The Babcock Effect

Dan Hamilton / USA Today Sports

Dan Hamilton / USA Today Sports

– The Jays are done, now what?

– Gulp. How about the Argos?

– …I’m not familiar with the term. Can you use it in a sentence?

– Wait a second. Remember that other blue team in Toronto? What are they called again?

– OH! You mean the Leafs.

– Yeah, remember them? GOOD TIMES!

The above is a representation of the attitude of 99% of Toronto sports fans over the past week. There’s nothing like a long-term rebuild, a 1-7-2 start to the season, and a 48 year old Stanley Cup drought to get people fired up for some Leafs hockey. Ah, to be a Toronto sports fan!

With that being said, let’s turn our attention to the Leafs. It’s been about 14,000 years since we’ve written about them, so there’s a lot to say.

Despite the sarcasm-laden, passive aggressive introduction that you hopefully just read, I’m pretty happy with the way things are going right now, and there is certainly plenty of reason to be optimistic. *takes off rose-coloured glasses* No really, I think there is reason to be excited. How excited? Excited enough that I may or may not have purchased a Leafs onesie this past week. Worth it.

The Babcock Effect

Like pretty much every Leaf fan, when Babcock was hired, my mix of emotions included optimism, confusion, disbelief, optimism, excitement, and optimism. I am of the firm belief that sometimes the impact of coaches in the NHL is overblown. When a team plays badly, people tend to attack the coach, rather than the goaltending, the scoring, or what have you. Same often goes for the case of a team performing well. The fact is, no matter how good a coach is, no team with a first-line featuring Leo Komarov is going to do exceptionally well…sorry Leo. But that wasn’t the goal for this season, and probably won’t be the goal for next season either. This season is about finding a way to not get blown out of the water on a nightly basis while biding time for the young guns as they continue to develop, whether that be in the CHL, AHL, in Europe or with the Leafs. Whatever happens with this rather crappy lineup will happen. This may mean a low finish and a high draft pick, which would be just fine with me. But it’s plausible that the Leafs could end up in a higher position than most would have expected (whether you take this as good news or bad news is up to you).

It turns out Babcock is doing a pretty good job with this team so far. Despite their record, the Leafs have only been outscored 21-18 at even-strength, despite a cripplingly low shooting percentage of 6.45%, which is bound to improve. They have also generally dominated even-strength possession, something that Leaf fans are not used to seeing, especially coming out of the Carlilian era. The below chart illustrates this turnaround. (CF% refers to the percentage of total shot attempts that were by your team, as opposed to the other team).

Season CF% CF% Ranking
2010-11 47.8% 25th
2011-12 48.9% 19th
2012-13 44.1% 30th
2013-14 42.8% 30th
2014-15 46.4% 27th
2015-16 (through 11 games) 53.7% 6th

Data from war-on-ice.com

It’s very early so take this with a grain of salt for now, but Babcock’s teams have historically achieved success by controlling the puck. And interestingly enough, to start this season, the Red Wings’ possession numbers have taken a plunge with Babcock no longer at the helm.

Season CF% CF% Ranking
2010-11 53.3% 1st
2011-12 55.0% 2nd 
2012-13 52.6% 6th 
2013-14 51.4% 9th
2014-15 53.2% 3rd
2015-16 (through 11 games) 46.0% 29th

Data from war-on-ice.com

Almost a mirror image of the Leafs. Can you say #BABCOCKED?

Again, this is an incredibly small sample size, but if this trend can continue, and the Leafs can continue to control the puck effectively, this will mark an important step in the long-term success of the Leafs. This style of play does pay off.

Traditionalists may argue “so what, just because a team has high possession doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually playing well.” The fact is, there has proven to be a correlation. Possession drives scoring chances, which drive goals. It’s pretty simple. Sure, luck may win out at times, especially given a small sample size (as we saw with the Leafs in the lockout shortened season of 2012-13), but in the long run, possession is a true indicator of success. In the below chart, I have shown the correlation between high possession numbers and team points using aggregate data from the previous three seasons.

Data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com

Data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com

Moving beyond possession, the problem for the Leafs so far has been goaltending and special teams. The extent of the awfulness in both of these categories would appear to be unsustainable. Bernier’s .899 save percentage through the first 7 games this season is well below his .915 career save percentage. Aside from the 4 games he played in the 2007-08 season, this is his worst season so far in his entire career. For Reimer, the start to his season has been especially rough. In his 4 games this season, he has achieved a save percentage of .876, as compared to his .912 career mark. The likelihood of both of these guys having career-low seasons during their prime years is very low. If they both performed just at their career averages, a very reasonable target, the Leafs would have already allowed about 6.5 less goals against this season. Considering the season is only eleven games old, this is a pretty substantial difference.

