Tuesday, March 07, 2006

What's The Matter With The Maple Leafs?

Yesterday's Globe and Mail talked about the pressure on the 11th place Maple Leafs to make a move before Thursday's trading deadline. Tonight's game against Montreal is the big test. If they win, there's still hope; if they lose, the season's over.

As a Leafs fan, it pains me to commit heresy and root for the Habs to beat the Leafs. I don't want to do it, but the Leafs have been overdue for a rebuilding period for a long time. Anything that sidetracks that is bad. So as far as I'm concerned, the ends justify the means in this case. Please lose. Badly. The rebuilding process is far overdue.

Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (the Leafs and the Raptors) could learn some lessons from another executive in town, J.P. Ricciardi. Since taking over as General Manager of the Blue Jays, he has focused on acquiring assets and developing young talent within the organization. This past off-season, with the young talent in place and beginning to hit his stride, he made a series of bold moves in free agency and the trade market that, if they pan out, should help his team catapult from the second rung of the American League to the Championship hunt. The Raptors appear to have learned this lesson already, with the signing of highly-lauded Phoenix Suns executive Bryan Colangelo. We're now just waiting on the Leafs to see the writing on the wall.

It has long been time for the Leafs to quit chasing overpriced, veteran players, and commit to building a strong organization from within. Since they're a longshot to make the playoffs, and have almost no hope of winning the Cup, the time is ripe to rebuild the Maple Leafs franchise.

Eric Duhatschek has a good post on the subject as well; I'll touch briefly on the New York Rangers example that he uses later, but will instead focus on three things:

1. How the Leafs Got Here
2. What They Should Do Now
3. How They Can Set Themselves Up For a Future Run

Who Am I? How Did I Get Here?
Like David Byrne, many Maple Leaf fans are probably wondering how they went from being a perennial Cup contender five years ago to a team that can only muster a faint scent of the playoff race today.

For most of the past 15 years, the Leafs have been in win-now mode, which wouldn't be so problematic if they were always in a position to win. The problem has been that for most of these years, they have either been a non-playoff team, or more commonly, a fringe contender. As a fringe contender, they have made a string of moves to acquire veteran talent (at the expense of young players and draft picks) that never brought them any closer to the Cup.

Next to the Detroit Red Wings, the Leafs have been the team most willing to move high draft picks for players who can help immediately. This is not always a bad strategy - if you can get an all-star caliber player, or someone who can put a championship contender over the top. The Red Wings have moved first round picks for players like Dominik Hasek and Chris Chelios who helped them win the Cup; the Leafs have moved them for players like Wendel Clark and Owen Nolan who helped them advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Continuing the contrast between these two traditional rivals, the Wings have remained a contender in large part because of their success at the draft. The first round picks that they have held on to since the late 1990s (Jiri Fischer, Niklas Kronwall) have contributed. They've also been successful at finding gems in the middle rounds; some are already contributing (Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg) while others are part of the farm system (Jiri Hudler, Igor Grigorenko, Jimmy Howard).

The Leafs have not done either of these things well. In the past decade, they have wasted first round picks on duds like Nikolai Antropov (who they took ahead of Alex Tanguay, Robyn Regehr, and Simon Gagne) and Luca Cereda (taken 3 spots ahead of Martin Havlat). They also traded the first round pick that was used to draft Roberto Luongo in a trade that was used to acquire either Kirk Muller or Wendel Clark. Furthermore, they have little success at developing their later round picks into NHL talent. This is starting to change, as players like Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood and Matt Stajan establish themselves as regulars, but they have a long road ahead before their player development system can even be described as adequate. The biggest problem is that, of the players they have drafted and developed, only Steen has the potential to be a first line forward, though his more realistic upside is as a second-line Centre. While there is some promise with their Goaltending prospects, the Leafs do not have anyone with the potential to be an impact player among their Forward and Defense prospects. We'll deal with this more in a bit.

Here's the situation the Leafs find themselves in right now. They have a mediocre club, with some young bit parts, and an aging core that is not good enough to lead the Leafs into contention. There are two options facing this club: they can try and add parts to their club to jump into playoff contention (invariably at the expense of draft picks or prospects), or they can trade their veteran talent and begin stockpiling draft picks and prospects, with an eye towards contending a few years down the line.

