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How the Leafs leapfrogged the Sabres

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Two rebuilds diverged in a yellow wood...

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see the idea that the Leafs were about a year behind their neighbours down the QEW in their rebuild. On its surface, it made sense.

The Sabres were a year removed from drafting their centrepiece, Jack Eichel, while the Leafs had just done so with Auston Matthews. The Sabres had finished their blatant, multi-year tank a year earlier and had committed money to the coach they thought would help lead them to the promised land, Dan Bylsma (not before throwing a lot of money at Mike Babcock, though). The Sabres seemed poised to take a leap forward, while the Leafs appeared to just be beginning the long, slow, climb to relevance.

Of course, it didn’t quite go down like that. The Leafs zoomed into the playoffs, giving the favoured Capitals a run for their money, while the Sabres were in the lottery for the 6th straight year. What happened to let the Leafs rebuild leapfrog the Sabres? To answer that, let’s go back to the first year of the blatant Sabres tank (2013/2014) and see what both teams did, year by year.

2013/2014

Sabres

The 2013/2014 season was when the Sabres really began their megatank. After a few years of being mediocre, they decided that the best way to become great was to become terrible first. As such, their roster was a mess. Steve Ott was their captain, which tells you a lot. Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis were their leading scorers with 44 and 43 points, respectively. Ryan Miller was traded midseason to the Blues. On the blueline, Tyler Myers and a 19-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen gave Sabres fans hope, but otherwise, it was pretty bleak as far as key players go.

Results: 21-51-10 (52 points), last in the league by 14 points. This was the first of the Sabres teams that had all the fancystats people annoyed because they literally were off the charts bad. They had a 43.4 CF%, which is tied for the 2nd worst in the Corsi era (2007/2008 onwards). The team they were tied with was the 2007/2008 Thrashers. I want to emphasize how awful this team was. They were not a run of the mill last place team. This will turn out to matter a lot later on.

Draft: The Sabres lost the lottery, ending up picking 2nd in a year where Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennett, and Sam Reinhart were vying for the top spot. They ended up with Reinhart, who most believe was the prospect GM Tim Murray would have picked first overall anyways.

Leafs

The Leafs had just come off the back of a thrilling and heartbreaking first round playoff loss to the Bruins in the 2013 playoffs. To follow this up, they decided to destroy their team in one of the more overt displays of management incompetence in recent NHL history. You know the story: Clarkson contract, Grabovski buy out, Bernier trade, Gauthier draft. During the regular season, they signed Dion Phaneuf to a laughably terrible deal (7 years, $7M AAV). The in-game coaching decisions weren’t much better. These were the years of two enforcers on the 4th line and Jay McClement getting 20 minutes a game.

With Randy Carlyle behind the bench, the team was among the worst in the league in terms of controlling play. They finished 9 points out of the playoffs. Despite that, the Leafs did have some talent. Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were undeniable first line offensive players. Nazem Kadri had a 50 point year, and Tyler Bozak came close with 49. On D, Dion Phaneuf was played over his head, but 23 year old Jake Gardiner and 19 year old Morgan Rielly were bright spots who fans hoped would stabilize the back-end for a while.

In April of 2014, Brendan Shanahan was announced as the Leafs Team President, overseeing the hockey operations of the team. Later in the summer, Kyle Dubas was hired by the Leafs as Assistant General Manager.

Results: 38-36-8 (84 points), 6th in the division, 23rd in the league. A legitimately bad team that was made worse by coaching.

Draft: Drafting 8th overall, the Leafs took advantage of Vancouver and Carolina making some poor picks, and drafted William Nylander. This is possibly the most significant pick they’ve made in the last five years or so, given that there was a real fear they would go with a less talented but more physically mature player like Nick Ritchie. Nikolaj Ehlers would have also been a great pick at that spot, but I don’t think any Leafs fan is complaining about Nylander. If that draft were to be held today, he’d certainly go in the top 5.

