Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs are probably the NHL’s next contenders and it’s time to start acting as such

The first year is always the oddest one. Not the first year of a rebuild, but the first year that it comes apparent that you have something special to work with.  The year when all the youth that you’ve spent years assembling finally get to mostly work together, and the rest of the league takes notice.

Team Year W L OTL PTS PTS% GF GA DIFF CF% Playoffs
Pittsburgh Penguins 2006/07 47 24 11 105 0.64 277 246 31 49.63 Lost R1 (5)
Chicago Blackhawks 2007/08 40 34 8 88 0.537 239 235 4 50.1 Missed
Los Angeles Kings 2009/10 46 27 9 101 0.616 241 219 22 50.55 Lost R1 (6)
Toronto Maple Leafs 2016/17 40 27 15 95 0.579 251 242 9 51.31 Lost R1 (6)

They don’t know you’re knocking on the doorstep yet, but they will. By the end of it, they’ll know that you’re a little while away from making noise. It can’t be around the corner though After all, while you’ve come a long way from this:

Team Year W L OTL PTS PTS% GF GA DIFF CF% Playoffs
Pittsburgh Penguins 2005/06 22 46 14 58 0.354 244 316 -72 47.26 Missed
Chicago Blackhawks 2006/07 31 42 9 71 0.433 201 258 -57 49.25 Missed
Los Angeles Kings 2008/09 32 37 11 79 0.482 207 234 -27 50.45 Missed
Toronto Maple Leafs 2015/16 29 42 11 69 0.421 198 246 -48 50.35 Missed

You’re still just a middling threat. Right? Well, only if you want to be.

One thing that most of these teams had in common? They were getting their production for pennies on the dollar. This is especially true of the Penguins and Blackhawks (The Kings are the square peg of this comparison, but eventually find their way. Just run with it). Shockingly, adding multiple young, elite forwards that you previously drafted to the other depth guys that you’ve drafted and have managed to survive the draft years will lead to some very fun results. Those Penguins added Malkin and Staal. Those Hawks added Kane and Toews. Los Angeles got their help on the back end; this wasn’t Doughty’s first season, but it was his big boom. Of course, that leaves us with the Leafs, who had five rookies in their top ten scorers.

Future core pieces were hiding in the bottom of the scoring tables of the other three teams as well. In Pittsburgh, Max Talbot barely missed the cutoff for the above table, and Kris Letang got a seven-game taste of the pros after finishing his last QMJHL season. That Blackhawks team included Andrew Ladd, Cam Barker, Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford for stints. The Kings gave brief looks to a handful of others, but still had a few veterans to skim off. The key point here, though, is that the teams now had a chunk of salary wiggle room; moreso if they were willing to play the bonus overage chasing game. Moreover, they had a lot of incentive to improve; their best players would only be cheap for so long.

So they took leaps.

Date “Year 3” Transaction
Jul 2 2007 Penguins sign Petr Sykora
Jul 2 2007 Penguins sign Darryl Sydor
Feb 26 2008 Penguins trade 2nd+5th for Hal Gill
Feb 26 2008 Penguins trade Armstrong, Christensen, Esposito, 1st for Hossa, Dupuis
Jul 1 2008 Blackhawks sign Brian Campbell
Jul 1 2008 Blackhawks sign Cristobal Huet
Mar 4 2009 Blackhawks trade Wisniewski, Kontiola for Pahlsson, Stephenson, 4th
Jul 27 2010 Kings sign Alexei Ponikarovsky
Aug 25 2010 Kings sign Willie Mitchell
Feb 28 2011 Kings trade Teubert, 1st, 3rd for Dustin Penner

The most glaringly apparent of these pushes comes from the Blackhawks, and that makes sense. The Penguins were still getting out of the bankruptcy woods at this point, and were already also an abundant threat; one that was just unfortunate to face a Cup Favourite (and eventual Eastern Conference Champion) in Ottawa in the first round. Even they still added some middle-lineup support, though, and eventually swung for the fences at the deadline. Los Angeles made their higher-profile moves in a way that minimized how many players would come off their roster, but also focused more on depth.