The special teams is particularly puzzling, especially given the relative success that the Leafs have experienced to this point at even-strength. To this point the Power Play has converted at a rate of 7.4%, and the Penalty Kill has been successful only 73.4% of the time. If you go back to the 2005-06 season, the first season after the infamous lock-out of 2004-05, no team has ever had a Penalty Kill worse than the 2012-13 Florida Panthers, who had a rate of 74.2%. The Leafs are pretty bad, but they probably aren’t that bad. Looking at the Power Play, the worst percentage in this same time period, by a landslide, belongs to the 2013-14 Florida Panthers, at 10.0%. So what’s the conclusion? Well first, the Panthers were embarrassingly bad at hockey. But beyond that, none of these special teams numbers are even close to being sustainable for the Leafs going forward. They won’t be at the top of the league, and they could even be right at the bottom, but it won’t be this bad. It may just be a matter of adapting to the new systems being implemented by Babcock and his new coaching staff.

If the Leafs can continue playing the way they have at even strength, and if their goaltending and special teams can improve just a little bit, we may well just see the Leafs climb in the standings.

You might be thinking this is way too optimistic a stance to take right now. But in the early going, the Babcock Effect appears to be real. Going into this season with basically no expectations, I have been pleasantly surprised. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but if the Leafs continue to play this way, even if the wins don’t come immediately, I see it as a positive step in their long-term success. As they rebuild over the coming years, and as the roster becomes less trash, it will be interesting to see the results. There is reason for optimism, Leaf fans. And with guys like Nylander, Marner, Kapanen, Brown, and Johnson on the way, there will be more reason to cheer soon.

Anyways, happy belated Halloween from one Leafs fan to another. And even though Phil isn’t technically on the Leafs anymore, I think you need this picture in your life.

phil

Should They Stay or Should They Go: The Phil Kessel Edition

Well, Babcock is in, and the city of Toronto is buzzing. And with good reason. Obviously, a good coach is a crucial component of any winning franchise. But at the end of the day, it is the players that will determine just how successful the Leafs will be. Babcock’s arrival does not change the fact that a complete rebuild is the necessary next step in creating a franchise that will compete for years to come. So even with the new coach, the question remains, what will be done with the current Leaf roster? Who fits into the long-term plans? Who should stay and who should go?

I wrote about Tyler Bozak last week, and came to the unsurprising conclusion that he should indeed be moved this off-season. This was hardly a controversial stance to take, and nor should it be. 

In that piece, much of the discussion regarding Bozak necessarily involved his line mate and good buddy, the King of the Dad Bod, Phil Kessel. This guy has to be one of the most polarizing players ever in Toronto sports. He is certainly one of the most gifted and productive players to ever put on the Leaf uniform, but even as a Kessel fan, there are downfalls that must be acknowledged. Many questions linger this off-season as to whether Kessel should continue to be a part of the Leaf roster, and I would like to try and tackle this issue head on. In making this assessment, it is important to evaluate not only Kessel’s value as a player, but the current situation of the Leaf franchise.

Nobody can deny Kessel’s offensive ability. The guy racks up points at a pace that I think many Leaf fans fail to fully appreciate. Sure, he had a bit of an “off year” this season, but realistically, putting up 61 points in today’s low scoring NHL isn’t actually that terrible, especially when you consider his supporting cast. Even with that off year, here is the list of NHL players with more points than Phil over the last four seasons:

  • Claude Giroux (300)
  • Evgeni Malkin (284)
  • Alexander Ovechkin (281)
  • Sidney Crosby (281)
  • John Tavares (280)

That’s it. Obviously that’s some good company to be in. Now, if we take a look at the quality of the teammates (TMCF%, i.e. teammate Corsi percentage) and the quality of the competition (OppCF%, i.e. opponent Corsi percentage) that these guys face at 5v5 over this same period, and rank them based on this data, this is what you get:

Quality of Competition Quality of Teammates
C. Giroux (50.2%) S. Crosby (51.0%)
S. Crosby (50.2%) E. Malkin (50.6%)
J. Tavares (50.2%) C. Giroux (49.3%)
P. Kessel (50.1%) A. Ovechkin (49.1%)
E. Malkin (50.0%) J. Tavares (48.3%)
A. Ovechkin (50.0%) P. Kessel (44.4%)

*Data collected from Puckalytics.com

In essence, the level of competition that Kessel has faced over his five year career with the Leafs has been pretty comparable to other elite scorers in the NHL, while at the same time, he has had far less help from his teammates. This makes his offensive output over the last few years all the more impressive. He has carried the team, offensively, for his entire stint with the Leafs.

And yet, even with his elite offensive talent, he is often criticized, in large part because his defense is poor. Yes, his defense is bad. I don’t care how much of a Kessel fan you are, this can’t really be argued. Over his last five seasons with the Leafs, his CF% of 46.4% (according to Puckalytics.com) has consistently ranked among the lowest in the NHL. This weakness has been all the more exposed given that he has played most of his time with other poor defensive players, like Bozak, JVR, and Lupul.

