But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Toronto Maple Leafs Rebuild is Backwards
Conventional hockey wisdom says that you build a hockey team down the “middle”, solidifying the goaltending, defense, and center positions before anything else. Particular emphasis is given to the back end, where elite-level defencemen and goalies aren’t exactly found growing on trees.
The most visible advancement of this Leafs rebuild, however, has taken place at forward, and mostly on the wings.
Recent Leafs draft picks and acquisitions Nikita Soshnikov, Mitch Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen (Kapanen acquired in trade) can all claim to carry expectations of making a permanent jump to the NHL this season. Much hype surrounds Marner in particular. Even if NHL wingers are a dime-a-dozen, these are solid prospects.
Building Up the Middle
But it is of course recent Leafs draft picks (most-likely) Auston Matthews and William Nylander (to say nothing of the possible coming of Steven Stamkos) on whom Leafs fans are pinning their hopes for the 2016-17 season and beyond.
When the Leafs draft Matthews first overall, it will be the combined result of a last-place finish and luck of the draw. The Stamkos rumors are the product of his Markham, Ontario childhood and little else. That both players could possibly figure prominently in this Leafs rebuild is testament to the slowly-reversing fortunes of the franchise, mixed with generous amounts of hope and speculation. Absent the fortunate roll of the lottery balls and Stamkos’ birth certificate, the Leafs’ depth at center would still consist of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland, Leo Komarov, and Nylander.
As it is, the Leafs’ bolstered ranks might serve to inspire Kadri to greater performance, while Bozak might well be inspired to call his real estate agent (not Phil Kessel’s realtor, who sold the star winger’s Toronto condo for less than asking in a hot sellers’ market, but I digress).
Altogether, the Leafs now have a relative embarrassment of riches at the forward position. Relative, that is, to the wealth of embarrassment that has heretofore defined the club.
At forward, this Leafs rebuild, affectionately called the “Shanaplan” by fans, is on track, if not quite a ways farther down the track than anyone might have expected. But one notices that the locomotive seems to have left the station without the rest of the train.
There’s still pain to be endured, and it will come where it always hurts most: the back end.
Recent Stanley Cup playoffs have reaffirmed the value of the elite goaltender, after a brief flirtation with the unheralded netminder (see Michael Leighton vs. Antti Niemi, 2010). Just as Matthews is regarded as the first viable replacement for Mats Sundin at centre, the Leafs will at some point look to legitimately fill the skates of the long-departed Ed Belfour.
Jonathan Bernier has had mixed success as an NHL starter, and the club’s depth is in question as Antoine Bibeau was allowed to carry the load in the AHL playoffs even after Garret Sparks posted tremendous numbers.
An interim successor to James Reimer as the Leafs’ number one goalie could very well be none other than free agent James Reimer. Reimer is a fan favorite, and likely doesn’t have a chance at the starting role in San Jose after MartinJones‘s performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, popular opinion has Pittsburgh’s Marc-André Fleury on the trading block, after quite possibly having lost his starter’s role to newly-minted Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray. The 31-year-old Fleury has three years left on his contract, and would only be attractive as a stopgap measure in goal.
This team is a long shot to make the playoffs next season, let alone contend for the Cup any time soon. As the Leafs rebuild, they can get by on a goalie or two who can hold the net for a few seasons while the team develops in front of them.
The Blue Line
The picture for the Leafs is a bit clearer on the blue line, though clarity doesn’t make it any nicer a view. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are set to be reinforced by the likes of Stuart Percy and Connor Carrick from the Marlies. The team has also added Nikita Zaitsev, a KHL all-star. Even if Stephane Robidas is allowed to return from exile on the injured reserve list, it’s still a very young defence corps. Rielly’s recent success at the IIHF World Championships notwithstanding, the blue line could use something like the modest veteran presence that the forwards enjoy in Leo Komarov and Brooks Laich.
As much as the Shanaplan would seem to be developing backwards, doing things the “right” way hasn’t always worked out for the Leafs either (understatement of the year).
Brian Burke Era
During Brian Burke’s tenure as general manager of the Maple Leafs, the club sought to stockpile goaltending talent. Burke cited his shortfall at the position while GM of the Vancouver Canucks; he’d never get caught short at that position again. He started things off by bringing legendary goaltending coach François Allaire to the club, whose high standing played no small part in Burke’s being able to lure sought-after free agent goalie prospect Jonas Gustavsson. Burke later added veteran Jean-Sébastien Giguère to the mix.
It seemed a sound strategy, but it didn’t work. Gustavsson’s first season started off well enough, highlighted by a brilliant stop on a 2-on-0 breakaway in preseason play. His style, however, seemed to become handcuffed by Allaire’s system, despite diplomatic assurances to the contrary by both parties.
The Giguère-Gustavsson tandem eventually faltered with the rest of the team, and opened the door to Reimer-Scrivens. We all know how that turned out.
Burke also assembled a serviceable defence corps, and brought in centers Kadri and Bozak through the draft and free agency, respectively. It was enough to get the Leafs seven playoff games. We all know how that turned out.
Maybe, when you’re the Leafs, “conventional wisdom” should be viewed as a colossal contradiction in terms.
Hunter Driving the Bus
Leafs’ Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter won’t use the Leafs’ draft selections to directly address the current imbalance in the club’s depth; he will generally look to acquire by talent level before position. But with the group of forward prospects mentioned poised to challenge for NHL jobs, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello perhaps has a bucket of trade bait with which to lure help on the back end.
The focus on the Leafs high-profile prospects at forward have given the Shanaplan the glossy sheen of a product nearly finalized. The seeming rapid advancement of the plan at forward should highlight, however, the long road ahead for the overall rebuild.
The fruit of finishing last and winning the draft lottery is sweet to Leafs fans, long starved of any sort of winning. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, this isn’t the end of this Leafs rebuild, nor even the beginning of the end. One hopes, however, that drafting Matthews just might signal the end of the beginning.
The Leafs rebuild continues, backwards.