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The grass is always greener in Toronto

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Mike Babcock dreams of a day where he can shop for superstars without having to look at the price tag. But hasn't he already got it pretty good?

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
"The whole league is set up to help the bottom feeders," Babcock said. "We have a salary cap, do we not? So, if there was no salary cap, the Toronto Maple Leafs could go out and spend as much money as they wanted, could they not? And as long as you made the money you could spend it. Now, I like that. That’s my political background. That’s what I believe in in life, but that’s not the way the league is run. So let’s fix that first and then we can get into the draft."

Mike Babcock made this statement last week, which imagines a system totally opposite to what the NHL is—namely a league where it is possible to have 30+ teams before there's revenue in 30 places to support them.

You'd think he might understand by now how building something from nothing works, but then again, the Leafs are not a have-nothing team in any way but their winning record. So maybe he's really never been where the grass isn't greener.

The grass is very green under the Leafs. Their deep pockets and stable revenue streams enabled them to be a terrible team for decades, broken up by periods of vigorous mediocrity. Now, their deep pockets give them a huge advantage for the rebuild. They have a lot of money to spend.

The most obvious way the Leafs spend money is on Babcock himself.

Coaching

Graph from Hockey-Graphs.

Look at the Leafs compared to a team Babcock bluntly calls a bottom feeder, the Arizona Coyotes. They, like the Leafs, have started over with a crop of hot young prospects fleshed out with veteran players signed as UFAs on short deals.

They're paying an average amount for Dave Tippet. Meanwhile, Toronto has poured out a record setting mass of cash for Babcock.

But long before you pay a person to coach players, you have to get them.

Scouting

Toronto Arizona
Dave Morrison Director, Pro Scouting Director of Pro Scouting Frank Effinger
Mike Penny Pro Scout Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting Jeff Twohey
Tom Watt Pro Scout Professional Scout David MacLean
Bryan Stewart Pro Scout Professional Scout Jim Roque
Professional Scout Doug Soetaert
Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Bernhardt
John Lilley Amateur Scout Amateur Scout Rob Pulford
Lindsay Hofford Amateur Scout Amateur Scout Mike Sands
Garth Malarchuk Amateur Scout Amateur Scout Glen Zacharias
Dale Derkatch Amateur Scout Amateur Scout Trevor Hanson
Tony Martino Amateur Scout Amateur Scout Victor Posa
Jim Vesey Amateur Scout Amateur Scout Bobby Vermette
Amateur Scout Max Kolu
Ari Vuori Director, European Scouting European Scout Thomas Carlsson
Thommie Bergman European Scout European Scout Robert Neuhauser
Robert Nordmark European Scout
Nikolai Ladygin European Scout

This is the size of a staff you need to run a pro hockey team. You need to scout the other teams, scout junior and NCAA prospects, and you need to go to Europe. Interestingly Toronto has a smaller staff overall; perhaps the big purge this past summer let them get rid of bloat. But when it comes to Europe, you can see the money being spent.

The 'Yotes have one long-time professional in Neuhauser, and a young guy just getting his feet wet outside of amateur scouting in Carlsson. The Leafs don't just have a department of four guys, they have two of the most experienced and storied names in European scouting in Vuori and Bergman. Plus, they actually have a Russian.

The Leafs also have Mark Hunter as director of player personnel as their defacto expert on the OHL. The Leafs are spending their money to buy better opinions on prospects, especially the little gems hidden away in Europe that can be had with lower draft picks, or even better, no pick at all.

This is the new and improved expanded Coyotes scouting staff. In 2014, Don Maloney discussed their past spending on scouting:

"I do feel like we're paying the price for running relatively lean in our scouting department," Maloney said. "Given our budget, we have to be a team that scouts well and develops well to compete. We can't buy our way out of mistakes.

"The positive now is that the new ownership group understands you have to invest in infrastructure. It's not just about investing in payroll and skimping on everything else."

Prior to the hires in the last few years, the team had one inexperienced European scout and no one scouting NCAA free agents.

Developing

You draft them and then what? Just let them go on their way and hope?

The Coyotes have a fairly standard set of trainers and medical staff, as do the Leafs, but on top of that the Leafs have this:

Player Evaluation
Jim Paliafito Director of Player Evaluation
Wes Clark Player Evaluation Consultant
Mike Gerrits Player Evaluation Consultant
Player Development
Scott Pellerin Director of Player Development
Darryl Belfry Player Development Consultant
Barbara Underhill Skating Development Consultant
Mike Ellis Skill Development Consultant

A trip down the Leafs org. chart shows a comprehensive medical staff of several departments, training, nutrition—it goes on and on. Players have commented favourably on what the Leafs do for their bodies as much as they have about what Babcock does for their game.