But is it fair to direct so much hate toward him for his defense? Guys like Crosby, Datsyuk, Toews, and the Sedins who score at an elite level but also play great defense are few and far between. Obviously, in an ideal world, Kessel plays great defense in addition to his elite offence. But can we not just appreciate him for what he is: an elite offensive force. Look at guys like Kane, Johansen, St. Louis, and Stamkos. None of them are strong defensive players, and yet people seem to be just fine with how they play. I, too, wish Kessel could step up his defensive game, I wish he back-checked harder and won more puck battles, but there is still a lot that we can appreciate about him.

Besides defense, people hate on Kessel for a litany of reasons. First, he doesn’t skate much in the off-season, according to the man himself. Sure, maybe you would expect NHL players to skate more in the off-season, but unless there has been some revelation that I haven’t heard about (and please let me know if that is the case), nobody really knows exactly what his off-season training entails. What we do know is that he hasn’t missed a game since 2009. And what has been reported is that Kessel came into camp last season as one of the top three fittest players, along with prospect Connor Brown, and other guy Cody Donaghy. So he’s doing something right with his training, is he not? Admittedly, I haven’t played hockey at an elite level, but it doesn’t make sense to me that people automatically equate not skating much in the off-season to not training much in the off-season. There is most definitely a difference. Yeah, he has an impressive cookie gut, but it’s working for him.

Then there’s his personality. No, he’s not exactly a vibrant character, nor does he seem like the sharpest tool in the shed. He says “right” way too often during his interviews, and overall, he doesn’t handle media very well. He doesn’t fight (for the most part), and doesn’t make big hits or get in the middle of scrums. He’s an introvert, and in the overbearing and intense Toronto hockey market, that type personality certainly isn’t the best fit, and it often gets mistaken for a lack of passion. Toronto sports fans tend to love guys with a more colourful personality, both on and off the ice: think guys like Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Wendel Clark, and Doug Gilmour. Sure, it’s entertaining to have those types of players. But is the fact that he doesn’t fit this mold a good reason to not like him? I would say no. He brings his own elite skill set to the table. At the end of the day, he produces more than almost anyone in the league, and I think that’s what he should be judged on, more than his personality. No, he probably won’t be the captain of any teams during his career, but if he keeps producing at the rate that he has, I’m fine with that.

And yeah, he looks creepy in an elf costume. But you know what, he’s our creepy elf who racks up points like it’s nobody’s business.

So, obviously, I do like Kessel. There are things he could certainly improve on, but all in all, he’s a fantastic player. I believe that much of the hate for him in this city is unwarranted. And if the Leafs were a contending team, or on the verge of being one, they would be crazy to move him. However, given the current Leaf situation, I think that it would benefit both the team and Kessel to trade him away. Not because he’s poor defensively, not because he doesn’t skate a lot in the off-season, and not because of his personality, but instead, simply because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep him around, given the current state of the franchise. He’s 27 now, and it will be quite a while before the Leafs are good again, unfortunately. This has only been reaffirmed by recent comments from Shanahan and Babcock, speaking to the long road ahead for Leaf fans. Keeping Kessel around during these lean years would not be beneficial to him or the Leafs, in the long term. Yes, he might move them up a couple spots in the standings, but at this stage, I don’t think that’s what Leaf fans really want, nor is it what is needed. By the time the Leafs are ready to contend again, Kessel may be well past his prime. If a true rebuild is going to take place, Kessel will have to be moved soon, whether that means this off-season, or another time in the near future. It makes sense to maximize the return for him while you can.

While nobody, including me, can possibly know how Kessel will play in the coming years, I’m aware that some people are in favour of keeping Kessel around temporarily, because of the worry that they might be selling low on him after one “bad” season. Personally, I don’t think this past season brought his stock down much at all. A 61 point season on such an awful team, and during such a low scoring season in the NHL, is far from terrible. Most GMs are smarter than they get credit for, and I would be willing to bet that at least a few will be salivating over the idea of attaining an elite offensive player, like Kessel, for their top line. Judging from some of the reports out there, Kessel could fetch a very intriguing package of young assets and draft picks that could make a major contribution to the Leaf rebuild. Yes, his $8 million cap hit may reduce the amount of teams able to pursue him, but his contract isn’t actually as terrible as it’s made out to be. While it’s difficult to know for certain until a deal has been made, I am as close to certain as you can be that there will be significant interest in him. For the Leafs, it makes sense to bottom out over the next couple of years. And getting rid of Kessel is a good way of doing that. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to assessing how well Kessel will play next year, and well into the future. The fact is, nobody knows. Whether the hiring of Babcock changes anything regarding Kessel is certainly up for debate. Damien Cox, among others, has argued that the Leafs should keep Kessel around and let Babcock turn him into a better asset. Realistically though, we don’t know what kind of impact, if any, Babcock will have on him. There’s no guarantee, at all, that Kessel will be much better than he was last season. While some definitely disagree, Kessel has high value right now, even after a disappointing season, and it would be a shame to throw away a potentially game-changing trade package for the sake of a few more years of Kessel while the Leafs sit near the bottom of the standings. I don’t think the hiring of a new coach should alter the path that needs to be taken by the Leafs in order to achieve long-term success.