2014/2015

Sabres

This is where the Sabres tank really hit high gear. The Sabres made it their mission to finish in last place, and give themselves a 20% shot at Connor McDavid, and an 80% shot at Jack Eichel. They added basically nobody to the previous year’s roster. They traded away multiple goalies after they played too well for the Sabres’ tank. They traded away Tyler Myers for Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane, with the latter being injured. It was a masterful tank job, in that they finished last, amid furious competition to do so. But the only young NHL talent on this roster were Ristolainen, Ennis, and Hodgson (who took a massive step back, with only 13 points in 78 games). After the season, they fired Ted Nolan, and made a run at Mike Babcock. Babcock spurned them for the Leafs, leading to the Sabres signing Dan Bylsma. A hilarious side effect of this was the unending salt from parts of the Buffalo media, who acted as though Babs had run over all their dogs.

Results: 23-51-8 (54 points), last in the league by 2 points, because everyone else decided to tank for McDavid too. This team had a 39 CF%, which is impressive in how bad it is. I think Latvia (also coached by Nolan) had a higher CF% in the 2014 Olympics. As mentioned above, they had almost no NHL talent, and even less of the talent they did have was young and foreseeably fit into their future roster.

Draft: The Sabres lost the lottery again, ending up picking 2nd. They got the world’s best consolation prize in Eichel, though that didn’t stop Tim Murray from complaining about how unfair it all was.

Leafs

After extending Randy Carlyle, much to the chagrin of their fanbase, the Leafs were predictably terrible once again. Their offseason moves largely consisted of acquiring some low-risk depth players like Mike Santorelli, David Booth, and Daniel Winnik, and reacquiring Leo Komarov. They also signed Stephane Robidas to a 3 year deal that looked awful as soon as the ink was dry.

There were some bright spots though. The Dubas hire was well-received, as was the hiring of Brandon Pridham in August, and Mark Hunter in October. The Leafs fired Carlyle midseason, replacing him with poor Peter Horachek, who was facing a roster that openly didn’t give a shit anymore. They traded Santorelli, Cody Franson, and Winnik, receiving some valuable futures in return, including Brendan Leipsic and some picks. At long last, the Leafs were appearing to rebuild, trading off assets they didn’t need. The most shocking of these moves was when the Leafs traded David Clarkson to the Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton’s LTIR-able deal. It’s hard to express how shocking this was at the time — more than anything else, this move gave some real hope that the Leafs could rebuild in the near future.

The Shanaplan started to take shape. Dave Nonis was fired after the season, and the Leafs appeared to clean house entirely. The Leafs hired Mike Babcock for a shitload of money, and Buffalo was salty.

Results: 30-44-8 (68 points), 7th in the division, 27th in the league.

Draft: Drafting 4th overall, the Leafs drafted Mitch Marner, passing over talented defensemen like Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov. While one could argue that Provorov or Werenski would have been the optimal selection, given the Leafs defensive frailties, Marner is a phenomenal player, and was the logical pick to make. The rest of the draft was well received in analytical circles, as they repeatedly traded down, and appeared to target high scoring forwards with their picks, of which they had many.

2015/2016

Sabres

The Sabres finally decided to start building. They stole Ryan O’Reilly from Colorado, saw Reinhart and Eichel graduate to the NHL, and signed Cody Franson to shore up their defence group. They also acquired Robin Lehner to be their goaltender of the future.

Unfortunately for them, they still had no depth, and since the rest of their roster was replacement level, they were still bad. That said, bad was a notable step up for the Sabres, and this was seen as a relatively respectable year for them. They weren’t good, but they also weren’t embarrassingly awful, with a 48.4 CF%. They were never going to fully replace a roster that terrible in a year, but their young core all seemed to perform well, and the additions of ROR and Kane added top level talent to their forward group. Ristolainen appeared to explode offensively with 41 points, which was great until you realized that he only scored on the power play. They had other useful defensemen like Mark Pysyk and Franson, but no real standouts. It didn’t help that they played Josh Gorges a lot either.

Results: 35-36-11 (81 points), 7th in the division, 23rd in the league.

Draft: The Sabres took the lesser Nylander at 8th overall. Nylander has since done reasonably well in the AHL, though it doesn’t seem like he’ll end up being as good a player as his older brother.