As far as I am concerned, the choice is clear: it is time to rebuild. There is evidence that the Leafs management recognizes this, with the expected dismissal of Head Coach Pat Quinn sometime before next season (in favor of coach-in-waiting Paul Maurice) and the knowledge that they are shopping players like Ed Belfour in the next 48 hours.

Burnin' Down The House
If the Leafs are going to rebuild, it is essential that they commit fully to rebuilding, since there is not enough talent in place to 'reload' in the next 1-2 years. Duhatschek's example of the Rangers is a good one, and the first example of how to rebuild in the salary cap era.

Of course, it's worth noting that the Rangers rebuilding effort began in the winter of 2004, the last year of the uncapped era. After a decade of fielding high-priced, veteran, underachieving squads, the Rangers dumped most of their veteran talent, acquiring a plethora of prospects and picks in return. They held on to Jaromir Jagr, but dumped high-priced veterans like Brian Leetch, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Rucinsky, and Greg De Vries. In return, they picked up extra draft picks and young players to help rebuild the club. In the summer of 2005, they signed free agents who were higher on character than flash, and would complement their star player. Martin Straka has meshed well with Jagr - the two were teammates in Pittsburgh, while players like Ville Niemenin and Marek Malik add character to the club. The Rangers have been buoyed by rookies like Henrik Lundqvist and Petr Prucha as well.

The lessons of the Rangers are relevant here. They held on to one star player, and built the team around him. The Leafs need to decide if Mats Sundin can be that guy for them (Duhatschek says yes, I say no). If he isn't, they need to find a few key players to build around. They need to trade what assets they have to get younger in a hurry --we'll examine the possibilities next section--and they need to accommodate the young talent in their system. It's not inconceivable that Tuuka Rask or Justin Pogge could be playing a Henrik Lundqvist-like role for them in 2-3 years. Unfortunately, none of the skaters in their system show the potential of being a Petr Prucha-like sniper, which is another reason why they need to acquire more young talent.

Once In a Lifetime
This trade deadline provides the Leafs a lot of opportunities to begin rebuilding for the future. They have a number of tradeable veteran players, and with at least 20 teams still in contention for the playoffs, there should be a lot of teams looking for help.

Here are the players who could be moved, and my thoughts on them.

Bryan McCabe
The offensive rearguard is an unrestricted free agent to be, and seems intent on testing the market. The team's leading scorer, averaging over a point per game, he will likely command the greatest interest from around the league.

McCabe will be 31 this off-season, and despite his offensive production, is not considered a strong defender or an all-star caliber player. He may still have value a few years from now, but not enough to justify the top salary he'll surely command this summer.

My suggestion is to move him now. Teams are always looking for offensive defenseman, and a team like the New York Rangers have a glaring need for one. McCabe could potentially command as much as a 1st Round Pick and a prospect, which would be a great return if Toronto can get it from somewhere.

Ed Belfour
Eddie the Eagle is 40 years old, and will be a free agent if Toronto does not pick up his option for next year. Frankly, his production this year does not merit a return for 2006-07, so if there's any interest out there, the Leafs should be actively exploring it and working on a potential deal. Belfour has a no-trade clause, which he has indicated he will consider waiving, so if a team with a need in goal, like Edmonton or Vancouver, can make an offer, John Ferguson should jump at it.

A long-shot possibility would be to ship him to the rival Ottawa Senators, who may be looking for veteran help in goal with Dominik Hasek out indefinitely. If Ferguson wants to work on a blockbuster, both the Oilers and the Canucks also have needs on defense, so he could try and package Belfour and McCabe and ship them west to one of those clubs. On his own, Belfour could fetch a 3rd Round Pick, or a B level prospect.

Darcy Tucker
He wants to stay in Toronto, and has indicated that he will take less money to do so, but he is a complementary player at best. It might be worth calling a team like Carolina to see if they're interested (they need to replace Erik Cole) but in all likelihood, Tucker will stay in blue and white. That's not a bad thing, as the team will need a few veterans around, and Tucker is popular too.

Tie Domi
The same thing I wrote about Tucker applies here.

