As we slowly pass the halfway point of this NHL season, we can look back on how far the teams have come since last season. The Toronto Maple Leafs, in particular, are a team who managed to improve drastically, both in standings and their system. The Leafs went from last in the league last season to competing for a playoff spot this season. A lot of this success is due to the work of Lou Lamoriello, and his effort should not go unnoticed.
Leafs Nation knows how much work and effort Lamoriello has put into this team, but he really does deserve more praise around the league. Yes the Leafs may not be at the top of the standings right now, but their clear improvement is in big part due to Lamoriello’s management. So what exactly has he done?
Rebuild Mode Commitment
What’s working so well in Toronto when it comes to their management team is their willingness to stick to the long-term rebuild plan (dubbed by fans as the “Shanaplan” in relation to President Brendan Shanahan) and not trying to rush anything.
For most of the last decade, Leafs fans have been having to live through what we would call, “manipulated rebuilds.” Through the many general managers that the Leafs have went through recently, including the likes of John Ferguson Jr., Cliff Fletcher, Brian Burke, and Dave Nonis, Toronto had been promised to be a team going through a rebuild time and time again. However, none of these general managers were willing to be as patient in building towards the future as other GM’s like the Blackhawks Stan Bowman or the Penguins Ray Shero were.
For example, the acquisition of Phil Kessel has benefited Toronto in many ways, but it threw away a good chunk of Toronto’s future, which potentially could have included 2010 number two pick Tyler Seguin and 2011 number nine pick Dougie Hamilton. Patience is the difference maker between a team who is a playoff contender and a team who is a cup contender.
Lamoriello has done a great job in sticking to this plan, despite temptations to accelerate the rebuild. Options like breaking the bank to sign free agents like Steven Stamkos, or trading for a better defenceman has allowed this team to dynamically grow in their chemistry and form something that works. He has set his sights on the future, in hopes to build a sustainable team that has a longer window of championship winning calibre. This is a huge part as to why the Leafs rebuild is working.
Sticking to the rebuild plan, Lou did his fair share of dumping contracts that were just holding the Leafs back. One prime example was trading former captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators. Phaneuf’s enormous $7 million per year contract wasn’t worth the performance he was putting out on the ice every game. Trading him away for some utility AHL-NHL players and a second rounder without retaining any salary was a wise rebuilding move for the Leafs. It freed up cap space, allowing the Leafs a lot more wiggle room to bring in more pieces over the upcoming years.
Freeing Up Roster Space
Lamoriello also had a hand at freeing roster space for the Leafs to make room for newcomers and rookies. The Leafs are a very young team, and this is partially due to Lamoriello dumping many unneeded players in the off-season. He didn’t just trade them away though, many were sent down to the Toronto Marlies as well in some excellent asset management. This includes players like Michael Grabner, Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Brooks Laich. Not to mention, does anyone know where Joffrey Lupul is these days?
You may think that this isn’t that much of an important task, but it was critical in forming the current roster. The Leafs are loaded on the prospects front. A big problem that often occurs is that players rot too long in the minors, wasting key development time. This could have happened to many Leafs players, but Lamoriello freed up just enough space to bring in everyone who is ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Because of this freeing up of cap space the Leafs were able to give players like Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Kasperi Kapanen, and Connor Carrick a chance. All of these are players who have gotten a good chance to perform and develop well this season. The future looks bright for them because they have received the time they needed for proper development. This micro-management is a crucial aspect of the job that Lamoriello nailed.
Wheeling and Dealing
Overall, Lamoriello has really shaped this new look Toronto Maple Leafs team. He successfully brought in key roster players like Matt Martin, Zach Hyman, and Nikita Zaitsev, who are all having fantastic seasons in their respective roles. As well as bringing back Roman Polak, who may be smart trade bait going into the trade deadline. Another pair of second rounders perhaps?
Lamoriello has shaped this new, young team. Although built to be a rebuilding team, this team has surprised many, riding on the backs of some amazing young rookies scoring up to 40 points on the season. Now of course the arrival of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander were expected to surely bring some improvement and success, but the guys playing around them were put here by Lamoriello. It wasn’t a short-stepped process. It took multiple movements to get to this point.
The additions of these players brought a lot of depth to this team. The addition of Zaitsev alone was a big steal, signing him out of Russia where he automatically slotted in easily as a top four blue-liner. The acquisition of Frederik Andersen as well has been a fundamental aspect of the Leafs improvement, as he has been backstopping the Leafs to success. For reference, Andersen currently has a 22-11-8 record with a 2.73 GAA and a .916% save percentage. Definitely an improvement over Leafs goaltenders of the past several years.
Overall, there hasn’t been a move by Lamoriello so far that has made people say, “Lamoriello made a bad move here.” Every decision was carefully calculated with the team’s future in mind, and every decision has so far brought success. For this, we can only say that Lou Lamoriello deserves nothing but absolute praise. Moving forward, Leafs Nation finally seems to have a management group that they can put their trust in to bring success. It may take a while, but they’re on track, and any success they eventually have will surely be retraced to Lamoriello.