It doesn’t come as a surprise that for years the Toronto Maple Leafs have been trying to find a recipe for success. After the 2004/05 lockout, the Leafs have made some risky moves that brought ire to mainstream media and of course, the fans. From the Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf deals and signings to other head scratchers, it wasn’t long until the only answer to the Leafs woes was a full on rebuild.
It took a while for them to finally come to this decision. It’s not ideal for a fan base that has suffered enough in the past, but a number of teams have been successful in this regard, instead of trying to cut corners.
There probably isn’t a better example of a proper rebuild than the Chicago Blackhawks.
Like the Leafs, they went through their fair share of struggles before they rebuilt the team. The result? Multiple playoff visits, Stanley Cups and constant regular season success. It’s a no brainer that the Blackhawks have been one of the top teams in the NHL over the past couple of years, and rightfully so. They have a number of star- studded players as part of their core, they have an excellent coaching staff lead by Joel Quenneville behind the bench and a smart general manager in Stan Bowman.
The Leafs, however, have been following the Chicago model now in terms of restructuring their management, scouting, coaching staff and on- ice product. They’re already on the path to have success.
Here’s a look at the comparisons between the two teams as they share a lot of similarities in terms of rebuilding a franchise.
Drafting For Success:
When the Hawks drafted their star players, their fortune would turn around. It took a while for players such as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson to make the team, but that’s all part of the “be patient approach” to reach the ultimate goal. But they already had an idea of who was going to lead the team when all the pieces were in place.
With the Leafs, it’s a little different as we’re still trying to find out who will be a part of the future, especially on defense.
Nazem Kadri is signed but players like James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak could potentially be moved. Even though he wasn’t drafted, Nikita Zaitsev signed long term and will be a key piece for the Leafs future and success. The Leafs have affordable contracts on defense, which will be a factor as the forwards will garner much of the attention. Let’s see how well the two teams stack up in terms of drafted core players.
|Chicago Blackhawks||Toronto Maple Leafs|
|Duncan Keith (2nd Round, 54th Overall, 2002)||Morgan Rielly (1st Round, 5th Overall, 2012)|
|Brent Seabrook (1st Round, 14th Overall, 2003)||William Nylander (1st Round, 8th Overall, 2014)|
|Niklas Hjalmarsson (4th Round, 108th Overall, 2005)||Mitch Marner (1st Round, 4th Overall, 2015)|
|Jonathan Toews (1st Round, 3rd Overall, 2006)||Auston Matthews (1st Round, 1st Overall, 2016)|
|Patrick Kane (1st Round, 1st Overall, 2007)||Timothy Liljegren (1st Round, 17th Overall, 2017)|
Chicago has had great success drafting since 2002. From Duncan Keith to Patrick Kane, the Hawks stockpiled up on prospects, some who found success at the NHL and some who didn’t. But, that’s the risk of the draft. You may or may not know what you’re getting and players could be moved for other assets. The Hawks were fortunate enough to stumble upon these players in a span of five years. The Leafs have also found their important pieces in five years.
Like the Hawks, the Leafs have been at the bottom and have had success drafting first round talent over the last few years. Drafting players outside the first round like Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen and Jeremy Bracco will help the Leafs with depth throughout the roster like it did with the Hawks. Newly drafted Timothy Liljegren was a stand- out at Leafs development camp and will be a part of the long-term plan, but time will tell when he’s ready to make his NHL debut. Let’s also throw Eemeli Rasanen into the mix as he can potentially be another key player that Leafs have secured through the draft.
Like the Hawks, the Leafs made use of their picks to develop them for their team’s success. However, from 2009- 13, and even before that, drafting outside the first round wasn’t the Leafs strong suit, as you can see here.
But having Mark Hunter to evaluate the talent beyond the first round the past few years has been a God- send. Those players in the second round, third, etc. will be crucial for the Leafs as it was for the Hawks.
Our core is almost complete, as players can still be moved at any moment and players selected in later rounds can surprise anyone. That’s the whole point of drafting and developing; Chicago went through it and is still doing that. The Leafs have followed suit by stocking up, drafting and developing players to be a contender. When the prospects come into play, they will make an immediate impact. Although, based on what they’re capable of and they continue to improve each year, it will definitely bode well for them and the team.
