in WC (drafted Doughty)|
|Boston||2010/2011||ECSF||ECSF||ECQF (drafted Kessel the year prior)|
|Pittsburgh||2008/2009||SCF||ECQF||15th in EC (drafted Crosby the year prior)|
There's a clear pattern here. Each of these teams went through stages. From basement dweller, to on the playoff bubble, to playoff contender, to champion. That's a process that takes multiple years.
When fans say they want to tank long-term, they often forget the two years after you finish tanking, but before you become a serious title threat. For the Leafs, that means a two or three year tank (including this one) implies that in a best case scenario, the Leafs will become legitimate Cup contenders in 2020/2021. That also would imply the Leafs would pick in the top 10 or thereabouts in five of six years - a truly Edmontonian mark.
Beyond being awful to watch for that time period, this also has the effect of making your early prospects squander their talents on terrible teams. This may lead to those players becoming more expensive (and potentially wantaways) when you're ready to start building. Sam Gagner is a good example of this.
To sum up, it simply doesn't make sense for the Leafs to continue to tank for more than the next year. They've built the top-end of their prospect pool, and now need to augment that with smart drafting in later rounds - they’re off to a good start there, if the 2015 draft is any indication. Signing low-risk free agents to fill out the edges of the lineup (hey, we're two for two), and getting good value for the current roster players they trade will be key as well (*sad trombone*).
In 2016/2017, the Leafs should be expected to take positive steps forward, graduate their top prospects to the big leagues, and start filling out the rest of their roster around them. If not, they're wasting young cost-controlled years of the great prospects they do have, and ignoring the time it takes to flip the switch from awful to great.