Building A Champion Part 4: How Far Are The Leafs From Contending

After establishing who makes up the Leafs core and projecting how good those players will be over the next five seasons, it’s finally time to answer the big question on everyone’s mind: just how long until the Leafs are competitive again?

And it’s an important question to ask based on some of the events (and rumoured events) that have transpired over the last few days.

Two days ago, the Leafs traded pick no. 30 in this year’s draft and a second rounder in 2017 for goaltender Frederik Andersen, and then signed him for five seasons. As you’ll recall from previous parts to this series, goaltending was an enigma for this team going forward, but the Leafs have apparently found their guy (RIP ‘Mystery Goalie’).

Plugging that hole seems to signal a change in the Leafs plans; that the scorched earth part of the rebuild is now over, and it’s time to start acquiring pieces that will help the team consistently earn two points night in and night out. If that weren’t the plan the team would’ve probably continued playing Jonathan Bernier, right?

They’ll surely still be patient – Leafs Nation has already waited 50 years, so what’s a couple more really – but it’s clear that the focus has switched from losing on purpose to maybe trying to win sometimes. The likely reason is that the team is probably going to try and capitalize on the ELC window of their three stud forward prospects. 

For the next three seasons, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be making pennies compared to what they’re worth while William Nylander will be doing it for two. If the team can get elite performance from the three of them before their second contracts take effect, it’ll be a huge competitive advantage towards building the rest of the team. Chicago’s first Cup with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane is a great example of this.

Will the team be ready in time?

Based on past Cup contenders, the value of their core forward group (1C, 1W, 2C, 4F) is worth around 10.7 wins. Let’s start putting all the pieces together to see when the Leafs group, The Big Three plus Nazem Kadri, will hit that.

Sidebar: Let’s keep in mind that the margin of error in projecting one year into the future is enormous, let alone five and that this is merely a general guideline of what we can probably expect for the Leafs future and not a hard and fast rule of what will happen.

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The team shouldn’t be that far off over the next two seasons, but it’s the 2018-19 season where the foursome should be collectively championship caliber. That’ll also be the final season of the team’s ELC window.

Now, what if there was a way that the Leafs forward core could be competitive sooner to take further advantage of that ELC window? Perhaps by adding a pending UFA this summer?

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there have been some rumours that the Leafs are interested in just that kind of guy: Steven Stamkos. Seriously, though. Considering the team added Andersen, adding Stamkos seems well in line with their current direction. Him being extremely good probably helps make the decision easier too. (The potential dollar figure doesn’t though).

For his career, Stamkos has posted a WAR ranging from 3.5 to 7.0 wins in every season except his rookie season. That’s elite. Those were in his prime though and he’s likely to decline going forward, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest he’ll still be worth around three-to-four wins over the next five seasons based on his prior work and how he’s likely to age (health issues not-withstanding).

Let’s pretend for a second that the Leafs sign him and that their core forward group is now Stamkos-Matthews-Marner-Nylander. How soon will that foursome be ready to contend? How does next year sound?

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That’s probably a tad optimistic, but Stamkos is one of the league’s best players, and it’s not unlikely that The Big Three come out of the gate running. Even if it’s Year 2 instead of next year, the move still probably puts the Leafs in the playoffs as early as next season.

Adding Stamkos moves the Leafs window opening up by one or two seasons, based on how good their forward core is projected to be. But as you’ll recall, the forwards weren’t the issue with the Leafs core. That part should be the backbone of this team. It’s the backend that was a bit iffy. 

As uncovered in part three of this series, Morgan Rielly, the team’s de facto number one d-man, has looked shaky to start his career with replacement level numbers. That can still change, but he still has a lot to prove. Jake Gardiner has been solid, but will need to stay at his current playing level as he ages to continue being a strong second-hand man.

What we didn’t look at last time was goaltending, since it was a mystery at the time. Now with Andersen as the confirmed number one for the next five seasons, the picture becomes clearer. I’m still weary of projecting any goalie, but for the sake of this exercise, we need to put a number down for Andersen. According to hockey-reference, Andersen has saved 12 goals above average (which also happens to be replacement level anyways) in his 125 starts. Over 60 starts, a full goalie season, that’s about six goals, or one win; so that’s what we’ll use for all five seasons. It’s lazy, but projecting goalies isn’t worth the trouble.

