Baking is a funny thing. Strange in the way that you can get an exact outline of what to do, give that outline to 10 different people, and get 10 slightly different results. Let’s say you get a standard recipe to bake bread. Ingredients list and baking instructions etc. At the end of the day you would likely have 10 different loaves from those 10 different people, all slightly different in texture, taste and look. Some better than others because some people simply have that touch, they have a certain je ne sais quoi.
Building a hockey team is really no different. In theory, from what I’ve seen, there’s a simple recipe. I’m not about to tell you something that isn’t well known to most. I’m not breaking new ground or seeing something that nobody else has ever noticed. I’m simply aiming to point out a very proven ideology. Leaping back to the past when corsi, PDO and fenwick weren’t being talked about.
I’m speaking about this:
- 2016 – Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Matt Murray
- 2015 – Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford
- 2014 – Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick
- 2013 – Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford (again)
- 2012 – Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick (again)
- 2011 – Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas
- 2010 – Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Antti Niemi
- 2009 – Sidney Crosby, Sergei Gonchar, Marc-Andre Fleury
- 2008 – Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood (Ha!)
- 2007 – Ryan Getzlaf,Scott Niedermayer, JS Giguere
- 2006 – Rod Brind’amour, Bret Hedican, Cam Ward
- 2004 – Brad Richards, Pavel Kubina, Nikolai Khabibulin
I’ll stop there because we’re starting to get into a different hockey era.
The question is, what do you see? What I see is a list of players from the past 12 years’ Stanley Cup winners. Each list is a simple one that consists of the winning teams top center, defenseman and goalie.
Again, I’m really talking theory here. There are no rules to building a winner, but this looks like a pretty proven guideline if you ask me. Get yourself a solid #1C, #1D, and #1G and build around them.
Let’s go through the arguments against first. The wrinkles in the plan you might say. For starters, when you look at the ‘06 and ‘07 teams you could easily argue this guideline either doesn’t apply, or is pretty thin at best. Bret Hedican played the most minutes for the Hurricanes among the defense but Aaron Ward wasn’t far behind, and neither averaged over 23 minutes throughout the run which is low for a true #1, so did they win without a true top defenseman? As for the Ducks, while Getzlaf played a lot of minutes and scored a lot of points it was Samuel Pahlsson that was leaned on heavily to play tough minutes. They don’t win it all without him and all the depth around them. Meanwhile, Niedermayer and Pronger were amazing for Anaheim that year and Francois Beauchemin also played over 30 minutes a night, it was a true 3 headed beast on the blueline. What I would say to all of the arguments?
Well, this isn’t a rule as I said. It’s a theory that proves right most of the time but nothing is carved in stone here. You can have depth at any position but I guess what I’m really trying to say here is when the time comes it’s very handy to have a top player in each of the 3 general positions (forward, defense, goal) to point to when you need to get things done. After you get those 3 it’s up to your management group to decide how to build the rest of the team. Do you get a big time offensive winger to compliment your top line center like the Chicago Blackhawks have done with Patrick Kane? Or do you put another big center on the 2nd line and emulate the Pittsburgh Penguins? Do you go for a big top pairing on the blueline circa the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks or the Hawks of late and how they pair Keith with Seabrook or Hjalmarsson? Or run with a #1 followed by great depth such as the Penguins did last season, and L.A. just a couple of seasons before that? The way you stack your chips behind your main group is entirely up to you and there really isn’t a wrong answer here, but making sure you have the essential pieces in place is what matters.
So, how does this apply to our Toronto Maple Leafs? That’s what it’s all about afterall. It’s pretty simple really. As the title says, this is about the other big three. This isn’t another story about Matthews, Marner and Nylander, as much as I do love talking about them. Instead, it’s about the three headed beast I see from most winning teams and posing the question; do we have those essential ingredients?
Time to check off some boxes.
Box 1 is a top line center and if there’s a single fan in Leaf Nation that thinks we haven’t landed ourselves a top notch option in Auston Matthews then I really need to question their judgement. The #1 pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft has shown exactly why he was ranked that high. With the size to play in the dirty areas of the ice, the skill to make things happen when he gets there, and the willingness to play hard every shift, I think we have this base covered. I usually try to reserve my excitement when it comes to young Maple Leafs but this time it’s impossible to hide. For a player to walk into the NHL in his first year… scratch that, his first game, and play the way he did…. just unbelievable. His skating, hands and vision will have us all smiling for years to come. This is the easy box to check off though.
Box 2 is a top end defenseman. The guy you want on the ice late if you need a goal to hold the zone and make the right play. He should also be the guy you want on the ice late if you are a goal ahead and want to hold the lead for the win. Defense is just as valuable as offense for a blueliner and a top end guy can bring his team very far, just ask the three dozen Ottawa Senators fans that actually showed up to watch their team in the playoffs this year. Erik Karlsson put extra emphasis on protecting his own zone this year and that has always been my knock on him. It’s always been the reason I would never cast my vote for him as a Norris Trophy winner. This year is different. He deserves it this year in my opinion, even though Brent Burns did score nearly 30 goals while playing great defensively.