Chicago’s brazenness was key, though. Fewer top defencemen were hitting the open market once the cap era kicked in; the odds of a Zdeno Chara-level move from one team to another were minuscule. Campbell was clearly the best defenceman on the market and seemed poised to be for a long time. Knowing they were getting a top-end player that would flesh out their core, the Hawks signed him to his massive eight-year, $57 million contract, and decided that any issues that may arise would be addressed later.

Team Year W L OTL PTS PTS% GF GA DIFF CF% Playoffs
Pittsburgh Penguins 2007/08 47 27 8 102 0.622 247 216 31 45.93 Lost SCF (6)
Chicago Blackhawks 2008/09 46 24 12 104 0.634 264 216 48 56.02 Lost WCF (5)
Los Angeles Kings 2010/11 46 30 6 98 0.598 219 198 21 51.98 Lost R1 (6)

Chicago and Pittsburgh took huge leaps, which is impressive given what they had accomplished the year before. Extra depth and improved goaltending from Fleury made all the difference for the Penguins, and while the Hossa move didn’t get them their cup, it got them the closest they had been in nearly two decades. Chicago looked ready to take the league by storm right out of the gate, but were tasked with facing the last truly great gasp of the Detroit Red Wings and, in their first playoff appearance as a group, just weren’t able to keep up. Los Angeles kinda spun their tires, losing to San Jose, but got an idea of where they needed to go while they still could.

Alright, second kick at the can.

Date “Year 4” Transaction
Jul 3 2008 Penguins sign Miroslav Satan
Jul 3 2008 Penguins sign Ruslan Fedotenko
Jul 3 2008 Penguins sign Matt Cooke
Nov 16 2008 Penguins trade Darryl Sydor for Phillipe Boucher
Feb 26 2009 Penguins trade Whitney for Chris Kunitz, Eric Tangradi
March 4 2009 Penguins trade conditional pick for Bill Guerin
Jul 1 2009 Blackhawks sign Marian Hossa
Jul 1 2009 Blackhawks sign John Madden
Jul 1 2009 Blackhawks sign Tomas Kopecky
Feb 12 2010 Blackhawks trade Cam Barker for Kim Johnsson, Nick Leddy
Jun 23 2011 Kings trade B. Schenn, W. Simmonds, 2nd for M. Richards, R. Bordson
Jul 2nd 2011 Kings sign Simon Gagner
Feb 23 2012 Kings trade Jack Johnson, pick for Jeff Carter

The Penguins knew they couldn’t afford Hossa long-term with Crosby coming up for renewal, so they walked when the talks got too rich. But they also knew that this was the last year that Malkin and Staal would be this cheap and that Letang was on the clock too. So they surrounded them with (mostly) short-term support. The Hawks went for it for a second consecutive year and signed Hossa until approximately the apocalypse, and the Kings, knowing that it was now or never, threw down some young core players and cash to basically acquire the mid-late 2000’s Philadelphia Flyers.

Team Year W L OTL PTS PTS% GF GA DIFF CF% Playoffs
Pittsburgh Penguins 2008/09 45 28 9 99 0.604 264 239 25 48.35 Won Cup
Chicago Blackhawks 2009/10 52 22 8 112 0.683 271 209 62 58.25 Won Cup
Los Angeles Kings 2011/12 40 27 15 95 0.579 133 118 15 54.86 Won Cup

Just in time. The Penguins solved their last big issue (coaching) midway through the season and went on a tear under Dan Bylsma, the Hawks achieved all-around dominance and cruised through the year, and the Kings shook off bad luck at just the right time to have one of the craziest playoff runs of our time. They did it while their best young players were still relatively cheap, and could be surrounded by top depth and veteran players to push them over the top while they approached their personal athletic primes.

The people preaching caution will be quick to point out that from here, managing the cap got a lot harder for all three teams. They all had to make tough decisions with to keep themselves within the constraints of the league, and that often involved very good players being moved out.

I know that sounds bad, but it’s an inevitability of all rags to riches teams. No matter what happens with the Leafs, if they take the patient approach or not, they’re going to have players who will ask for more money or opportunity at the end of their deals. They’re going to have to move players, and what this team looks like now is not what it’ll look like even two years from now.

