Leafs’ Future Core: Closer Than You Might Think

There is a lot of trash to take out on this Maple Leafs roster. The current underperforming core that has developed a worthy reputation as a group that will collapse at a key point in a season or a critical game 7, no matter what you surround them with or what style of coaching you force them into. They have to go. They not only can’t get it done, they are the opposite of what you want youth to learn from.

The vast majority of Leafs Nation is in agreement – give or take a discussion on a player like Kessel – that this core is done. Break it up. But let’s take the high road here: Let them all move on to other teams in secondary roles where they don’t have to lead, and enjoy some success. And sadly, Leafs fans, like many many MANY times before, we will watch these players who underperformed here end up flourishing elsewhere. Get ready for it.

The job of demolishing this current roster and trading away the numerous hefty contracts is going to be as arduous as they come, but Shanahan and whoever his next GM is at least can say that long-term, the hopeful core of the future is already 3 players deep, with a 4th on the way in this next draft.

 

It’s All About The Draft

We all know the draft is critical to any success a team has, but it’s more important than ever. The bottom line in today’s cap era is that with very few exceptions, you HAVE to draft your core players. Teams simply do not trade top end skill players who also possess those unquantifiable “leadership” and “character” attributes. Don’t believe in them? Sorry, but they exist and they unquestionably separate the good from the great. This Leafs team is stacked with “good” but we need “great”. Teams don’t trade great anymore, almost ever.

The Leafs first pick in this draft may be about as critical to their future success as any in recent memory, going back as far as probably Wendel Clark in ’85. I have never supported “tank nation”, but this may be the year to do it. Trouble is, that same boat anchor has been tied to the legs of Buffalo, Edmonton, Arizona, Carolina and even New Jersey this year, so the Leafs have a lot of competition. Whatever has to happen to get them there, the Leafs have to draft in the top five and come away with one of the top end centres which there are several good ones to choose from. Outside of the obvious one – McDavid – I have a few personal favourites, but that’s for another article on another day. The good news here is this draft doesn’t represent the first piece in the building for the future. I believe it represents the fourth and perhaps final piece of the future core of this club going forward.

The Core Pieces We Have So Far …

No matter what you think Kessel, JVR, Kadri or Gardiner can be on this team going forward, when I look at this team five years from now, the core of the future, to me, is not them. It’s Bernier, Rielly, Nylander and whoever they pick in this upcoming draft; one of the most critical drafts this team has ever had. Looking at models of the best teams in the league in recent years, it’s fairly simple to see what your core has to look like to be successful. You need (in order of importance):

  1. A #1 Defenseman
  2. A Stud #1 Centre
  3. A Top End/Elite Goaltender
  4. A Secondary Elite Centre or Winger

Simply look at the cup winning teams in recent years to see the resemblance. Chicago, LA, Boston and Pittsburgh are all built after this model. I believe that right now, Toronto has in place three of those four pieces:

  1. #1 Defenseman: Morgan Rielly. While there is still some development to get there, Rielly has all the tools, including between the ears, what you need to be a #1. I think he is maybe 2 years away from it, at most. The best defensemen don’t take 5+ years to develop. Rielly is the best shot we’ve got to fill this void.
  2. Stud #1 Centre: ????. This is where the draft MUST fill this void. This is the draft to get it done in. McDavid is the obvious grand prize, franchise altering player, but there are at least 2-3 other centres in the draft who could be bona-fide #1’s. Remember that Toews was picked 3rd overall behind Jordan Staal, so it’s not always about who goes 1st. Many argue Kadri is the guy. I will get to him later.
  3. Top End Goaltender: Jonathan Bernier. It feels a bit wrong stating this after that wacky goal he let in vs. Philli the other night but aside from some moments in this insanely bad losing streak, Bernier demonstrates all the attributes of a bona-fide no.1 goaltender. He might not enter the stratosphere of a Jonathan Quick, but he can be a Corey Crawford level without a doubt.
  4. A Secondary Elite Centre or Winger: William Nylander. “The best prospect not in the NHL” will be there next season and has one of the most elite skill sets we’ve seen from a Leafs prospect, maybe ever. His playmaking ability might be the most underrated part of his game, and it is something the current Leafs team sorely lacks. I see him as a future wingman to the missing #1 centre.

Nearly every cup winning team of the past twenty years had a core that closely resembles this make up. The core does not have to be limited to those four roles, but you can’t expect to enter contention status without them. As you identify these core pieces, their development becomes critical, and many things can go wrong along the way, but the talent these kids have can enable them to truly become top end players. Overall, the pattern of team success with few exceptions in recent years is to follow the above model. Ensuring these core pieces are in an optimal environment to learn and grow is the next key element.

Surround Them With Quality Veterans

The next critical step with a young core is to surround them with veterans who can lead and guide, help establish proper habits both on and off the ice, during games and practices and teach them to be professionals night in, night out. Yes the coaching staff is critical to success in these areas as any player, but without leaders in the room you end up with situations like the Edmonton Oilers. They ooze talent and it’s not as if the coaches aren’t telling them to do the right thing, so what is missing is the type of players to kick these kids in the pants and to guide them. Of this current Leafs team, I would look to Polak and Robidas to be two of those leaders, and up front go find some guys who are capable. The good news is grizzled veteran leaders typically can be obtained on the free agent market and don’t cost an arm and a leg. Key point is, while they grow and learn to lead themselves, you must surround your young core with leaders.

But wait, what about…?

Kessel? Kadri? JVR? Gardiner? I know lots of people reading this are losing it that I haven’t included Kadri in the #1 Centre conversation. I know lots of fancy stats suggest otherwise but to me I just don’t see him becoming a legitimate stud #1. Can he be a decent #1? He could, and the best cup winning comparable for Kadri I can think of would be David Krejci, so one could argue that might work. It is possible that once the old core of this Leafs team is cleared away, Kadri can show us more of what he’s capable of on a consistent basis. But until then I’m not slotting him into the #1 Stud Centre gig.

Kessel and JVR to me are simply part of the core that has failed to get it done. Hard to replace? Not so sure about that. To me, both players are the kind you add to an already existing core to give them options, not BE the core. Successful teams don’t build around wingers, they add them as finishing touches. Check history. These two guys to me equate to LA adding Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik to an already solid core of players who were set to take the next huge step forward. While you could argue Carter has become part of the LA core, he most certainly did not get brought in expecting to be a centrepiece player. That’s what Kessel and JVR truly are: complimentary guys that fill the final holes in rosters.

Gardiner? Well, he could be a piece going forward but he is not and will never be a #1 defenseman in this league. I think his value to the team will be what he can bring back in the trade market. I easily see a 1st round pick plus prospects or young players coming back the other way. Again, picks are where you find your talent AND your character all in one package. Trades only seem to bring back players with flaws. Again, there are reasons teams trade a player. I think it just speaks to the need to rip this team down to the foundation and any player who is not 100% part of the solution going forward should go.

The bottom line is that this team has to be and likely will be torn down to not just the foundation, but a completely new one has to be poured and build the house properly this time. No shortcuts, no high profile trades to bring in a false savior. The draft is where it’s at and fortunately it looks as though three of the four key pieces to the future are already a part of the organization. All other assets should be considered expendable.

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