The greatest story ever told, they’ve been calling it. On Monday afternoon, Leicester City Football Club won the English Premier League title despite being on the verge of relegation last season, no top-flight championships in their 132-year history, and 5000-1 odds at the bookkeepers tables. But they took the lead from Day 1 and, despite everybody saying somebody would catch up to them eventually, they cleared the table with two games to space.
Worst to first in 13 months, with expectations pointed to the former. Insane, and it made me think about the Leafs just a little bit.
When the Raksriaksorn family purchased Leicester in late 2010, they were determined to make their team, a mid-table squad in England’s second tier, into a serious competitor in the Premiership within five years. The team would have to, in effect, start from scratch, but the idea of a long-term, concrete plan signed off by a rich and suddenly understanding ownership group is pretty similar to the Toronto situation.
There are many minor nuances to the Leicester build, but their core concepts were pretty simple.
- Find undervalued talent in lower leagues, acquire them, and develop them
- Find the best manager that you can attract, as soon as possible
- Whenever there’s a potential financial opportunity on the table, invest more money
- Don’t be scared to shed non-essential players once it becomes clear that they’re not part of the process
- Don’t “sell high” on academy players or the rising talent you’ve previously acquired. You’ll need them later, and the money you get now won’t buy you anything overly impactful in the big picture.
So they got to work. The first offseason didn’t have much involving players walking away; there wasn’t much to lose after a dozen-man exodus the year prior, but the team acquired 12 players under the watch of new big-name manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. The former boss of just about everybody ever didn’t last very long due to his on-pitch performance and a desire to bring back Nigel Pearson, but those 2011/12 signings proved to pay dividends.
Kaspar Schmeichel ended up being Leicester’s starting keeper this year, playing every second of the journey. Wes Morgan became their captain and hasn’t missed a moment this year either. Danny Drinkwater, then 22 years old, played the 4th-most minutes of any player on today’s team. Total transfer cost? $0. All free agents plucked from teams that didn’t see their value.
The next season, they spent a million pounds on a third-tier player who was a few years removed from being a factory worker, fewer years removed from having to sub off at half time of lower-tier games because he had a probation curfew and an ankle bracelet, and not removed from showing up to practice drunk. It was an unprecedented fee for a player in that ranks. A few years later, Jamie Vardy started this season by going on the longest scoring streak in EPL history and winning player of the year. Suddenly, a million pounds didn’t seem so bad. By the beginning of 2014, Leicester City looked poised to win the Championship and secure promotion and ensured that by purchasing Riyad Mahrez from second-tier French team Le Havre for £350,000. Today, Mahrez runs their midfield and is considered by most to their best player, and is thought to be worth well over 100x what they paid for him if they were ever to sell him. Now armed with 5 of their 7 “core” players (Robert Huth and N’Golo Kante made their LCFC debuts this year), the team waltzed through the Championship and gained promotion.
Let’s spin this back to the Leafs a little bit. While concepts like promotion and relegation and a lack of draft or salary cap mean that an NHL rebuild model will have significantly different nuances to one in football, the Shanaplan isn’t significantly different once stripped down to its roots.
The salary cap means that Toronto has been in an even more constant pursuit of undervalued talent. Already, they’ve found some hits; in trying to revitalize the Toronto Marlies, Byron Froese went from an unaffiliated ECHL team to his first NHL game with the Leafs in less than a year. At the draft floor, the Leafs went for upside last year and are already being praised for picks like Andrew Nielsen, Martins Dzierkals, and Dmytro Timashov. Most obviously, free agency led to a bunch of depth signings of decent players without homes to make individual games competitive and build up future assets come deadline day. That worked too; Shawn Matthias and Daniel Winnik turned into Colin Smith and Connor Carrick, who are off to positive looking half-seasons and appear to have NHL upside. The Leafs, like Leicester, haven’t been afraid of letting players walk. They haven’t been afraid of trading anybody not in their long-term plans, and they haven’t been afraid of sending untradable players to LTIR / Robidas Island the second they appear to have injury concerns.
Where the Shanaplan perhaps jumped ahead of the Leicester plan was in acquiring management. The Leafs obviously have the edge there, though, as they aren’t restricted by budget when players aren’t involved and have the pedigree of being the biggest team on earth. Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello were massive gets that instantly shored up the team from above. Leicester didn’t get their man until they sacked Pearson for on-field (needing a shocking comeback to avoid re-relegation) and off-field (don’t google his son) before the start of this of this season when they brought in Claudio Ranieri in his place, a man often criticized for doing “good enough” but never winning anything meaningful.
Spending Money To Spend More
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Leafs can replicate Leicester’s table success and go from last to the Presidents Trophy next year. Frankly, this year was a perfect storm for the Foxes in the sense that they were a good enough team without much of a non-league schedule (less fatigue and injury risk) while the traditional powerhouses struggled to go on lengthy runs of good form.