Season Numbers Before First Playoff Appearance:
When the Hawks assembled their core, we knew that in their first year they were going to be a threat in the NHL. In their first season, the Blackhawks saw an immediate improvement in the overall standings with 88 points. The year before, the Hawks had 71 points, a 17- point improvement in the standings. The Hawks however, did miss out being three points out of the final playoff spot in 2007/08.
|Chicago Blackhawks (2007-08)||Toronto Maple Leafs (2015-16)|
|Record||40- 34- 8||29- 42- 11|
|Leading Scorer||Patrick Kane (72 points)||Nazem Kadri (45 points)|
The numbers may be off considering that the Blackhawks had most of their core in tact with Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson. Those players were already making a statement that they were in it to win for a number of years. The previous year, Chicago struggled. But, a couple of key players later, they were on their way to greatness. The only similarity is that the Chicago and Leafs shot numbers increased from the previous season where they were down a couple of shots per game.
Compared to the Leafs, they were still in their rebuilding stages, struggling like the Hawks did with only a couple of core players in place but the rest were soon to follow. Most of their current regulars were either with the team or turning heads in the American League. It wasn’t long until some of those key players saw some game- time after the trade deadline where William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Connor Brown were able to make a good impression with the coaching staff. Not to mention, the future brought rookie of the year Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and the signing of Zaitsev.
While the Leafs were at the bottom of the league that year. They didn’t throw the towel in every night. They fought to the very end of every game and showed the compete level that Babcock wanted without a player like Matthews. They surprised a lot of teams last year and that was an indication that this club’s mentality changed drastically compared to previous years. With that the Leafs were able to take the next step.
Season Numbers of First Playoff Appearance:
|Chicago Blackhawks (2008-09)||Toronto Maple Leafs (2016-17)|
|Record||46- 24- 12||40- 27- 15|
|Leading Scorer||Martin Havlat (77 points)||Auston Matthews (69 points)|
In their first playoff appearance, the Blackhawks finished fourth in the Western Conference, but then lost in Western Conference Finals to Detroit Red Wings in the second year with their core.
Although it wasn’t the Conference Finals, the Leafs took a massive step forward making the playoffs and giving the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals, a run for their money a year removed from being dead last in the league. The Leafs saw a 26- point improvement in the standing with the majority of their core assembled.
Many fans expected an improvement, but to be a wild card team and make the post- season after the previous season’s result is impressive. Unlike the Hawks, the Leafs made the playoffs in their first season with their core pieces in place, missing a top- four defenseman. Not only that, the Leafs big players stepped up big time to lead the team.
Both the Hawks and Leafs saw massive improvements in terms of their overall record, goals scored points percentage. The Hawks saw a 26- goal improvement while the Leafs scored 58 more goals. In their first season with their core, the Hawks had a point percentage of .537 and jumped to .634. The Leafs went from .421 to .529. The Hawks point percentage in the first year with their core assembled compared to the Leafs is very close.
The Hawks were also being well coached by Joel Quenneville and the Leafs were able to follow Babcock’s system and game plan. The presence that these coaches have behind the bench is remarkable to help a team develop and improve each year.
Chicago went on to win three Stanley Cups with different rosters but with the core still in tact. They won their first cup in the second year of making the playoffs after disappointing seasons. The Leafs got knocked out in their first appearance with their new look. Chicago won it all in their second with most of their being at the end of their entry level contracts or in the midst of new deals. Then they went on to win two more cups in their standard NHL contract.
With the Leafs, we don’t know what will happen. But if we’re looking at what the Hawks did, they could replicate their success in their second or even third season. I’m not saying that they have to win the Cup this coming season, but it should be something that’s worth to make a run for. That’s what every player dreams of winning.
If we see the steps that Chicago took with a talented team, who knows what the Leafs are capable of, especially with the coaching staff behind the bench. It is possible to have a “win now” approach without jeopardizing what they have done so far.
When Chicago won, it wasn’t just the core providing the impact on the ice. The veteran presence and depth also helped during those Cup runs.
In 2009/10, the Hawks had Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell, John Madden and Kim Johnsson as reliable, veteran players to help out. In 2012/13, along with an aging Hossa and Sharp, they had Michael Rozsival and Michael Handzus. In 2014/15, they brought in Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen. If it’s any indication, you need some veterans to help out with success in order to “win now”.
The Leafs went into a “win now” mentality this off-season by signing veteran players in Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore and Patrick Marleau, who can all bring something to the table in their own way. Especially playoff experience.
Hainsey recently won a cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins and gave them solid defense along the way when injuries hit them. Dominic Moore is an excellent replacement to fill the void that Brian Boyle had as a depth fourth line centre. And of course there’s the big name in Marleau.