Now let’s add all seven pieces together and see how they stack up. I omitted Rielly from this because his projection was negative, and if that is the case over the next five years, he’s not the number one guy anyways. For now, it’s a blank space, and any difference between the total core value and the average Cup contender’s core value (about 15 WAR) is roughly how good Rielly or whoever else becomes the number one d-man has to be.

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Year 1: 10.4 WAR

Year 2: 10.7 WAR

Year 3: 12.4 WAR

Year 4: 12.4 WAR

Year 5: 12.8 WAR

As early as next year, the Leafs core on its own should be as good as an average team. Considering an average team makes the playoffs, that means as long as the other 13 players don’t actively hurt the team, Toronto could contend for a playoff spot. Depth matters and how the team assembles the complimentary pieces will be critical to the team’s success, but that’s less of a worry at this point.

At Year 3, the final year of Matthews’ and Marner’s ELCs, the Leafs core (without a 1D) should be worth roughly 12.4 WAR. That means whatever d-man they find has to be worth almost 2.5 wins to make them contenders. Ditto for Year 4, while Year 5 only needs a two win guy. You don’t need to have a 15 WAR core to compete, but it is the baseline for contention and the closer you are to it, the more likely a team is to succeed.

Of course, the forwards might be good enough to offset that, and the same goes for Gardiner and Andersen, but the point remains that a number one d-man is the team’s biggest priority.

If the Leafs add Stamkos, though, the equation changes. (Keep in mind the team will still have Kadri who’s damn good for someone who would then be a depth guy).

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Year 1: 12.1 WAR

Year 2: 12.4 WAR

Year 3: 14.2 WAR

Year 4: 14.1 WAR

Year 5: 14.4 WAR

Where the Leafs project to be in Years 3-4 without Stamkos is where they could be by Year 2 or even Year 1 with Stamkos. By Year 3 the team can be a legitimate powerhouse, especially if they do find that number one d-man. He still needs to be an elite guy, but the need isn’t as strong as he only really needs to be worth at least one win.

Signing Stamkos is obviously no guarantee, but the idea that the team would be misguided to do so based on where they are in the rebuild is a bit off base. With Stamkos, the team becomes competitive quicker; their window should open sooner, and it’s not at the expense of building correctly. In fact, it aligns perfectly with Toronto’s ELC window. The team needs to exploit the cost effectiveness of The Big Three while they can, and Stamkos helps that cause. It’s not often a player of Stamkos’ caliber comes along in free agency, and that’s something a smart team needs to try and capitalize on, depending on the price of course.

Without Stamkos, the team will need to be a little more patient, but the target date remains: Year 3. It’s the final year of the ELC window, and it gives them two seasons to add the necessary pieces and depth. They’ll need to add a big piece on D to get there – or hope Rielly can become that guy – but 2018-2019 should be the year the Leafs aim for contending. After that, the second contracts will make things a bit trickier.

Everything depends on what happens over the next couple weeks, this summer, and next summer. But if everything goes according to plan, the wait for a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto might finally be over sooner than you might think.

  • Top Shelf

    I’ve been a bit on the fence about the whole Stamkos thing. I know he’s an elite talent and it’s the sexy move to make but I didn’t know how I felt about it lining up with everything financially. After reading this article, I’m off the fence. I want Stamkos. I won’t be crushed if it doesn’t happen but I’d rather have him than not. Fantastic article. Bravo. Side note: I have a lot of faith in what Rielly will turn into.

  • Top Shelf

    Maybe I’m being ignorant here but I’m curious how Andersen saving 6 goals above average equates to only one win. I would think that most games are decided by about 2 goals on average, which would make Andersen worth 3 wins. Am I missing the point here or is what I’m saying making sense?

