On the kid vs. vet Tiebreaker, and things to consider while doing it

Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Last year, Mike Babcock had some tough decisions to make with his brand-new roster of outcasts, also known as the 2015/16 Toronto Maple Leafs. A hot button issue was deciding what to do with William Nylander and Mitch Marner, who were neck and neck in the race for the “top prospect in the organization” moniker at the time. His response to their pleaded cases, along with those of many others was as follows:

“The way I look at it is real simple for young guys,” said Babcock on Dean Blundell & Co last September. “Tie goes to the veteran. A kid has to earn his way. No jobs are given here for free. Everything about it is, can you help us? Not, can you get in the lineup, can you help us?”

It’s a philosophy that people were more willing to accept last year, but with the kids’ names having more familiarity and the veterans not being signings of this year specifically, the focus has changed. So what does someone have to consider before making this decision?

Let’s make a thing clear first; by saying that a tiebreaker should go to a veteran, it by no means suggest that the Leafs should dress the 20 oldest skaters they have. There are tons of cases where the younger players don’t need tiebreakers because they’re sufficiently far ahead. 

After all. Auston Matthews might be the team’s best player already, and the current variations of Nylander and Marner are at worst in the Top 5 forwards on the roster. On defence, Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak are going to need a lot more than a tiebreaker to become the corrent decisions to dress on a given night.

This isn’t for those battles. This is for things like, say, putting Connor Brown against Milan Michalek. Or Zach Hyman against Colin Greening, or Peter Holland over Kerby Rychel. It’s because of this fact, as well, that these fights will be so close; the team doesn’t want to be completely inexperienced, so if their skilled players are going to be so green, the age balance will come in the second-tire battles. Now, with that said…

How much ice time is the younger player going to get? A kid who is slightly better than a player towards the end of his road is one thing, but at the end of the day, you’re looking to see that kid blossom. Let’s say you’re Connor Brown. Do you benefit more from playing ten minutes a night on the Leafs’ fourth line with limited special teams time, or do you benefit from playing top line, top powerplay, and top penalty killing minutes at the AHL level?

Putting a player at a level where they’re too good to learn from is one thing, which is why the Marner debate is becoming less and less of a debate, but if there are still lessons to be had, playing as many games and as many minutes as possible while you’re still on the cusp of graduation is usually the better decision. The veteran player won’t be as influenced; they’ve likely already peaked or come very close to it, so you’re more able to use them for what they are than what they could be.

How hard is it going to be to send your cut player down? Let’s say you don’t want to lose an asset as a result of your decisions. In that case, waivers can get in the way of that process. Obviously, all of your veteran options will have to clear, but with Toronto’s veterans tending to be players on temporarily inflated salaries, their risk of being claimed is minimal.

In some cases, that makes sending them veteran more reasonable than the kid; say a Polak or Hunwick situation where the youth options (Carrick or Corrado) aren’t waiver exempt and much more likely to be claimed, thanks to sweetheart contracts. On the flip side, you have 50/50 players like Brown, Soshnikov, and Hyman who all have some exemption left, which makes it even easier to hold on to both of your options for a while. 

How will the veteran respond to getting cut? Not every player is the same. Teams shouldn’t have to be the first-time parent trying to diffuse temper tantrums, but at the same time, you can’t always control personalities and finding the right balance is key. To give some Leafs examples, John-Michael Liles turned his 2013/14 Marlies stint into an opportunity to mentor his teammates and build up his own confidence before getting called back up and traded. Tim Connolly visibly sulked during his time with them the year prior, and ended up out of hockey at the age of 32 and a non-impact player in the Marlies’ disappointing playoff showing.

Given that the alternative in these 50/50 situations is an AHL assignment, you want to make sure that if the veteran goes down, they’ll be the type to take it in stride and help your amassed bucket of youth, not disrupt the room. Maintaining a good environment is perhaps more important at development levels for this organization than it is with at the NHL, and you don’t need a player throwing that off.