Back to the Leafs. Our guy, at the moment, is undoubtedly Morgan Rielly. While Jake Gardiner was the only Leaf blueliner to score over 40 points, and the first to do so since Dion Phaneuf in 2011/12, it was Rielly that was the go to guy against the toughest competition. He’s being developed and bred by Mike Babcock and his staff for one purpose only, to be counted among the best defenders in the NHL. He lead the Leafs in time on ice per game this year, logging over 22 minutes a game, but still a distance from the 24+ normally logged by some of the best in the business. Morgan still has a ways to go to be considered elite but I do see elite potential there. His skating is top notch. His offensive instincts are above average at the very least. His defensive game is rounding into form as well from what I saw in the playoffs. The tool box is being filled quickly but the reins are still being held taut by the coaching staff, and rightfully so. Some defensemen don’t learn the true meaning of defense until they are late in their 20s, and some never really do at all. If you ask me the biggest tragedy I can think of here would be to give up on Morgan too early. He’ll have his ups and downs but in the end I see a well rounded player with great mobility and the ability to play 25+ minutes a night when called upon. No different than he did in the first round of the playoffs, trailing only Jake Gardiner in that category. At just 23 years of age there is still room to grow, and with this team being a solid 2 years from true contention, it’s quite possible that Rielly will be entering his prime years just at the right time. At the moment would I check this box and say we have a legitimate #1 defenseman? No. Not yet. However, I’m a betting man and I would bet a sizeable chunk of change to say he’ll get there.
The final box is both the most important and the least at the same time. A true #1 goaltender is something every team needs. Without one your team simply can’t relax and play their game. Bad goals lead to heartbreak and the feeling of futility. However, average goalies can go on runs that are far more than average. Cam Ward for example, in my opinion, has always been a slightly above average goalie at best. He had some decent years and can play great games, but he has never been among the best in the business overall. With that said, when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup he was lights out, amazing. He stopped everything that came his way and for a short time was the best goalie in the world. This isn’t exactly an isolated incident either. Andrew Hammond was also the best goalie in the world, arguably, for a stretch of the 2014/15 season. He was that good during those few months that personally, I believe if that stretch had started a few months later to coincide with the beginning of the playoffs (not that they would have made it without the hot streak in the first place), they would have won a cup that year. It’s for this reason that an elite (and I mean best of the best, think Quick and Price) goalie isn’t a requirement, but a luxury. A good goalie is sometimes all you need.
On the flip side, it’s more important than the other positions for exactly the same reason. Hoping that an average goalie gets hot at the right time is a fools game. You need a goalie that can get in the zone often to increase your chances at the top prize whenever you get a chance. You need a guy that follows up a bad month with two good ones, or a bad game with two solid outings. This doesn’t necessarily mean an elite goalie, but an above average one at least. Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury, Corey Crawford, even Chris Osgood (#12 on the all time wins list. Didn’t know that? Very underrated player) are below elite status and have always been. Maybe Murray gets there but right now he falls short if you ask me. What they all are is solid goalies, above average, that can lay it all on the line when the time comes, and that, at the very least, is what a winning team requires.
So where does our guy fall in the grand scheme of things? Ranked 17th in SV% this season (25 game minimum), and 30th in GAA (25 game minimum), you would assume he is well below the average if you didn’t watch the games. However, the fact is, without Andersen, there would have been no playoffs this season. He held the team in games on many nights, gave them a chance to win on many others, and lost them games one a few nights as well. More often than not he was on his game and really, that’s all you can ask from your goaltender. He’s among the best we’ve had here in years as well, which probably skews how a lot of us fans see him, because we’re comparing him to the goalies we know. Stepping back and looking at the league objectively probably puts Freddy somewhere towards the middle of the pack. Better than some starters but not among the elite, he is good but not amazing. The main thing for me here? I see him as being more than good enough to get you to the show each year. Step one, of course, is getting you there. Step two, for a goalie that isn’t elite, is playing great when it counts like so many have done before him.
So what say you Leafs Nation? Where do our “other” big 3 stack against the rest of the league? Are Matthews, Rielly and Andersen the trio you feel you can turn to during the tough times to get you through? The guys you need to bring you to the promised land?
My opinion? Lou is baking his loaf of bread and has already been to the store to buy the essential ingredients. He has his flour, yeast, sugar, etc. in these guys. He has everything he needs. Now his task is obvious, make his dough the best out of a group of 31 by adding the right mixture to that trio, baking at the right temperature for the right amount of time, and then feed it to a hungry Leafs Nation.