And for Kessel, he deserves better. Toronto has heaped too much pressure on Kessel from day one. He’s an elite scorer, but he isn’t a franchise player like Crosby, Toews, Doughty, Price, Lundqvist, Karlsson and others. He needs to play on a team where he isn’t expected to be the franchise player, because he simply isn’t built to take on that role. He was expected to carry this team on his own, and when he didn’t do that, people turned on him. Kessel would benefit greatly from joining a good team where he doesn’t have to be the number one guy all the time, and where he doesn’t have the media constantly breathing down his neck. I truly think that he could put a lot of teams over the top to the level where they can compete for a Stanley Cup.

As I’ve said, I like him, and think he gets a really bad rap in Toronto. I have a feeling that Leaf fans won’t fully appreciate what they had until he’s gone. But for the sake of the Leafs rebuild, and for the sake of Kessel, I hope the Leafs move him this off-season, and I hope Kessel gets to continue his career in a hockey market that he is better suited to play in.

 

Should They Stay or Should They Go: The Tyler Bozak Edition

So, the GM is gone, all of the coaches are gone, and most of the scouting staff is gone. Shanahan burned it all down. Luckily, SportsFromTheSix was able to dig up some exclusive footage showing how it all happened. Has anyone seen Carleton the Bear lately? Hopefully he (or she?) is still employed.

While most fans would agree that these actions needed to be taken, the big remaining question is: what should happen to the roster? The Leafs are in a rather unusual position. On the one hand, they are awful at hockey, in the same league as the Sabres, Coyotes, and Hurricanes (I leave Edmonton off of this list because McDavid). On the other hand, though, the Leafs possess some major assets, current roster players who are coveted by other NHL teams. I know a lot of people like to say that guys like Phaneuf and Kessel are untradeable, but frankly, I think that’s a load of crap. And while I acknowledge I may have a homer bias, I truly think that these players are valuable on good teams, even with their current contracts. I thought it would make sense to more thoroughly assess who on the current roster should go, and who should stay. The next few posts will address individual players, beginning in this post with Tyler Bozak.

Tyler Bozak:

He should go. It’s not that I don’t like Bozak, but he just isn’t a first liner, and probably not even a second liner on most good teams. At this point, at age 29, what you see is what you get with Bozak. He’s good on face-offs, he’s a decent penalty killer, and he had some nice flow back in 2013, but he can’t play defence for beans and his offense is mediocre.

For some weird reason, a lot of people have this view of Bozak as some sort of defensive stalwart. But like…no…he’s just not. If advanced statistics are your cup of tea, look no further than FF% (Fenwick For Percentage) at even strength, which measures the percentage of shot attempts (shots + missed shots) that are taken by a player’s team while he is on the ice, in relation to shots taken by the opposing team. According to hockey-reference.com, he has a career FF% of 46.0%, with his only season above 50% being his rookie season back in 2009-2010. This means that for his whole career, the opposing team has consistently gotten more shot attempts than the Leafs while he was on the ice. Yes, the Leafs are a bad possession team as a whole, but with a career relative Fenwick percentage of -1.8%, Bozak’s possession stats are bad even in comparison to his teammates.

But possession is overrated, right? What matters is just that you score more than the other team. Right? Oh, I forgot to mention, opponents have typically outscored the Leafs while Bozak has been on the ice. According to BehindTheNet.ca, just this past season he was outscored by 1.69 goals per 60 minutes at even strength. When he wasn’t on the ice, the team was outscored by only 0.09 per 60 minutes at even strength. While this was his worst season in that regard, opposing teams have outscored the Leafs at even strength with Bozak on the ice for four out of six of his NHL seasons. 

Now, I am fully aware that there are major issues associated with looking at plus/minus. Of course, it is important here to recognize the context of these statistics.

Bozak’s poor stats couldn’t be a reflection of his play, could they? Perhaps it’s because he plays against the other team’s top players? But while Bozak has had some tough opponent matchups, the GF% of opposition players at even-strength when they are not playing against him has fallen between 49.9% and 50.9% during each of his seasons in the NHL. In other words, his opposition has basically allowed the same amount of goals as they have scored against other league match-ups. They have not dominated their other opponents. 

Okay then, Kessel’s bad defence must be dragging Bozak down, right? Au contraire. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case. According to Puckalytics.com, without Kessel, he really is not a major threat to opponents. Between 2010 and 2015, when Bozak played with Kessel, their GF% (goals for percentage) at even-strength was 47.1%, meaning they were slightly outscored. Without Kessel, though, there is a major drop-off, as Bozak’s GF% then falls all the way to 33.8%. Two-thirds of the goals scored while he was on the ice without Kessel were by the other team. Interestingly enough, Kessel does not rely on Bozak in the same way, as his GF% without Bozak between 2010 and 2015 was 48.7%, a slight improvement from when he played with Bozak. This same trend applies when you look at the Corsi possession numbers. Bozak’s CF% (Corsi For Percentage) without Kessel is far below what it is with Kessel, while Kessel’s remains mostly static whether or not he is with Bozak. (Note that the only difference between Fenwick and Corsi is that Corsi counts blocked shots as shot attempts, while Fenwick only uses shots and missed shots). As bad as Phil Kessel is defensively, you can easily argue that Bozak is even worse. People just like to rip extra hard on Kessel because he has a chubby face, a funny accent, and doesn’t handle media well.