But none of those other three teams had to move away from their young stars. Crosby, Malkin, Letang (from the press box) and Fleury (from the bench) are chasing yet another cup in Pittsburgh. Nearly every other Hawk has been replaceable along the way, but Toews, Kane, and Keith are all still there. Kopitar and Doughty still run Los Angeles.

These teams, in a sense, got to use the winning to their advantage. Support players had the pedigree of a ring to raise their trade value to teams looking to make their own jump, and they were willing to give up picks and prospects to get a piece of the “culture” in their own rooms, beginning a conveyor belt of support development. Veteran UFAs wanted to join the ride and signed discounted short term deals to join these teams. Prospects looking to win from the start while being aware they could get legitimate minutes for a team that needed their lower initial cap hits (looking at you, Artemi Panarin) were more willing to hop on their bandwagons.

In short, getting to victory faster gave all of these teams leverage in manipulating the group outside their top players with efficiency. It created binds at times, but they were manageable because the hockey world wanted to be just like them. Thanks to this, these teams were all able to repeat and stay competitive for quite a few years after their first win. All three teams found their way back to hosting cup parades with the same top players. Chicago’s done so twice, and Pittsburgh may join them in a week.

Which brings us back to the Leafs. The Leafs team that we don’t want to get too carried away with yet. After all, even looking at the other “model franchise”, it still seems weird to think that they could be destined to go down that same, no-speed-limit road.

But it shouldn’t. The Leafs had their share of slumps and misfortune (the shootout, one goal games, and third period leads were all nearly the death of them), but they were one of the best possession teams in the league, the team that spent the most time in the lead in the league besides Washington, and one of the best at moving the puck in and out of dangerous areas at blistering pace. They did it on the backs of three rookies who couldn’t legally drink in 24 road arenas and a supporting cast that was nearly as young. They did it without any significant statistical alarms to set off, and they backed it all up by playing an extremely close series with the regular season’s best team in the league. There is little to no reason to believe that this team isn’t for real.

There’s less reason to believe that this offseason isn’t one to pounce, either.

Contract wise, this is the best position that the Leafs have ever been in the salary cap era. A long list of expiring buried salaries mean that Toronto has $12 million in space remaining with Connor Brown and Zach Hyman being the only two significant contracts left to sign. They’ve got another $10.5 million in theoretical (but not totally clean) money to spend through Long-Term Injured Reserve, should they feel the need to push their bonus luck. The likelihood of a “flat” salary cap means that other teams won’t have the room to upgrade their maxed out rosters, perhaps giving Toronto an advantage in attempted acquisition.

It’s the only time they’ll have it quite this nice, too. Next year comes with some benefit; the full removal of Lupul’s contract, the expiration of Eric Fehr, and the end of Tim Gleason and Jared Cowen’s buyouts, but they’ll also have the extension or replacement of William Nylander, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Connor Carrick, and a handful of others to worry about. Add a year, and you have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Jake Gardiner to worry about.

If there’s a time do to this, it’s right now. The team is on the cusp of being one of the league’s best using solely what they have now, but management has a once-in-an-era amount of flexibility to add to the group and audition what they have to offer to the rest of the league. Rather than worrying about what your top players will make in two years, consider what you’ll get for your third liners when they’re the ones who get priced out. Rather than worrying about losing a fringe prospect in a move, consider the incentive you give to future top ones who might show up from around the world. Rather than worrying about sticking to an arbitrary “X year plan”, recognize the opportunity you have in front of you to win now, while still looking towards a viable future.

Ultimately, developing a model franchise is a marathon, not a sprint. By no means am I saying that the Leafs should short all their future assets to go all-in on next year; that would be insane. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll spend some time on this site brainstorming about what the best plan of action and execution to make the next step is.

But they have to make it. Even a marathoner has to occasionally decide whether it makes sense to take a chance to pass the crowd ahead of them, and if you’re in it to win rather than to merely finish, you’re going to have to make that call at some point. You may as well do it while you have the energy.

