To many, when looking at the Maple Leafs’ projected roster for the 2016-17 season, many glaring holes appear. One on right defense (in addition to the one filled by Zaitsev), one at second line left wing, one at first line right wing, one at starting goaltender… the list goes on. What I’d like to talk about in this bit of a think piece is why, except for a goaltender, the Leafs should stay the course and avoid any sizable acquisitions or departures.
Obviously, an acquisition like Stamkos is somewhat of an exception here, as those opportunities don’t come very often (I mean, except when John Tavares goes UFA in 2018, but you can’t bank on that). If the opportunity does present itself to acquire Stamkos for a reasonable dollar value, the Leafs will likely pursue that, and that’s okay. It breaks the philosophy I’m proposing, but it’s an exception that makes sense.
What I’m more getting at is the improvements on the margins. Potential acquisitions like Vatanen, Demers, Okposo, Barrie, Yandle, Staal – the list is endless – are unwise despite being improvements to the roster. I’m going to talk about why I feel that way.
WHAT IS A REBUILD?
There’s no question you always want to be improving throughout a rebuild. Starting from this past season, every year the Maple Leafs’ record should improve until you’re a legitimate Cup contender. But this season, I don’t believe the way to do that is through talent acquisition. I believe it should be through player development.
This is a long process that starts in the junior leagues, on to the minor leagues, and onto and into and throughout their time in the NHL. All of the Leafs’ assets are at different places in their development plans. Some, like Martins Dzierkals, are very raw and need to go through a lengthy process of coming up the ranks. Others, like eventual 1st overall pick Auston Matthews, are ready to get their first tastes at the NHL already based on talent and hockey IQ alone. But then, there are the fringe guys. The guys that have seasoned in the AHL for a little while, and have had cracks at the NHL for injury replacements and the carousel that was the post-deadline 2016 Maple Leafs. But, they haven’t been given a solid footing to stick around on. I believe this coming season is the perfect time to do that.
THE TIME IS RIGHT
Last year had a very distinct goal: suck as much as possible while still being respectable. That was accomplished beautifully, landing the Leafs the #1 overall draft pick.
So what should be the goal of next year? Many will say it’s simply to get better. For me, it’s to see what you have in your fringe players. Let what you have in those players improve the team as much as they’re able to.
Again, this isn’t going to be a season of winning. There are no plans to make the playoffs next year. I can’t see why anyone would want to bring in UFAs or make big trades or bring back veteran UFAs, even if they would improve the team. Because what’s the point of amassing prospects if you never let them get to the point of establishing a full-time NHL job?
So why not take the opportunity not necessarily to be superb, but concretely know what you have in someone like Josh Leivo. If you play him 75 games in a 2nd line role, can he score 15 goals for you? Or how about Brendan Leipsic. If you let him run amuck on your third line with some veterans, can he make an impact with all the tools he possesses? Or what about Connor Carrick? He is dominating the AHL playoffs right now. Can he make the same offensive impact in a top-four role at the NHL level? All of these players, and their peers who are at that fringe stage have shown flashes of their potential. There’s already a lengthy list of rookies that will be on the Maple Leafs’ roster, and I believe these fringe guys should be added to it, so as to see if they can reach their potential or not. Lack of veteran presence be damned.
NO MORE VETERANS
Every time I suggest running a roster of mostly rookies, I get met with the same complaint. “You can’t run a team of kids; they’ll get run over and turn into the Edmonton Oilers!”
First of all, this team will never be the Edmonton Oilers, due to the more competent management team it possesses. Second, having too many rookies was never the Oilers’ problem, it was that the “veteran presence” they did bring in was awful. Third, the Leafs already have Matt Hunwick, Milan Michalek, Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner, Colin Greening, Brooks Laich, and Joffrey Lupul (if he doesn’t get IR-ed) as players with five years or more in the NHL. Do they need to bring in more just to satisfy some non-existent quota of experience? My answer is: most definitely no.
The fringe players I propose running with (to list them all: Carrick, Corrado, Percy, Harrington, Brown, Leivo, Leipsic, Soshnikov, Hyman) in addition to the very young talent (Nylander, Marner, Matthews) are all quality players and are a smorgasbord of both offensive and defensive capabilities. It will be a quality team that will at least be competitive, and a roster full of players who constantly have something to fight for, a permanent job. Because once this season is done, the next wave of talent and big time acquisitions will be on their way. They will be aware of that, and they’ll fight to prove that their talents make them unnecessary.