How about JVR? Is he having a detrimental impact on Bozak’s play? This may be a more legitimate question. Bozak still has a lower GF% and CF% when playing without JVR than he does playing with him, although it should be noted, JVR’s is also lower when he doesn’t play with Bozak and Kessel (JVR will be covered in detail in a future blog post).

Offensively, Bozak has put up decent point totals, but that’s to be expected when playing most time on a line with Kessel and JVR. Compared to other first line centres in the league, though, he hasn’t had much success at all. He has yet to put up a 50 point season, with a career 232 points in 378 games with the Leafs, for an average of 0.61 points per game. For a comparison, Kessel has 394 points in 446 games with the Leafs (0.88 points per game), and JVR has 149 points in 210 games with the Leafs (0.71 points per game). The fact is though, no matter what stats you look at, Bozak isn’t a number one centre by any stretch, he isn’t an elite scorer, and he doesn’t play good defence.

One would hope that the Leafs can draft a future #1 centre in the upcoming draft, like Strome or Marner (if he is able to play centre). But even if they don’t, I take Kadri over Bozak in the first-line role any day of the week. He’s younger, more gifted offensively, and he plays defence. According to HockeyAnalysis.com, over the past three seasons, Kadri’s points per 60 minutes of 2.02 has ranked only behind Kessel at 2.13, and well ahead of Bozak at 1.67, despite usually having far less gifted linemates.  How many points would he rack up on a line with Kessel and JVR? Who knows, but it’s safe to say a fair bit more. I’ll talk about him in more detail in a separate blog post, but there is no logical argument to be made for Bozak being better than Kadri, and I just can’t see him fitting in with the Leafs going forward.

After the 2012-2013 season, Bozak was rewarded with a 5 year, $4.2 million contract, in part of a string of awful decisions made by Dave Nonis that also saw MacArthur get let go for nothing, Grabovski bought out, and Clarkson signed to a ridiculous contract. Even with the steadily increasing salary cap and the inflation of contracts, he’s a little overpaid, seeing as he is probably a third line centre. But with that being said, it’s not so bad that it will make it impossible to deal him. Heck, apparently no contract is that bad. Even Clarkson got traded. For teams that already have a solid #1 centre and a little bit of cap space, Bozak could be a useful depth piece who can kill some penalties, win some face-offs, and chip in some secondary scoring. As much as I have spent much of the last few paragraphs ripping on the guy, he does still have some value. And who knows, there may well be a GM out there that overvalues Bozak (Nonis, where are you?). The fact is, though, he isn’t a number one centre, he doesn’t fit with the Leafs going forward, and it makes much more sense to get something for him while they can. Even if you love the way he plays, he’s 29 now, and by the time the Leafs are good again, he’ll probably be 32 or 33, with his best playing days behind him. He shouldn’t be a part of the long term plan. I’m no expert, but if I were a betting man, I would guess that he could fetch something along the lines of a 2nd round pick, and maybe another small piece. At a return like that, I definitely make the deal.

Sorry for offending the Bozak fan club.

Over the next few weeks, I will continue to write similar features on different players in the Leafs lineup to assess whether or not they should continue to be on the roster. Next up, Phil Kessel.

In Shanahan We Trust

The season is finally over so I guess it’s time to kick back and forget about the Leafs until the draft, right? Wrong, because we found out yesterday that Brendan Shanahan is one cold-blooded killa. Absolutely no mercy, he was just firing people left, right, and centre. I’m the only person on earth who doesn’t watch Game of Thrones, but from what I’ve been told, this seems like the Leafs version of the Red Wedding. While you should never be happy to see somebody lose their job, I’m finding it pretty darn hard not to for some of these guys, given the circumstances (sidenote: I legitimately feel badly for guys like Horacek and Spott, because they both inherited terrible situations, and I don’t think they were the cause of the Leafs’ issues. With that being said, I understand Shanahan wanting to clean house and start from scratch). As I discussed in my last post, over the last couple of months, we have seen the early steps of the long rebuilding process.  The rebuild is long overdue, and it’s nice to see that Shanahan understands that in order for it to be done properly, this whole thing needs to be torn down from the top, all the way down. In actuality, this rebuild might have begun a couple summers ago if the Leafs didn’t fluke their way into the playoffs during the shortened season. That season fooled many people (including management apparently) into thinking they were the real deal, and definitely delayed the rebuild that was so badly needed, and is now finally beginning.