Much like the hockey analytics community are slowly stealing concepts like expected goals from football, observers of the beautiful game have co-opted some of hockey’s fancy stats and finding them to be just as effective. Sure enough, they show that Leicester is a mid-table possession team by shots towards the net (10th in CF%, 11th in CF% close and tied) and playing the percentages well (3rd in SV%, 1st in SV% close/tied, 1st in SH%, 2nd in SH% tied, 1st in PDO). Combine great luck, weaker competition, and Ranieri’s ability to run an effective shell-collapse (“parking the bus” in football terms) system, and you have your “for the ages” story. It’s almost the opposite of the Leafs, who had solid underlying possession numbers, awful puck luck, struggled to break through opponent’s lead-defence systems, and finished in last in a year where they were 15 points better than the previous bottom feeder.
What’s interesting about Leicester moving forward, however, is that that their climb affords them a lot of opportunities to stay at the top. Between bonuses for winning the league, bigger sponsorship deals, more merch sales outside of their small town, more home games on the schedule, and the huge new TV contract that kicks in next year, their owners are set to take in a nine-figure (in pounds, no less) windfall for next season. Ownership is expected to put that money right back into the team; in two years of EPL play, they’ve invested £55,000,000 into transfers, nearly half of the team’s total investment in the past 25 years. As a product of their planned out climb to respectability, Leicester have created an opportunity for themselves to exceed their prior budgets and fight with the big boys.
The Basement Is Counter-Intuitive
The Leafs should be looking to that and creating their own opportunities to stretch the budget. On the surface, that seems next to impossible with a Salary Cap, but you have to remember that the Leafs as a brand are closer to a Manchester United than a Leicester City.
The NHL’s salary cap is directly tied to hockey-related revenue; if your team is pulling in money because of the playing of NHL games or events associated with the team, you’re contributing to HRR. The Leafs are consistently the most profitable and highest revenue-generating team in hockey, despite being the laughing stock of the league on the ice and selling people the same brand for the past 40 years.
You know what makes money, though? Playoff games, TV ratings, sponsorships, and merchandise sales. The Leafs have the latter point covered with a new logo and jerseys coming next year. Sportsnet believes that a successful Leafs team would bring them a double-digit percentage boost in ratings. Playoff games speak for themselves.
Brendan Shanahan said in March that the Leafs want to be good as soon as they can. If done the right way, a rapid turnaround isn’t counter-intuitive to a rebuilding plan. Teams screw up rebuilds when they trade their up-and-comers for immediate help, but that doesn’t appear to be the plan here.
The Leafs should be far better than 30th place next year. Babcock’s turnaround of the team’s systematic play is nothing short of mind-boggling. The Leafs probably won’t shoot and stop pucks at a full 1% below league average again next year. Even if the key additions next year end at Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nikita Zaitsev, and Nikita Soshnikov, the team is unlikely to be in top-pick territory again. There are so many picks and prospects in the organization right now that the team may legitimately have problems staying under 50 contracts. Between all the ELC’s, LTIR’s, low demand expectations for the post-Kadri and Rielly RFA’s, and expiring deals, the team has a metric boatload of cap space going into July.
Let’s use the Stamkos example. That’s an all-world free agent on the market in two months for nothing but money, and both sides seem to be mutually keen on each other. But the primary concern from the outside is money; does the UFA premium you might have to pay him give the Leafs cap trouble down the line?
If you’re a playoff team a year sooner, probably not. The Leafs are such a big brand that if they give the fanbase something to be excited about and more games to watch live, they’ll effectively be able to drag the salary cap up with their own two HRR-filled hands. There’s obviously a limit to this; the players have to have the potential to make your team significantly better and going after too many of them will destroy that opportunity cost. But if you can get a game-breaker without giving up (or in this case, any) quality players or prospects and your team is already looking like one that should move up in the standings next year, how do you say no?
The NHL isn’t the Premiership, and the Leafs aren’t Leicester City. Leicester City isn’t even Leicester City yet; they know that their meteoric rise to the top is ahead of schedule and that they probably won’t be winning again next year.
But the Foxes did a lot of similar things; someone invested into them and set out a long-term plan to make the team great. They picked up core talent on the cheap before they peaked, and have a chance at long-term success because they weren’t scared to invest when they needed to. They knew that their team being good would give them more money to get better with.
The Leafs are such a strong brand that their success could make a visible impact on the salary cap. They’ve amassed more prospects than they know what to do with and built a historically strong off-ice staff. Barring an asteroid hitting their rookie combine this summer, they shouldn’t be close to the 30th seed next year. Trying to become competitive sooner than later might not be the dumbest idea in the world if done properly.