  • Trevor5555

    this article is just too weird for my taste. it appears to be written by a computer, not a human, let alone a hockey fan. for a toronto hockey fan, there is no question of; do we want stamkos?, if he wants to sign, we say; how many years?… marner had to do like nylander after he was drafted, and add 20 pounds of muscle, until he does, he cannot be included…. Toronto does not have a top 30 d-man, nor a top-10 goalie, until proven otherwise… after getting matthews/laine, toronto still needs lots of size up from, and more prospects down the middle, and a ekblad/hanefin type d-man. at 31st, I see no d-man that can pass rly, grdnr and ztsv in the depth chart, so take benson or mascherin, or dahlen [although hajek or clague wouldn’t hurt]… d-men with size who could go some ways to replacing phnf and plk niemelainen or moverare if still there at 56th or 61st [or dineen or fox add something]… then greenway and rubins. realistically, looking a year away [draft or trade] at more upgrade on defence. forget about a Cup without laine.

  • CMpuck

    Is no one else concerned about what the Leafs might do with the 20-30 million in cap space over the next two summers if they don’t sign Stamkos.

    More Andersen like gambles contracts… maybe they’ll all be homeruns (lol) but I’d rather put money on someone you can count on like Stamkos.

  • Trevor5555

    I dont really understand the WAR but I think the assesment of the roster is fair. With Andersen the leafs are only one top pair d-man and two top 6 forwards away from being a playoff team. The development of the young guys should push them into the top 10 maybe eventually top 5 in the league.

    The quality of the CHL / USNTDP and other junior leagues is such that players can really hit their peak in their early 20’s. I really hope the Leafs can sign Stamkos as him and Matthews would be all the Leafs need to be round out a great forward group.

    If we could add a guy like Trouba, Vatanen, Jones, Dumba or Hamonic that would round out a solid defense group. Then maybe add one of Vesey, Okposo or Eriksson and you have a true contender in the making.

  • nobonusfornonus

    disagree on Marner. send him to best league in Europe and see what we have. I still see Kozun impaled on the end boards and the Dman who hit him shake his head almost in pity. Keep Greening. With Mathews he’s good for 20 tapins next year. and where the hell is JVR. a guy good for 30 a year times 5 easy and no mention. C’mon. Forget Stamkos look for at least 2 great D or this ship is going nowhere. think Seabrook Keith to get my drift.

    • nobonusfornonus

      If the Leafs don’t keep Marner on their roster out of training camp this year then they won’t get to choose where he goes. That decision would be his own, and he has already stated that if he’s not with the Leafs next year he wants to stay with the Knights. They can’t just be like hey buddy, guess what you’re going to Europe.

    • Trevor5555

      I dont think CHL players can play in european leagues. I think its basically NHL or CHL until they turn 20. It would be nice to have the option for the high end prospects. I think they should allow players to apply for exceptiinal player status and play in the AHL at 18-19 like they do with 15 year olds in the CHL. It could allow for that extra challenge for players who arent quite ready for the NHL but are dominant at the CHL/Junior level. It doesnt seem fair/sensible that Nylander can play in the AHL at 18-19 and Marner has to be 20.

      I get that its meant to allow CHL teams a bit more time with good players but the very best leave for the NHL at 18-19 anyway so CHL teams are already accustomed to rapid roster turnover anyway.

      Toronto cant add two great d-men because they risk Vegas claiming one in expansion. Adding one good young d-man will be enough to get the Leafs to the playoffs as long as the get Stamkos too.

  • Trevor5555

    @illham (post #2)

    You’re trying far to hard to be reasonable to be labelled ignorant, but I think the division of goals by average margin bears no relationship to how many wins 6 goals difference will be over the course of a season.

    You noted the average margin in a game to be 2 goals. Note that the 6 goals difference Andersen was estimated to make is spread over an entire season, not one game, so in the average game with a 2 goal margin a goalie saving 6 extra goals per season will make no difference at all. In fact, those 6 goals spread over the course of a season will make no difference in any game the Leafs would otherwise be winning. If you’re winning anyway, stopping an extra goal will help the margin of victory but not create an extra win.

    It is only on those occasions when one of the 6 goal difference per season comes up during a game that would be otherwise tied or with the Leafs down 1 (before empty net) that a portion of that 6 goal difference has any effect at all.

    I don’t know the math behind figuring 6 extra goals saved in a season is equivalent to about 1 extra win per season, but the number seems reasonable enough to me.