Team Year W L OTL PTS PTS% GF GA DIFF Adj.CF% Playoffs
Toronto Maple Leafs 2017/18 To Be Determined
Toronto Maple Leafs 2018/19 To Be Determined

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  • RedLightRaycroft

    Signing players to massive 1-year contracts is basically my go-to move in NHL17 if I have some unused cap space. I’m not saying the Leafs should be more like me, but I’ve won 3 virtual Stanley Cups in a row. So maybe it wouldn’t hurt.

    On the serious side of things, I still don’t think Thornton makes it to Free Agency and I don’t think Babs would be on the Kovalchuk train.

    • I see so many “nahs” to Kovalchuk with no justification. Why? If we can get him on a two year deal, why not? Everyone didn’t want a piece of Radulov last year based on doubts of character, etc but it’s funny how that narrative changed. Kovalchuk scored almost 80 points in 69 games last year which easily translates to 50 points in the NHL. If you can get him to sign for 2 or so years, I think you take it.

      A good point was made on the radio today. It’s not like Golden State passed on Durant because of concerns over kids’ development. They went “yep, we’ll take the elite talent who wants to be here” and dealt with the consequences. This is the time to do it and it still likely won’t prevent the Leafs from making other moves. Why not?

      • Capt.Jay

        Kovolchuk has always been known as a (him first personality) and sees himself as the go to guy. Nothing good could come out of having him in a dressing room that appears to get along quite well. Who ever comes in needs to understand that they are a complimentary piece to the existing team. Not the go to guy. It’ll ruffle feathers fast

      • Kanuunankuula

        I think we should reserve one of the years before Marner/Matthews resigning to have a hefty bonus cussion. So no using LTIR, since those overages keep snowballing until we stop them for one year. Might be super valuable in 19-20.

        Which would mean no two years big contracts.

  • Glen

    An old Leaf lifer like me has seen all kinds of moves to add the missing pieces, all kinds of cheering from the gallery as they brought in the likes of Corson, O’neil, Nieuendike, Komasarek, Finger etc. Please no Thornton or Kovalchuck. Patience until we see what some of the Marlies turn into.

  • Stan Smith

    You make a lot of good points, and it is good to see the comparisons with successful teams.

    To me the easy part of the rebuild is over, and the success the Leafs have had up until now is partially because of good management choices and partially by luck. Now is when it gets difficult. The balancing act of pushing the team over the top while at the same time trying to keep it there over an extended period of time can be precarious. You could just as easily become the San Jose Sharks or the Washington Capitals, as you can the Chicago Blackhawks or the Pittsburgh Penquins.

    It will be interesting to see what moves the Leaf management makes from here on out.

  • Gary Empey

    I agree we should be considered a potential contender next year. I do have some real concerns that we have forgotten we need to make the playoffs first. We only made it last year by one point. There are some good teams in the Atlantic Division who will be doing their best to improve this off season as well. What I see the Leafs doing this off season is more or less like they did last year. Last year after assessing the team they added a goalie, and a top four defenceman. This year the Leafs quickly added two speedy, young, defencemen, Calle Rosen, and Andreas Borgman. That leaves center depth as our biggest need. We have yet to see how Leaf management will deal with that. It is likely the Leafs are waiting to see what the outcome of the expansion draft is. After that I expect Lou will act quickly to add center depth. Is this the correct time in the rebuild to add a big piece? Do we really need to add a big piece over the summer or should we at least wait to the next trade deadline to see if it is even required?

    Should we be concerned about the next time we play Tampa Bay with Jake Dotchin in their lineup. Do we wait for him to take out Matthews knee like he attempted to do last year. Like he did to Gauthier, ending his season and putting him out for six months. Dotchin got a 3 game suspension so I am sure his team thought it was worth it as they went on to win the playoff series with Dotchin back in the lineup. Kapanen was luckier. He was only out for about 3 months after Dotchin took out his knee earlier this year.
    I think next year all of our rookies will be bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. I don’t see adding a “let’s for it big piece at this point in time”.
    “Steady as she goes Capt, Jay.” “hold that course” ” I see something shiny on the horizon”