First, we identified the Leafs core. Then we projected the young studs that’ll be the main building blocks of that core. Now it’s time to look at the pieces already on the roster that could make up the rest of the core.
We’ve already projected whether The Big Three will be championship calibre players with a possible timeframe in mind (3-5 years). The question now is whether the surrounding core pieces will be good enough. In my initial THN piece, one of the main rules was that a team needs to have about four elite players and one excellent player on top of that.
All three of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander project to be elite pieces (although there is no absolute certainty in that whatsoever), so realistically the Leafs only need one more core player to be an elite piece; preferably their number one d-man.
That’s between Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. Can either player turn into a legit number one d-man? If not, that’s a big hole the Leafs will need to fill to be truly competitive. Think of how beastly Kris Letang and Brent Burns were during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Aside from the top centre and his wingman, the top d-man is the most vital piece to a championship puzzle. If it’s not either of Rielly or Gardiner, finding someone who can be should be the Leafs biggest priority over the next few seasons.
Then there’s goaltending which is something we’re not going to even bother forecasting here. They’re just so hard to project, and it’s tough to predict who’ll even be between the pipes for the Leafs.
Lastly, that leaves forward no. 4. Not a critical piece, necessarily, but it helps to have four very good forwards on a team as it makes for tough matchups. The Penguins had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on different lines, plus a very useful Patric Hornqvist playing with Sid. On San Jose, there’s Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. You can stop one, two, maybe even three, but with four players of that calibre, you’ll have the other team on the ropes most nights.
For the Leafs, that role belongs to Nazem Kadri for now. I saw some comments questioning whether it should be James van Riemsdyk instead, but at 27 his age doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the core as he’ll be over 30 by the time they’re ready to compete. There’s also a wildcard candidate that fits who could accelerate the Leafs timeline, but we’ll get to that after July 1st… if it happens.
So we’ve got Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Are they good enough to be core pieces on a championship team? Let’s find out.
Sidenote first though to go over the methodology: Again, we’re using war- on ice’s WAR to project future value, and luckily, this time, we have some career numbers we can use. Unfortunately, WAR wasn’t publicized last season (because the guys who made it got hired by NHL teams), so as a workaround to that, I generated comparables using Corsica’s similarity calculator. It’s not ideal – especially since it only looks at 5-on-5 data – but it’ll be good enough for this exercise. To estimate aging effects I used the age curve’s generated by Moneypuck from his How To Build A Contender Series at Canucks Army.
This might be news to some, but Nazem Kadri is very good. He draws penalties like no one else (think about how useful that is with a PP1 featuring the Big Three, Kadri, and Rielly), pushes play in the right direction and produces well. The two seasons above four wins weren’t full seasons and were aberrations of his real talent – specifically his monstrous 2012-13 campaign – but since then he’s settled into the role of an accomplished player at around two WAR: good for either 2C or 4F.
Is he a legit first line center on a contender? No. But he doesn’t need to be anymore. As a second-line centre, he’s just fine, and he works well as a fourth forward too. A centre depth of Matthews-Nylander-Kadri would be a nightmare for other teams. For the next five years, he likely hovers just under the two win mark and considering the other talented forward core pieces, that works just fine.
Is He Good Enough For Contention: Sure.
Gardiner was a bit controversial in the comments from the previous posts. The Leafs are frankly low on high-end defensive talent making Gardiner the natural choice at the moment.
Gardiner is probably not, and probably won’t ever be a number one d-man. Not for a team with Cup aspirations at least. But he’s been a solid number two, and that’s on a very weak Leafs team. With a better supporting cast, his numbers would likely be a bit better. WAR is notoriously tricky for d-men making it difficult to predict how they’ll perform in the future. Still, at 25, it’s likely his play starts slipping by the time the Leafs are ready to contend. He’s a solid 2D now, but will he be one in 3-5 years? It’s hard to be certain about that.
The average age curve suggests he won’t be, but Gardiner has been solid enough that it’s possible his play doesn’t decline so soon and so quickly. In any sense, he’s a good piece to have. Whether he’s enough for a championship squad is much more debatable.
Is He Good Enough For Contention: Maybe, depending on how he ages. But the Leafs need someone better to put above him on the depth chart.
Now here’s the big question mark.
Morgan Rielly has three seasons under his belt, and he’s improved steadily in each one. It takes a while for a defenceman to become acclimated with the NHL, especially one whose primary focus is on the offensive side of things. Rielly’s biggest issue so far has been in his own zone where he routinely bleeds shots compared to his teammates (who are notably not great either).
As it stands now, Rielly’s play suggests he’s a replacement level d-man. Projecting using his career numbers might be unfair since he’s still young, but it’s all we have, and it’s all we can reasonably expect going by the numbers.
Still, Rielly is just 22 and entering his fourth season. There’s a lot of potential he hasn’t realized yet, and I do think there’s another level to his game that he hasn’t reached. He will almost certainly be a much better player over the next five years than what he’s shown so far.
Just how good is tough to tell. For the Leafs to find consistent success, they need to hope Rielly can turn into a player like Letang or Burns. A guy who may have some defensive gaffes from time-to-time, but whose overall play is overwhelmingly positive thanks to elite offensive ability.
From what he’s shown so far, I’m not so sure Rielly can be that. Next year will be a huge season for him to show otherwise (and believe me I hope he does). If he doesn’t take a big step towards becoming a number one guy, the Leafs may need to find someone else who can.
Is He Good Enough For Contention: Not right now, no. But he’s still young enough that things can very well change, I’m just a bit skeptical of that happening to the extent it needs to.
The Big Three should be great, but the other three, the ones who are already Leafs, have some question marks attached to them, especially on D. The Leafs have a boatload of legit and potentially elite forward talent, but the same can’t be said about their blueline.
Right now the top two options on the backend probably aren’t good enough. Yes, the two can become better, especially with better players surrounding them, but if they can’t be, the Leafs will have a big hole to fill, and it’ll be the biggest impediment to their Cup aspirations.
You might see the Penguins winning the Cup with elite forward talent and a sketchy d-core and think the Leafs can do it too (mainly thanks to Babcock’s system), but they still had an elite guy in Letang. That’s the type of player the Leafs need to develop or acquire.
There’s time for it to happen, and this year will be telling for whether Rielly is that guy, but it won’t be long until the Leafs championship window opens. Determining when exactly that’ll be will be the topic of part four.