Jason Allison
He has been solid all year, posting 49 points in 56 games. He's minus 14 on the year, which is a cause of concern, but for a team looking to inject some offense into their top 2 lines, he is a great pickup for the stretch run. He can score, and comes at a bargain salary. The Oilers seem to fit again (just add him in to the Belfour/McCabe deal), though I would not be surprised if Buffalo or New Jersey showed interest as well.

A few years back, Allison would have commanded a first round pick, and more. Now, the Leafs will be lucky to get a 2nd or 3rd Rounder, and a B-level prospect.

Nik Antropov
He's underperformed his entire career, but he is 6'5, and there is always a foolish General Manager or two who will be willing to take another chance on him. The Leafs should find this person (is Mike Milbury still in Long Island?), and extract a decent prospect or two in exchange.

Ken Klee, Alex Khavanov, and Aki Berg
If anyone wants to send the Leafs a pick in the top 3 rounds, or a prospect who projects to be more than a 4th liner/7th defenseman, Ferguson should take them up on the offer. These guys are serviceable bodies, but can be easily replaced.

Tomas Kaberle
I would hold on to him. He's a solid player in his prime, and can mentor the young defenseman the Leafs will be promoting soon.

Mats Sundin
This is the toughest choice for me. On the one hand, he's the captain, well-respected, and productive. On the other, he's 35 years old, and no longer one of the elite players at his position. The backlash, and leadership vacuum that might be created by trading him could outweigh the potential return.

With that being said, I would offer Mats the chance to leave, and play for a team that's contending. If he wants to stick around, I wouldn't actively shop him, but if someone offers a bounty for him, it's hard to say no.

Realistically speaking, the Leafs could ship out Belfour, McCabe, Allison, either Tucker or Domi, and one of Klee/Khavanov or Berg in the next 48 hours. For those 6 players, I would guess that they would net 3 draft picks in the top 3 rounds, one middle round pick, and 3-5 B or C level prospects. That's potentially 8 or 9 assets, out of which you can assume 2-3 will become serviceable NHL players. More importantly, it should help propel them downwards in the standings, and towards one of this year's elite prospects.

Players like Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, and Carlo Coliacovo have shown that they deserve to be in the NHL for a long time to come. When you add in the likes of Jay Harrison, Jeremy Williams, Brendan Bell, Justin Pogge, and Tuuka Rask, who have looked good at the Junior or MInor League level, you have a franchise with a lot of promising young players, but one that's still short on top-end young talent, and overall depth.

There are some young players breaking into the league right now who can be serviceable Maple Leafs for some time, and a number of others, especially in goal, who carry a lot of promise. With a full commitment to rebuilding, the Maple Leafs can get a lot closer to being a Championship team in the next 48 hours than they have in the past 40 years. Of course, if management doesn't see the writing on the wall (even if the Leafs win tonight), Toronto can count on many more years in the hockey wilderness. So here's hoping that the Leafs lose the game tonight, but win the bigger war by accepting their current situation, and for the first time in my lifetime truly begin building for the future.


At 5:25 PM, Blogger sacamano said...

Dude, you're a leaf's fan? And here I thought your affections for the Celtics ensured that you had better judgement than that.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

I'm appalled: not just that you're a fan, but that you'd have the temerity to admit it.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

I hate Abboud, and the Leafs. One of my great pleasures in life was watching the Hurricanes defeat them in the playoffs a couple years back. Course, they got even with me by acquiring Ron Francis, which still gives me the cold-sweats.

And Avi, you shouldn't talk. You are a Habs fan. How I am friends with either of you is beyond me.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

After actually reading this thing, I have to disagree on at least one point: the Oilers don't need any defensive help. A top six of Pronger, Spacek, Staios, Bergeron, Smith and Tarnstrom is one of the best defensive cores in the league. Mcabe is no help at all. The Oilers need goaltending, period. An additional scorer would help, obviously, but goaltending is the primary target.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Alex said...

Point taken about the Oil, though their power play is only 18th in the league, so I don't think they'd refuse to entertain an offer if the Leafs tried to package McCabe with Belfour or Allison. But you're right, he probably wouldn't be the primary target.

My bad (pounds chest, and points to self).

As for me being a Leafs fan, we all have our faults. It's also worth noting that since Avi, Kevin, (and probably Sheamus) like the Habs, and Nathan is a hardcore Flames fan, Andy's really the only one of us who has good taste in hockey teams.


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