Approaching 38, Marleau is showing no signs of aging, scoring 27 goals and tallied 46 points with the San Jose Sharks last season. It seems that age isn’t even a factor for the Leafs to give him six- million a year as he’s only missed 31 games over the least 19 seasons. It’s a risk to give an aging player that much money and term, but he’s extremely versatile and very durable at his age. A Jagr 2.0 if you will.
It’s no doubt that the Leafs, in their second season with their core, are in a win now mode. With these additions, why shouldn’t the Leafs try and win now? They have every thing in place and most of the pieces are there. Also, if they didn’t believe they could win, especially with the veteran signings, then why would they sign with a young team on the rise? Marleau has won in the past with Babcock at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and spoke highly of the young Leafs.
It was only about a couple of weeks ago when I heard TSN’s Gord Miller talking on Leafs Lunch about cap space and the Chicago Blackhawks. He went on to say that when Toews and Kane signed massive deals, they were in trouble because they are taking up most of the cap and are in a bit of jam because of it.
After every single championship, the Hawks went through a massive roster shake-up. Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad are the most notable names to be moved due to cap restraints. Toews and Kane currently account for 30.44 per cent of the Blackhawks cap. With Seabrook and Keith, that percentage goes up to 49.61. Almost 50 per cent of your cap space is dedicated to four players. That’s a hefty price.
It’s not a bad thing when your star players want the most money, mainly because they’re your star players. But now this puts a damper on things and you need to make moves around them. It creates a revolving door of players constantly coming in and out. Recently, the Blackhawks got rid of Artemi Panarin and Hjalmarsson, two key players for the Hawks, but are now on different teams because of a tight cap situation.
It’s no surprise that Matthews, Marner and Nylander are going to ask for a raise after their rookie deals expire. The Hawks were able to win when they had to chance with their core group of players and so should the Leafs with what they have done.
The Leafs already have a few players under new contracts, but the big three in Matthews, Marner are still in their ELC’s and Nylander is in the final year of his. Kadri, Zaitsev and Rielly are already under new contracts, which are very cap friendly deals should they decide to move any of them at some point down the line. Players could always be on the move but with the core, they could maintain success with smart cap management and allocation of dollars.
The Leafs could give their top players what they want. They’re the stars of this team. But, they could also face the same fate as Chicago where if they give too much, they might change the course eight or ten years down the line. The cap could increase but we don’t know by how much. It won’t be long before that time comes. Although they’re almost four million over the cap, there is still time to move players accordingly to get under the cap.
Dynasty?! Don’t talk about… Dynasty!
The Blackhawks are the perfect model to replicate success in the new NHL. They were able to win titles in 2009/10 (their first since 1961), 2012/13 and 2014/15. Like the Leafs they went through their years of pain, but it all paid off in the end.
To some, they are classified as a dynasty team and to others maybe not so much. But after the success they’ve had as a team since 2008/09, it’s hard not to call them a dynasty in the modern NHL. They’ve been dominant in the regular season each year; they’ve been to the Conference Finals five times in nine years; they’ve won the Stanley Cup three times, all while keeping their core in tact and came under cap restraints, and three times in six years. That deserves some sort of recognition. The same could be said for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But back to the Leafs.
Will the Leafs have success down the line with the players they have and drafted?
Absolutely. This is an extremely talented group that has success written in the stars for this club. From top to bottom, this organization is built for a championship.
Will they be a dynasty? Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself and I can’t predict the future. I will say this, anything is possible when you do things the right way. I’m not trying to put an unreasonable label on them because they are such a young team and we have yet to see their true potential, but they do have the talent to become what the Hawks were.
Auston Matthews and Marner are exact copies of Toews and Kane. Morgan Rielly has been embracing his role as a top line defender like Keith has. Chicago has had a revolving door of goalies. Frederik Andersen shined in his first year. He could stay longer, or he may be moved for someone else to the take the lead in the crease like Joseph Woll. The key signings this year will help out as well.
Again, I’m not telling you that they’re going to be a dynasty, but they’re going to be very successful. But when that time comes to give them that label, then this team would have deserved it. For now, let’s enjoy the ride and what they’re doing, because this is the way teams should follow the path for success.
The comparisons in regards to drafting a competitive team, and the results in their first and second seasons with their key players are eerily similar. Considering that both teams have failed for a number of years, they found a way to come back into the fold and become true forces in the NHL. As the Hawks continue to try and remain of the top teams in the league, the Leafs have quickly come into the conversation on being one of the top teams in the league. Every team has taken notice.
There is no doubt that the Leafs have done everything they can to try and replicate the success the Hawks had. The only thing left to do, is to accomplish the goal that the Hawks succeeded in… winning the Stanley Cup.