While the moves yesterday and over the past couple of months have all been well and good, this was the easy part of the Leaf rebuild. The difficult part will be overhauling the roster by acquiring young assets through trades, and perhaps more importantly, through drafting well. That begins with this year’s draft on July 1st. This Saturday’s draft lottery will obviously play a major role in determining what the Leafs will do at the draft. To be entirely honest, until Shanahan decided to go bananas, this post was supposed to just be about the draft lottery. So with that being said, let’s shift our attention to that.

The lottery is basically Christmas for us Leaf fans, except there won’t be any fat dudes coming down the chimney delivering gifts. Phil Kessel has other things to do.

For diehard fans, this version of Christmas may perhaps be even more exciting. You see, it’s been a painful season. If you were cheering for the Leafs to win every game, you were disappointed 52 times. For those, like me, who hopped aboard the #TankNation train and started hoping for some losses, there was good reason to cheer. Regardless of your attitude towards tanking, with a record of 11-36-4 in the final 51 games, the Leafs turned out to be pretty good at it. And now, the reward for sitting through this train wreck? A chance at winning a generational talent that could assist greatly in turning this team around. It truly is the culminating moment of this season, a Leaf fan’s Christmas. To reference Step Brothers, the remaining question is whether we luck out and get Hulk Hands under the tree, or something a little less exciting.

The truth is, the Leafs are pretty much guaranteed to draft an elite level prospect fact with the top pick, regardless of what goes on in the lottery.

With 27th spot in the standings nailed down, the Leafs will either have first pick, fourth pick, or fifth pick. They have a 9.5% chance of winning the McDavid sweepstakes, a 45% chance of fourth pick, and a 45.5% shot at fifth. Let’s take a look at who the Leafs could end up taking with their first pick.

Connor McDavid – C (Estimated likelihood: 9.5%):

The undisputed #1 pick. What can I say that hasn’t already been said? In case you didn’t get the above reference, Connor McDavid = the Hulk Hands of this draft. He’s the real deal. When he wasn’t busy ripping up the World Juniors as an under-ager, or breaking his hand on Bryson Cianfrone’s face, he could be found racking up 120 points in just 47 games with the Erie Otters. Just last weekend, he posted 5 goals and 6 points in a single playoff game against the London Knights. I know player comparisons can be stupid, but for what it’s worth, the Erie GM said recently that “He said he skates like Bobby Orr did, where it looks like everybody else couldn’t skate at the same level; he has vision like Gretz and hands like Mario (Lemieux). He’s the real deal, that’s for sure.” So from what I gather, McDavid is pretty good at hockey. If the Leafs manage to win the lottery I might die from the excitement. This would be a game-changer for the Leaf rebuild. And who knows, the Leafs are due for a bit of luck. Toronto would go nuts, as it should. One can dream. As great as some of the other talents are in the draft, he is the guaranteed first pick.

Jack Eichel – C (Estimated likelihood: 0.5%):

All of the draft rankings have this guy second, and just like McDavid, he will very likely turn into a franchise player. Since he plays for Boston University of the NCAA, it is a bit of a challenge to compare his numbers to those of McDavid and other CHLers. We can, however, compare his performance this year to some of the other draft-year performances of NCAA drafted players currently in the NHL.

Player Year Games Goals Assists Points
Jack Eichel 2014-15 40 26 45 71
Thomas Vanek 2002-03 45 31 31 62
Zach Parise 2002-03 39 26 35 61
Mike Cammalleri 2000-01 42 29 32 61
Phil Kessel 2005-06 39 18 33 51
Jonathan Toews 2005-06 42 22 17 39

 

So he’s good…right? His play this season earned him the Hobey Baker award for the top NCAA hockey player, making him the first rookie to win the award since Paul Kariya in 1993. That’s some pretty good company. Realistically, the Leafs won’t have a shot at drafting Eichel, unless a miracle happens and he drops to fourth. Seth Jones was ranked second in the 2013 draft and ended being picked fourth. Strange things do happen sometimes, but realistically, I can’t see that scenario playing out. 0.5% is generous, I just wanted to include him in the list.

Dylan Strome – C (Estimated likelihood: 30%)

If the Leafs don’t win the lottery, Strome could be a great consolation prize. In many draft years, he might be a first overall pick. If the Leafs drafted him, he could become the bona fide first-line centre that the Leafs have coveted since Sundin’s departure in 2008 (no, Bozak isn’t a first-liner). If he is available at the fourth or fifth pick, I would be shocked if the Leafs didn’t draft him. He led the OHL in points this year, with 129, thanks in large part to his six points in the final game of the season for the Erie Otters. While some think he is overvalued because he plays on the same team as McDavid, the fact is, they don’t play on the same line, and he dominated the league even when McDavid was out of the lineup. Unfortunately for Leaf fans, his stock has risen late in the season, and now he is ranked third on many scouts’ draft lists. There is still a real possibility of the Oilers taking Hanifin with the third pick, leaving Strome available at fourth, but it would be shocking if he was available in the five slot.