How will the rookie respond to getting held back? On the flip side, you’re much more likely to get a disappointed, but accepting reaction from a younger player when they’re cut. Things obviously change for players who have made it as regular NHLers and see themselves head back down, but if you’re still climbing up the ladder, having to stretch for a few months more to grab the next rung is usually seen as part of the process.

The one thing, though, is that you need to ensure to these players that there’s a plan in place. When they don’t feel confident in the process, that’s when it starts to become a problem. Just look at Kerby Rychel; part of the reason the Leafs picked him up on the cheap was because he was displeased by how Columbus seemed to largely be winging it in terms of how they sent him up and down, and where he played in the lineups when he was in each league.

Is there a value in fostering competition? One of the interesting things about the Leafs’ prospect pool right now is the sheer abundance of ‘B’ prospects; not quite blue chippers, but still capable of being solid, regular NHLers. I’m not convinced there are too many of those battles where you gain by naming one of them the player that deserves to stick.

You could rotate them, but bouncing players up and down between leagues stifles their ability to develop chemistry and adjust to a specific level of play. The Leafs did this with their younger defencemen in 2014/15 (for cap reasons), and it led to players who didn’t quite find a groove throughout the year. Or, you keep the veteran up for now, and you let the magic happen.

After all, Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo, Kerby Rychel, Trevor Moore, Andreas Johnsson, and Dmytro Timashov all fighting to be the next regular left winger on the Leafs sounds like a fun way to keep an insane level of competition going as long as their minutes are equal enough to not stifle any of them.

Or Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Kasperi Kapanen, and Tobias Lindberg on the right side. Or Rinat Valiev, Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen,  and Viktor Loov on the left side of the blue line.

Man, this team has obscene depth right now. What a time to be alive. Anyway..

Can you find a late-season fate for the veteran? This is more from a manager’s perspective. Let’s say that you think that come February, the younger player will have taken an extra step and leapfrogged his veteran. By keeping the older player up, you’ve likely created an environment for them where they’ve either proven or disproven NHL worth.

If they’ve succeded, but they still are about to get lapped, old and grizzled players with expiring deals and pro-rated cap hits are always a hot commodity on the trade market at the deadline. If they’ve failed, well, the thought about sulking players can be thrown out the window; it’s one thing to be upset about being “aged out” on a coin toss in October, but if you’re straight up the 16th forward or 10th defenceman by talent come deadline day, you’re more willing to accept your fate.

It’s certainly easier to find that end result out by playing the experienced player in the league where they’re expected to be, though. It’s possible to build that by giving them top minutes on your affiliate, but that’s slowing down the involvement of a longer list of prospects than just the one who you’re hoping might maybe be ready for the NHL.

Can you diminish contract value for the rookie? This is a surprisingly key factor as well. As the Leafs get older and their core becomes obviously good, dollar figures are going to start stacking up, leaving the Leafs in a position not unlike the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins of recent years. This involves building a locked-in core with a constant flow of lower-cost talent, but to create lower-cost talent, you need a combination of player development and trajectory that gives them a smaller body of work to bring to the negotiation table.

Sure, an early 20’s player who makes $750,000 for two more years may seem more appealing than his $3 million, equal ability counterpart. Let’s say that player plays and develops the same regardless of the level that he spends his time in; he’s obviously going to ask more money if he’s found NHL sustainability for two full years. Given that Toronto isn’t exactly in a cap crunch this year, it makes sense to favour the more temporary costs to keep the long-game returns from trickling up sooner than they have to for some of their players.

Wrapping It Up

There are other factors that go into the decisions as well, but they’re a bit more obvious and lean towards case-by-case basis. If talent is equal, which player fits into the system more? Which one has more chemistry (by eyes or spreadsheet) with their expected linemates? Who fits into the room more? These situations are complicated, and with these Leafs, they seem lean towards the veteran being the safer option. 

