As Pittsburgh and San Jose battle to take home the Stanley Cup, I’m sure there’s one thought thought that’s crossing every Leafs fans’ mind while watching: how long until we see the Leafs here?
It’s a valid question, but considering it’s steeped deeply in years of futility, the question is much closer to “seriously how much longer?” Yes, it’s been a while. Almost 50 years. Back when Brian Burke came aboard in 2008 he said that fans wouldn’t have patience for a five-year rebuild. As if after 41 years, they’d throw patience out the window. Eight years later, here we (still) are.
Phil Kessel, the guy that Burke brought in to build around in 2009, and the guy Toronto ran out of town last summer might hoist the Cup in his first season away from the Leafs. His first try, while Toronto continues to wait, toiling away in the league’s basement. Life as a Leafs fan has been pretty bleak.
But it’s not all bad. Being in that basement means the Leafs will likely nab the biggest piece of the Cup contender puzzle: an elite first line centre.
Over at The Hockey News, I did some research behind all the final four playoff teams since 2007-08 and the value of the core pieces that got them there. It was inspired by this incredible Canucks Army series last year from Money Puck which I would recommend reading if you haven’t yet.
Of the teams that went to the Cup Final, just two didn’t have an elite centre while those two were at least very good players. The first line centre also had the highest average wins above replacement (WAR) of any other core position at 3.7 WAR. Having that type of player is crucial to contending.
It only took two rebuilds, a full management overhaul, a commitment to scorching the earth and some lottery luck to get here, but they’re finally on the right track.
The right track means identifying a core group of players and building around them at the perfect time to take advantage of a Cup window, the most important piece being that first line centre. That’s how Chicago did it, how Pittsburgh did it, how Los Angeles did it and it’s how both Cup finalists this year did it, too.
But while a first line centre is the most important piece, it’s not the only one (duh). On top of an elite number one centre, a contender likely also needs an elite winger, an elite d-man, a very good second centre, a strong fourth forward, a solid goalie, and a capable second d-man. It’s quite the shopping list, but it’s the seven spots that most teams build around.
They don’t all have to be elite players, but at least four of them should be, as well as another very good player too. On average, those seven players made up 75 percent of a teams’ win contribution compared to the depth that surrounded them.
Building a decent core is the first and most important step to success. Without a great core group of players, your team won’t be consistently competing for Stanley Cups. The goal is to go into the playoffs expecting nothing less than a Cup, not hoping to maybe win a round and see what happens. That starts with the core.
On the Leafs current roster that core probably currently looks something like this:
1C: Nazem Kadri
1W: James van Riemsdyk
2C: William Nylander
4F: Tyler Bozak?
1D: Morgan Rielly
2D: Jake Gardiner
1G: Jonathan Bernier
That’s… not a championship calibre core. Now or probably ever. That’s why they were in last place. But there are some decent pieces there, namely The Leafs Top Prospect Until They Were Extremely Bad For Two Straight Seasons and the two guys they signed to six-year deals recently. And there’s also pieces that are off the roster that will obviously take over.
So the actual core that will hopefully be contending for a Cup sometime in the near future – let’s say five years – probably looks a little different than what’s up there. Looking ahead to the future, here’s what the Leafs likely core looks like:
1C: Auston Matthews
1W: Mitch Marner
2C: William Nylander
4F: Nazem Kadri
1D: Morgan Rielly
2D: Jake Gardiner
1G: Mystery Goalie
A lot better, right? We’re probably being a little presumptuous with Matthews who hasn’t been drafted yet, but I really doubt the Leafs pass up on a cornerstone centre when they’ve seen countless others go deep thanks to one. Pair him with Marner and you’ve got a dynamic duo that’ll terrorise the league for years. William Nylander as a second line centre probably won’t be too fair to many teams either.
The fourth forward is the trickiest piece as it could very well end up being another prospect in the pipeline, but at this point in time it has to be Kadri, who’s still relatively young at 25 (although that means he’ll be 30 in five years) and the Leafs’ current best player who just signed for six more years.
The forwards look stacked, but the backend is where some question marks start emerging. Jake Gardiner is a good player, but like Kadri, he’s 25 meaning the Leafs need to consider when their window to win is. If it’s in five years, both players will be 30 and not as good as they are now. Will it be enough?
Then there’s Morgan Rielly, who is the closest thing the Leafs have to a future number one d-man. He hasn’t been at that level yet, but can he get there? Can he be a Kris Letang-type of player? I have my doubts based on his current level of play, but at 22 there’s still plenty of time for him to get there.
Then there’s the goalie. Will it be Bernier? Will it be someone else they acquire? I really don’t know. Goalies are fickle beings and projecting them this far into the future is a foolish proposition. Let’s just hope that the Leafs find someone good within the next five years. Shouldn’t be too hard considering how flooded the goalie market usually is.
So that’s the core. Probably. Things like this can change and with this management group, I don’t doubt it will. But as it stands now, this is the core. Is it good enough to compete for a Cup within the next five seasons? First, we have to figure out how good everyone is. We’ll tackle that in the next part of this series.