Leafs

The Leafs fully committed to the rebuild this year, most notably, trading Phil Kessel in the offseason for a package centred around Kasperi Kapanen. They signed a bunch of short-term deals, with an eye towards trading anyone who wasn’t bolted down, netting some draft picks and young players like Connor Carrick in return. Notably, they kept players like Gardiner, Kadri, and JvR. During the season, they managed to fleece Ottawa into taking Dion Phaneuf’s albatross deal in return for the Leafs absorbing a lot of short-term money. Meanwhile, Babcock worked his magic on the roster and drastically improved the possession play of the team. The scoring didn’t follow, partially due to luck, and partially because the Leafs had almost no one who could finish. But the signs of a turnaround were there.

Results: 29-42-11 (69 points), last in the league. This team was, as far as last place teams go, pretty good. They were above 50 CF%, they just couldn’t finish at all. They were kind of lucky to finish last. JvR got injured, as did Tyler Bozak. Nazem Kadri was snakebitten all year. Jonathan Bernier combusted, and Garret Sparks was awful in his first go-round at the NHL. This was a run of the mill bad team that managed to finish last through some bad (good) luck.

Draft: In a huge stroke of luck, the Leafs won the lottery and picked 1st overall, selecting Auston Matthews. Obviously, it’s hard to overstate the importance of drafting him.

This takes us to this past season. Both the Leafs and Sabres started to build out their rosters more. The Leafs acquired their goalie of the future in Frederik Andersen, signed some depth, and promoted some prospects. The Sabres signed Kyle Okposo, and traded for Dmitri Kulikov, giving up Mark Pysyk in the process (whoops). Their defence remained bad, which was unsurprising, as they still seemed to think Ristolainen was some secret 1D.

So why did the Leafs do so well, while the Sabres did so poorly? Part of it is that the Leafs got contributions from 4 of their 5 most recent first round picks (since Matthews was NHL ready immediately), while the Sabres didn’t get anything from their 2016 class (obviously). In addition, it could be argued that Eichel aside (and he was injured last year), the Leafs have the next 4 best young players (Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Rielly*). The Leafs have appeared to draft better inside the top 10 than the Sabres have, over the last few seasons.

*Sabres fans, do not argue that Ristolainen is better than Rielly. You’re embarassing yourselves.

That said, it’s not like the Sabres are bereft of high-end talent. ROR is an incredible player, and Evander Kane is a skilled goal scorer. They’re the Sabres’ analogues of Kadri and JvR. Eichel is the truth, and Reinhart was picked 2nd overall for a reason. Alex Nylander was (at the time of his draft) considered as good a prospect as William, and he still could be. The Sabres did (and do) have very good top-end forwards.

A possible culprit is coaching. The Leafs won the Babcock sweepstakes, and the Sabres had to settle for a worse coach - that made a difference. But I don’t think that explains all of the divergence. To me, the biggest difference is that the Leafs never fully gutted their roster to tank the way the Sabres did, especially on defense. The Sabres didn’t have a defenseman like Gardiner to absorb minutes at a high level. They didn’t have secondary scoring depth like Tyler Bozak, or a wealth of prospects who could play at middle six levels like Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, or Josh Leivo.

They didn’t address their defense the way the Leafs did, acquiring a useful second pair defenseman in Nikita Zaitsev for no assets besides cap space. They have a bunch of has-beens and never will-bes in the depth positions of their lineups. It’s hard to rebuild a team quickly when you have to replace 8 or 9 roster spots. You can’t do that in a summer, especially when you’re in Buffalo and have limited pull with free agents. It didn’t help that the Sabres seemed to chronically fail to properly evaluate defencemen under Murray. Jack Eichel said after this season that too many Sabres players were simply happy with being in the NHL. When I heard that, my immediate thought was “that’s because they’re not NHL players”.

The Leafs didn’t have that problem. Their young prospects stepped into those depth positions well, and they didn’t have as many to fill because the team kept a lot of reasonably competent players. Ultimately, the Leafs were lucky that they managed to bottom out without truly gutting their roster the way the Sabres did. The next few years will be reaping the reward of doing so.