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Are the Toronto Maple Leafs changing their prospecting tactics?

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Last year, the only plan was more is better; this year, it seems like there is a more careful selection process.

Christian Bonin | TSGPhoto.com

In a month, the Toronto Maple Leafs will add seven players via the entry draft. A week ago, they added two players as free agent signings in Calle Rosén and Andreas Borgman. A few weeks before that, they added Miro Aaltonen. That’s ten new players, which is more than a lot of teams add to their systems in the off-season.

Last year, the Leafs added their 11 draft picks to the system, and Nikita Zaitsev, Kasimir Kaskisuo and Trevor Moore were the free agents signed from outside the NHL to contracts. That seems similar.

There’s more off-season to come of course, and more time for the Leafs to add more free agents if they like. They have some of their draft picks to make decisions over, as well.

Some decisions are more urgent than others, like Dominic Toninato. The Toronto Star talked to his agent who said this about his client who has to be signed by August 15 or he becomes a free agent:

“The Leafs are in a different situation than they were a year ago,” says Neil Sheehy, Toninato’s agent. “But it’s a good situation to have, when both your NHL and minor-league teams make the playoffs.”

Sheehy says he will talk to the Leafs about Toninato again on July 3, adding the forward is not interested in an AHL deal.

The Star article also mentions that Toninato was offered an NHL contract last year, but this year the SPC situation is different, and the Leafs haven’t decided yet what they want to do.

When you step down to the action on the Marlies front that it becomes clear that the “more is better, sign all the players” theme of last year has given way to a more careful selection process.

I’m not sure I agree with Toninato’s agent that the change is due to the playoff status of the Leafs. I think it’s a natural structural process for a rebuilding team that started out with one of the thinnest prospect pools in the NHL.

How we got here

At the time Brendan Shanahan took over the Leafs, spring 2014, they had a few bright shiny toys like Morgan Rielly, but overall their depth was very poor. Teams who had been in the playoffs for years and hadn’t had a top 15 draft pick in ages had better options just outside the NHL.

If you look at the Marlies roster for the season that was just wrapping up as Shanahan was hired, the only future NHLer of note was Greg McKegg. They were a good team for the AHL, though. They won their division, did well in the playoffs, and scored a lot of goals. But they weren’t a team developing future Leafs. They were developing future SHL and KHL stars and lifetime AHLers. You don’t win with most draft picks, and near misses are to be expected, but you don’t want to have no one on your AHL team capable of becoming a significant part of your NHL roster.

Shanahan did not rush into changes for the team. Beyond drafting William Nylander that summer, nothing much changed until the summer of 2015, when the Leafs had the fourth overall to spend, a new infrastructure coming on line, and a pair of teams to start building.

The 2015-2016 Marlies roster had a lot of players who were NHL ready. They waited out most of the year in the minors while the Leafs were stripped down and rebuilt. Their youthful enthusiasm was imported to the Leafs that spring, and they helped make the team lose a lot while being fun to watch. No tanking team has ever been that entertaining.

At the same time as that was going on, the Leafs organization was adding players in bulk to the Marlies. Their roster hit 47 names—later to balloon to 50—and I compared it to spring training in baseball:

To say the Marlies head into the playoffs with enough options to cover more injuries than you can imagine is an understatement. The other thing they’re getting out of spring training is a good long look at a lot of top-quality players who may grace the ranks of the Orlando Solar Bears (or whichever ECHL team gets the affiliation) next year as well as the Marlies depth chart. Which is exactly what baseball uses it for.

This continues a trend from last summer, where the Leafs invited a lot of players to rookie camp--again, not an unusual thing, except for the scale. Imagine what this year’s will look like?

We know now that the Leafs invited a lot of players to their summer camps last year. They looked at Tyler Wong, whom Chicago signed to an AHL deal this year when his junior career was over. They looked further at players like Moore, whom they gave an NHL deal to, and Nikolas Brouillard whom they signed to an AHL deal. There were a few other AHL deals signed as well out of “spring training” and the summer that followed.

The Marlies had more younger players this season than ever before, and the draft picks that came on board weren’t the only rookies on the team. While none of the additions were in Nylander’s class, they likely had some equivalents to Connor Brown and Zach Hyman come on board last year.

The Marlies also filled up the Orlando Solar Bears with some of their newest players, like Brouillard and Mason Marchment. But to be honest, the Solar Bears never played with a big enough roster. The trickle down effect isn’t quite working at the ECHL level.

This spring has been nothing like last year.

Where we are now

The total list of players added on try-out deals to the Marlies is three previously drafted players in Pierre Engvall, Jesper Lindgren and Carl Grundström, as well as goalie Jordan Papirny.

These three skater tryouts weren’t about finding talent to help build up the AHL depth, however, they were about making specific decisions about those players. Grundström may have surprised some with how fast he adapted to the AHL, but there was no question he could. His ELC signing was an easy decision. The only question there is where he plays next year.

The other two are tougher calls. Like Toninato, Engvall and Lindgren are unsigned. The Leafs have one more year to think it over with Engvall, two with Lindgren. Lindgren, interestingly, has not signed a Swedish contract yet for next year.

The mass infusion of talent needed to make up for years of bad drafting and to redesign the Marlies into a true development team seems to have slowed down dramatically. The Leafs are moving into maintaining or improving the quality of their roster, not just adding players in bulk and assuming the cream will rise to the top.

Part of the reason they can do that is that they drafted older players last year. Grundström will turn 20 this year. Adam Brooks, Yegor Korshkov and Jack Walker will all be 21 by the time the coming season starts, while Nikolai Chebykin and Vladimir Bobylev will be 20 by then.

They’re all done with junior hockey. They are all capable of contributing on AHL deals, although some will stay in Europe, but the Leafs are now in a position of picking and choosing who they want, not taking every player they can find. They don’t have to sign their own draft picks just to have enough players. They can let Toninato walk as a free agent if he doesn’t want an AHL deal.

Where we’re going

There won’t be five or six players moving off of this year’s Marlies onto the Leafs, and there won’t be on next year’s Marlies. That’s likely never happening again.

The 2016-2017 Marlies were lacking in balance—overloaded at wing, under-serviced on defence and centre—and unlucky with injuries. That imbalance was largely because of the bulk-buying strategy that filled up the team indiscriminately. That needs to be fixed, but the future of the Marlies is as a team with a few players who can be called up to fill a depth role and with one or two overripe prospects who won’t be promoted to the Leafs until they are fully developed.

Teams like the Kings and Penguins have proven that you can have a successful AHL team without ever having a draft pick in the top half of the first round. This is the challenge the Leafs face in the coming years. When you get in the playoffs and your star players are watching on crutches, you need to have developed replacements that are ready to be good as soon as they arrive. To do that, you need to be willing and able to keep them in the AHL, and the players have to be willing and able to wait for their chance like Colton Sissons did before he scored a hat trick in the game that sent the Nashville Predators to the final for the first time ever.

This is a whole new ball game.