Noah Hanifin – D (Estimated likelihood: 20%):

Almost everyone seems to agree that this is the top defenceman in the draft. He has opened a lot of eyes with his play in the NCAA this year for Boston College, drawing comparisons to Hall of Famer Rob Blake (who, coincidentally, is one of the rumoured candidates to replace Nonis). While Hanifin considers himself more of an offensive defenceman, he is generally considered by scouts to be strong in both ends, and possess elite skating ability. He will likely go third or fourth overall, so it’s a toss-up whether or not he’ll be around for the Leafs’ pick. With that being said, even if he is available, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Leafs elected to select a forward, like Strome or Mitch Marner, if either of them are still on the board. While the Leafs could obviously still use an elite young defenceman, their need for defence, with guys in the system like Rielly, Gardiner, Percy, Loov, Valiev, and Finn, is probably not as glaring as their need for elite forward (especially centre) prospects.

Mitchell Marner – C/RW (Estimated likelihood: 35%):

This guy was simply a scoring machine with the London Knights this year, putting up 126 points in 63 games. He is not at all a one-dimensional player, as his defensive play has also been praised by scouts. While he played right-wing with the Knights this season, he has played centre in the past, so it is conceivable that he could be used in either spot. He is sometimes knocked for his small 5’10 frame, but keep in mind, the guy is 17 and could still very easily grow a few more inches. Some say he is overvalued because of the talent he plays with (namely Max Domi), but like Strome did with McDavid, Marner showed that he was more than capable of stepping up even when Domi was out of the lineup. Marner also has a history with the Leafs Director of Player Personnel, Mark Hunter, which could be a factor that comes into play at the draft. He will likely be available at the fourth or fifth pick, and if McDavid, Eichel, and Strome have all been taken, I could see him potentially being next on the list for the Leafs.

Lawson Crouse – LW (Estimated likelihood: 5%):

To be honest, I only really included Crouse in this list because a lot of the rankings list him fifth. I won’t lie, I will seriously consider throwing in my Leaf fan card if he is picked, though. No offence to the guy, I’m sure he’ll be a good player, but when you look at some of the other talent that is available at the top of the draft, he doesn’t stack up. At 6’4 and 212, he is a large specimen, and was a man amongst boys in the OHL this year with the Kingston Frontenacs. He had a pretty good World Juniors, where he played a checking role alongside current Leaf prospect Frederik Gauthier. With Kingston, he put up just 51 points, even with 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett playing on his line for some of the year. He serves as an effective power forward, but his offensive upside is nowhere close to the other forwards on this list. He may be a good player for whoever he is drafted by, but in the fourth or fifth slot, I would definitely prefer Strome, Hanifin, or Marner.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the lottery balls drop in the Leafs favour on Saturday. But if they do not, there is still a lot to be excited about. With the events that unfolded yesterday in Leafland, something tells me it will be a very interesting off-season. Buckle up.

Onward to the Off-Season

Hey gang, let’s start off this first post by kicking up some controversy. The Leafs are terrible at hockey. There, I said it. Sue me.

On February 12th, Cathal Kelly reported that the Leafs finally had been given approval from MLSE to execute a full-on “scorched-earth” rebuild. It seems that the Tank Nation dream is finally becoming a reality. As a loyal Leaf fan for 20 frustrating years, I can confidently say that it’s time. I’m sure you feel the same way. The Leafs have meddled in mediocrity and awfulness for too long. Sure, I loved ex-Leafs like Lee Stempniak, Jeff Finger, and Jay McClement as much as the next guy, but only if the next guy didn’t like them at all. Short-term fixes and minor restructurings have failed to do the trick. As torturous as this rebuild is going to be, take some solace in the fact that the Leafs are finally doing what should have been done years ago.

To fans who expected the Leafs to dump all of their players right away, the Trade Deadline seemed like more of a buzzkill than Buzz Killington. Let’s have some patience though. We’re probably about a month into a 5+ year rebuild, so if you’re already impatient, it’s going to be a really rough process. It’s clear though, that the early stages of the rebuild are underway, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’m not exactly Dave Nonis’ biggest fan, and to be honest, I don’t know why he’s employed by the Leafs. In my opinion, he inherited a decent situation from Brian Burke, made some moronic decisions, and set the Leafs back quite a bit. But despite the fact that he goofed up early on, I think that his decisions in the last few weeks (along with the likes of Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, and Mark Hunter) have actually made a lot of sense.

Let’s take a gander at some of the bigger moves:

Trades:

1. Leafs trade Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson to Nashville for their first-round pick, prospect Brandon Leipsic, and Leaf legend Olli Jokinen:

It seemed unlikely that either of these former Leafs on their own would fetch a first-rounder. Although it’s a late round pick, Nashville has faltered a bit since the trade. Under the new draft order rules, the pick could easily end up as low as 24th overall, which in this draft, could land a stud. Leipsic is an intriguing player. A 2012 third-rounder with a Tucker-like edge and impressive point totals in the WHL and AHL, he shows some promise to be a solid piece in the rebuild. Watching this video will make you love the guy even more, guaranteed. What a beauty. Definitely a solid return for two expiring contracts in Franson and Santorelli. The trade looks even better when you take a look at their numbers since the move down south, a combined 8 points in 44 games between the two of them. Oof.