Dollars, dollars, dollars. All spent on players, and we know that these services get extended to the Marlies as well.

The AHL

The Leafs own their AHL team, and it's conveniently located in Toronto. They utilize the same training and development staff—Mike Ellis has accompanied the Marlies on road trips to work with Connor Brown amongst others. Barb Underhill is there in rookie camp, training camp and through the year working on skating skills with all the players.

The Coyotes have to rely on an AHL team on the other side of the country that is owned by someone else and run to suit his bottom line, not theirs. Even if they could arrange an affiliation with a team closer to Phoenix, they still would not have the level of control the Leafs have because they'd never be able to buy it.

EDIT: Wow, it seems this was really wrong. Word is today that the Coyotes are indeed buying a franchise to place in Tucson. Excellent news if it pans out.

Then there's the issue of players. The Leafs have stacked their AHL roster with a mass of draftees, veteran AHLers, college kids on ATOs and European signings like Nikita Soshnikov. They never have to think before they buy. The equipment costs, food, logistics, training etc. for this mass of hockey playing humanity just never crosses their minds. The official Marlies roster has 47 names on it right now.

This is mining for gold, and the Leafs can sift through a much larger pile of rocks looking for things that glint in the sun.

Okay, now that you've found your prospects, kept an eye on them wherever in the world they are, given them the best AHL experience money can buy, you're ready to put them on your team and send them to practice.

Real Estate

The Leafs own two big chunks of real estate: the Air Canada Centre where they play and the Master Card Centre, which they built in conjunction with the city of Toronto, and is their practice facility with four ice surfaces.

The Coyotes use a similar, smaller practice facility in Scottsdale that also serves as a community skating centre and entertainment facility. The saga of their main arena is infamous and tortured, but suffice it to say, they don't own their own home.

Risk

The thing about wealth is that it doesn't just buy you things like arenas, it changes how you think.

What the Leafs can do is take risks, big ones. If they spend money on something and it fails, it's not a disaster. If Arizona doesn't manage every bit of expense perfectly, they can't raise their internal budget on players like they will need to to succeed.

The cost to the Leafs of taking on Michael Grabner—his cash salary was large compared to his cap hit—meant nothing to them. That he didn't transform into a draft pick is a disappointment, not a calamity.

Toronto's expected cap hit on the year will be $71,341,955 with Arizona's at $60,770,622.

But the total salary paid is the number the Leafs can ignore and the Coyotes can't ever lose sight of. Toronto's is $78,337,500 while Arizona's is $58,835,777.

That's a difference of $10,571,333 in cap hit—two excellent players or three good ones (or a big mistake). But it's a difference of $19,501,723 in cash salary. Almost twenty million dollars more spent just in player salaries on a team that came last mostly on purpose vs. a team that tried their damnedest to get some playoff revenue this year.

That's the other difference money makes. Money let Toronto be really bad for a second year in a row, but Arizona played their rookies all year and seriously considered not sending Dylan Strome back to junior hockey. Arizona tried to sign UFAs who could play now at very low prices, not guys to turn into draft picks. Arizona had not much to sell at the deadline. Toronto raked in picks even in a down market.

There is no green grass under the Arizona Coyotes. They have to work harder, be better, more efficient, smarter, and they can't ever make mistakes. It's not sustainable.

They fired Don Maloney on Monday, and Anthony LeBlanc the president of the Coyotes had this to say about their spending.

We are being accused today, in the court of public opinion, of not putting enough money into this program. And I do understand people being quick to rush to that judgement, but I'm here to tell you it's somewhat shortsighted.

Firstly, there is an absolute difference between spending money and spending money wisely. We don't think our track record has been particularly stellar on that front.

LeBlanc goes on to state that re-signings or free agent signings did not fail due to lack of money to spend, but that they need flexibility and the resources to sign their young stars as they come off ELCs. He also points out what we can all see: that spending doesn't absolutely correlate to making the playoffs year to year.

He's right, and he points to the Florida Panthers as a team that has been successful on a budget. The Coyotes want to get at least to where Florida is, and they can do it. They just need to work twice as hard as the Leafs who can just sip the cream without stressing over it.

As much as it might be fun to imagine what Babcock could do with the team of superstars an unfettered Toronto budget could buy, it's not going to happen, and he's just going to have to learn to make do with the team that spares no expense on the players they do have. Or the coach.

He'll be fine.