That’s not so much a bad thing, given that the Leafs aren’t exactly foregoing the youth movement this year; even if kids lose every single tiebreaker, they’ll have four to six rookie or sophomore players drawing into the regular roster, the bulk of whom are going to be your core players and future leaders.

In that respect, you probably want a bit of the intangible factor too. I’m not one to believe that you can’t win with a group of kids, and I think that we’re too hesitant on the whole to praise young players in sports. 

Given, however, that the Leafs have exactly two players over the age of 26 signed beyond the end of next year to actually play games (sorry Mr. Horton), perhaps it’s a good thing to have a couple of your older players finish their victory lap by being about as good as your next generation of players, while teaching the cream of the youth crop how to watch over their peers for when the time comes. 

Toronto isn’t the first team to have to go through this process, and they won’t be the last. It’s certainly frustrating at times to see “your guy” lose his spot to a player who won’t be around in six months. But on an individual and organization scale, it’s often a worthwhile decision on the team’s part to go with the veteran in close call situations, and that history might repeat itself here this year. We’ll know for sure in a few days.

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  • Greg Fenton

    There is an interview with Babcock up on TSN, and there he says he thinks rushing a player to the NHL only to send him back to the minors is counter productive.Given that he and the Leafs would rather err on the side of caution. Sending a player to the minors when they are good enough to be in the NHL is better then playing someone in the NHL before they are ready.

  • Tigon

    Nice article Jeff. Your writing has greatly improved over the last year or so. Keep up the good work. Don’t forget to proof read both your own and others work for small errors, unusually grammatical and not factual.

  • Brent Wisken

    Don’t fully understand why Babcock singled out the younger players for the last game’s loss, claiming it was due to their “lack of compete” The veterans also played poorly in the same game.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Don’t read too much into post game interviews. If someone interviewed the Leaf fans right after the game, they would of got a different opinion if they waited to today. The Leafs have so many good prospects they are trying to get them into some preseason games so they can understand what they need to work on. Babcock needs to know what they need to work on. Yes you are right the whole team including the veterans looked disorganized. Almost like they had never played together before. Which was pretty well the case.

      • Brent Wisken

        I’m just wondering if Babcock is conjuring up an excuse to not play the young players (or just a few of them). He was not known for playing the young players in Detroit, typically going with the vets.

        • LukeDaDrifter

          It appears the Leafs will have five rookies in the lineup. That is more than I can ever remember. Most years there have been none or one. Because of the salary cap all teams will be starting more rookies than ever before.

          • Brent Wisken

            Three potential star rookies (Matthews, Nylander, Marner) – hard for them being denied in the lineup. Two rookies who are 24 years old (not that “young”) – Hyman and Zaitsev. Glad they are all likely in the lineup, they deserve to be. Should have more rookies/young players in the lineup rather than a couple of the underachieving vets (Hunwick, Laich). Hopefully so.

          • Brent Wisken

            I also sometimes think that the importance of having veteran presence can be overstated, especially if the older players can no longer play very well. For instance, Robidas was supposed to be a veteran presence and example for Rielly and Gardiner but it didn’t work well because he played poorly on the ice. Besides, the Leafs already have JVR, Michalek, Komarov, Bozak as veterans, with Babcock as the coach. Don’t need to load up further on veterans.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    This is the prime question that has Leaf fans in suspense since the draft. Who is going to make the team and who plays with who? Personally I would tend to deep six the veterans who are not in your future plans. Having the young guys play with Babcock teaching them is the way I would go. While the prospects do lack NHL experience, for the most part they have been playing organized hockey for 14 years.

  • Tigon

    It looks more and more like Greening, Laich and Holland will get the final spots up front.

    Kadri, Komarov, JVR, Michalek, Bozak, Marner, Hyman, Matthews, Nylander and Martin seem to be the locks.

    I thought Leivo and Brown would have made decisions harder. Soshnikov and Hyman were the other rookies pushing for those spots and I knew at least 3 (include Marner with those 4) wouldnt make it with how Babcock likes his teams.