The possibility that the Toronto Maple Leafs would tear down their roster and start from scratch is no longer a hypothetical. According to The Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly, the decision has been made to dismantle the team’s core and begin again, building around a few key young players. The question now is whether that is really the wisest course for the club.
On Thursday, Kelly reported that the board of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment had approved team president Brendan Shanahan’s plan for a long-term rebuild, which would see the club retain key young players but trade away established older talents, including Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. From Kelly’s piece:
Mr. Shanahan and his lieutenants have now finally received a broad mandate from ownership to scorch as much earth as they see fit in order to return the Leafs to contention, according to two sources familiar with that meeting. It will mean a new philosophy on building slowly through the draft and long-term projects, rather than quick fixes via trades for established players. It will mean at least three more years of pain for fans, and as many as five.
The hope, of course, is to imitate teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, who suffered through lean years but emerged from them as perennial contenders. The fear is that, instead, the team will fall into the rutted trail that led the Edmonton Oilers and Atlanta Thrashers to disaster.
The possibilities and pitfalls of the rebuilding path are well-known amongst hockey fans, but there are some points specific to Toronto worth looking at.
One item in the Leafs’ favour is that they won’t necessarily be reliant on the same people who brought the team to this low juncture to bring it out again. Shanahan enters this rebuild with relatively little association to the failures of the past, and he’s made significant organizational changes already. If, as seems likely, general manager Dave Nonis is shown the door as part of this rebuild, the team will have almost completely remade its front office.
A second key point is that a rebuild allows Toronto an out from its current salary-cap problems.
As a quick glance at NHL Numbers shows, the only players still under contract five years from now are Kessel and Phaneuf, both of whom were mentioned specifically as trade bait in Kelly’s piece. The Maple Leafs will undoubtedly have to take salary back in any trade involving those players, but as long as the term isn’t excessive, that won’t be a problem to the rebuild.
Another item worth noting is that many rebuilds fail because they lack a defensive foundation. Both the Oilers and Thrashers got a few years into their rebuilds and discovered they didn’t have defencemen; Chicago got a few years in and found that Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook (all drafted before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) were able to take on key roles.
In Toronto, the hope is that much of the defensive foundation has already been laid in the form of NHLers Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, along with prospects Stuart Percy and Matt Finn.
Most importantly, the Toronto market will handle a full-blown rebuild. As the Oilers have demonstrated convincingly over a nearly decade-long playoff drought, if the fans are invested enough, the building will continue to sell out even when the on-ice product doesn’t come close to warranting that kind of attention.
The financial penalty of rebuilding from scratch will be significantly lower in southern Ontario than it would be pretty much anywhere else in the NHL.
Working against the Leafs is the NHL’s plans to thwart teams from intentionally tanking and collecting high picks. It used to be that a team that finished last had an excellent chance at retaining the first overall pick and at worst would draft no lower than second overall. But the NHL has instituted significant reforms that change that dramatically.
Starting in 2015, the lottery odds have been re-weighted to give better teams a shot at the top pick, and in 2016, the format will be reworked so that the first, second and third overall picks are all awarded by lottery. The idea of being terrible for a year in exchange for a high pick is a lot less appealing when that pick is fourth overall.
Ultimately, whether the rebuild turns out to be a good idea or not will have more to do with management’s execution than it will the team’s decision to start over. The current roster boasts 11 first-round draft picks, with six of those being top-10 selections. The Leafs may add three to five new high picks to the mix, but getting the right players with those selections and building a team around them are far higher priorities than just collecting the picks.
Undoubtedly, Shanahan knows that, which makes this report all the more damning. Clearly, he feels that the mix of personnel and the salary situation left by the team's previous administration is so dysfunctional that the team has no choice but to start over. He's gambling that he and his staff won't repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.