2. Leafs trade water bottle police chief David Clarkson to Columbus for Nathan Horton.

I fault Nonis for bringing Clarkson in, but credit him big time for somehow managing to unload him. It’s a miracle that they could find a taker, even if the return is a guy who can’t even walk. With Horton on LTIR, his salary does not count against the cap, meaning that this trade frees up 5.25 million in cap space that would have been committed to Clarkson until 2019. Oh, and he’s out for the season with another injury. Rough go, Columbus. I still just can’t believe this went down.

3. Leafs trade Daniel Winnik to Pittsburgh for a 2015 fourth-rounder, a 2016 second-rounder and fourth-liner Zach Sill.

Like many members of Leaf Nation, I was a big fan of Winnik and sad to see him go. He’s a guy who will really help the Pens in a cup run. But since he was another player with an expiring contract, it made sense to try and get something for him. This return is pretty much what one would expect for a player of his calibre. Fingers crossed the Leafs can land a good player with the picks this year and next year. As for Sill, while I don’t imagine he’s part of the long term plans, I wouldn’t mind bringing him back on a short-term deal next year. Seems like a solid character guy to have around while Tank Nation continues next year.

4. Leafs trade Korbinian Holzer to Anaheim for a 2016 fifth-rounder and Eric Brewer.

Not much to see here, but I am shocked that they were able to find a taker for Holzer. I know some people in TO seemed to really like him, but I never really understood that thought process, to be honest. According to advanced statistics guru BehindTheNet.ca, his On-Ice Corsi of -15.87 this season only ranked ahead of Leaf greats Greg McKegg and Carter “I accidentally took steroids” Ashton. This means that when he was on the ice, the opponent averaged 15.87 shot attempts more than the Leafs per 60 minutes. Yeesh. Realistically, Eric Brewer was just included as a throw-in expiring contract to free up some cap space for Anaheim so that they could make the deal work. He’s well past his prime, but not many players reach the 1,000 game plateau, so he deserves some props for that. Now, time to retire, grandpa.

5. Leafs trade Olli Jokinen to St. Louis for a 2016 sixth-rounder and Joakim Lindstrom.

Let’s take a moment of silence to remember Olli’s legendary career with the blue and white. He will be missed.

I hope they have good waffles in St. Louis…

In all seriousness, it’s hard to believe that a team like St. Louis would have any use for him. It’s nice that the Leafs were able to nab a draft pick, though. With an expiring contract, Lindstrom’s illustrious Leaf career will be done at the end of the year, I suspect.

Signings:

The Leafs recently  made two interesting free-agent signings just a day apart. 23-year-old winger, Casey Bailey, is a big power forward with a big shot, producing at over a point-per-game pace this year with the Penn State Nittany Lions (who thought up that name) of the NCAA. Reports say that he has tremendous upside in both the offensive and defensive ends, and that he was perhaps the most highly touted college free agent. The Leafs have had some disappointing college signings, like Christian Hanson and Brayden Irwin, in recent years. Other guys, like Tyler Bozak and Ben Scrivens, have gone on to have some success. Who knows how he will pan out, but may as well give it a try. He hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with his play as of yet, but it will definitely be interesting to see how he progresses.

Nikita Soshnikov is a highly-skilled 21-year-old winger playing in the KHL. He had a break-out year this season, netting 32 points in 57 games, playing with men much older than him. Leafs Director of Player Personnel (and perhaps Nonis’ future replacement) Mark Hunter is said to be the man behind both of these signings. He said in an interview with TSN that he thinks Soshnikov will have no problem adapting to the North American style of hockey.

While we don’t know much about either of them at this point, it makes sense for the Leafs to stock up on as many of these low risk, high reward entry-level contracts as possible. Although, after these signings Toronto is at its 50 contract limit, and will need to move some players before bringing more in.

Going forward:

Clearly the early stages of the rebuild have begun. I expect that we’ll see some major unloading once the off-season rolls around and teams have more cap flexibility. This off-season will have tremendous implications for the Leafers, and it will be very interesting to see how things unfold. The Leafs have 1 game left, and then this season will finally come to it’s merciful conclusion. Thankfully, 27th spot is locked up, so we can put #TankNation on hold for the last game and hope for a Leaf win over the Habs. (Side note: In case you didn’t hear already, Colton Orr will dress for one last time as a Leaf before his likely retirement this off-season. He seems like a good dude, so I think this is a nice farewell gesture. I still re-watch this amazing fight every so often).

More importantly though, let’s mark our calendars for the April 18th draft lottery and the July 1st draft, and get ready to shift our attention to the Jays and Raptors for a while.