When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan in 2014 the unequivocal message to die-hard Leafs fans was that there was pain ahead, as he was granted MLSE board approval for a "scorched earth rebuild". Since coming to Toronto Brendan Shanahan has marketed himself to Leaf fans as the man with the stomach to deal with the criticism of fans and the media, and the willingness to stick to a plan over the next half a decade, and beyond. The last few seasons for the Leafs have been a long and painful lesson in expectation management and has demonstrated to the Maple Leaf’s organization the need for such an executive. Since the lockout shortened season, in 2013-2014 when the Leafs were able to push the Boston Bruins to the brink before an epic collapse in game 7, Maple Leaf fans misguidedly believed that their team was primed to contend and finally bring home the Stanley Cup, and management believed them. This gross error in expectation led the team to sign Stephan Robiadas and David Clarkson, as well as trade for Johnathan Bernier, and extended Phil Kessel and Dion Phanneuf to long-term deals. It was only after an equally, if not even greater, collapse during the latter half of the 2014-2015 season, where the Leafs went 8-27-6 in their last 43 games, that singled to Leaf fans that they may have been ‘led up the garden path’ with regards to the potential of their team. Yet the 2015-2016 season has been one of hope, hope that a new coach, a new front office, a new outlook, and reports of a new jersey for 2016-2017 will allow this organization to, if you’ll excuse the phrase, to ‘turn over a new leaf’.
Despite this new outlook, the Toronto Maple Leafs currently have fewer points this season than they had at this point last year, however, there is certainly a more positive outlook surrounding the team. Gone are the days of Salute-gate, jerseys being thrown on the ice, and confrontations between players and the media. Mike Babcock and Brendan Shanahan, along with Lou Lamarello and the rest of the Maple Leaf front-office have done an excellent job in not only addressing the culture of the team, but also the expectations of their fan base, and have cultivated a positive and supportive environment to play in, which many thought to be impossible in a success-starved market like Toronto. With all the positivity surrounding the team, it’s almost a surprise to hear that the Leafs, at the time of writing this piece, sit 27th overall, just two points ahead of the last place Columbus Blue Jackets, and are all but assured a front-row seat in the Draft Lottery this year. This culture-shift around the Maple Leafs may be Shanahan’s greatest success thus far. However, it is not all that he has achieved in his short tenure as the Maple Leafs President, as the team has carefully acquired pieces the organization hopes to transform into picks, prospects, and future Leafs that will, hopefully one day return the original six franchise to prominence in the NHL. In the meantime, Leaf fans seem willing to wait and see what fruit the seeds of Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas and the rest of the font-office’s labour can produce. So the question becomes, what can one realistically expect from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the immediate future?
The ‘Shana-plan’ is effectively a two-step process by which the Maple Leaf front-office hopes to rebuild the club through drafting and development. The first step of the plan is to rehabilitate and increase the value of the existing assets on the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL roster and transform those assets into prospects and picks. The Leafs currently have seven players who will be unrestricted free-agents and several restricted free-agents at the end of this season who are prime candidates to either be dealt at or before the February 29th Trade-Deadline for picks and prospects to accelerate and augment the Toronto rebuild, or who will be allowed to leave via free-agency at the end of the season to make way for the some of the current Toronto Marlies to join the ‘big club’. Players such as James Reimer (191GP - .915 / 2.82) compare positively with recently traded players such as Robin Lehner (87GP - .914 / 2.88) who was acquired for the 21st selection at the 2015 NHL Entry-Draft, so there is some trade value among the current Maple Leafs. Other potential candidates having respectable years for the Maple Leafs include forwards P.A. Parenteau (0.515 points/game), Shawn Mathias (0.281 points/game), Brad Boyes (0.346 points/game), and defensemen Roman Polak (0.258 points/game) who, when compared to Antoine Vermette, who was producing at a 0.555 points/game pace in 2014-2015 when he was traded to Chicago for a 1st Round selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, have the potential to return picks ranging from the first to fourth round to the Maple Leafs for this year’s and future drafts. The potential return from these players would augment the picks and prospects acquired for Phil Kessel, as well as provide Mark Hunter and the Maple Leaf braintrust with more opportunities to find players later in the draft, like Dmytro Timashov (5th Round, 2015) who has 53 points in 29 games with the Quebec Ramparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and is currently playing a prominent role with Team Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Transforming these existing assets into promising prospects, like Timashov among others, will be essential in rebuilding the Maple Leafs and restoring them to contention for the Stanley Cup.
The second, and most critical, step in the Shana-plan is to transform the aforementioned picks and prospects into quality National Hockey League (NHL) players. This process is well on its way with forwards such as, Dmytro Timashov(1.8 points/game - QMJHL), William Nylander (1.3 points/game - AHL), Mitch Marner (2.3 points/game - OHL), and defensemen Travis Dermott (0.93 points/game - OHL) who are all having promising seasons in their respective leagues. Comparing these player’s performances to other standout performances at these developmental levels by current NHL stars, such as Drew Doughty (0.83 points/game - OHL), Patrick Kane (2.5 pints/game - OHL), and Thomas Vanek (0.92 points/game - AHL) shows that there is potential for these player’s current levels of production to translate into success at the NHL level. While admittedly players very seldom produce at the same rate in the NHL as they did in major junior hockey, American Hockey League (AHL) production does translate, with minimal reduction, upon reaching the NHL level. Current NHL players such as Adam Henrique and Thomas Vanek were both high draft selections who played a season in the AHL, scoring at 0.684 and 0.919 points-per-game, respectively, before being afforded an opportunity in the NHL. When they were promoted to the NHL, both players have produced at more than a 0.5 point/game pace in every one of their NHL seasons to date, suggesting that the Leafs goal to have their players master the AHL before being called up to the NHL for full-time duty will likely produce considerable and sustainable NHL success for their prospects, and thus the team itself.
The largest obstacle to the success of the Shana-plan will be patience, or a potential lack thereof among Leafs fans, the Toronto media, and even the Maple Leaf front-office. Leaf fans are already clamouring for the organization to make an attempt to bringing Steven Stamkos to Toronto via free-agency, a move that would require an allocation of significant cap resources on a player who’s prime does not exactly mesh with the rest of the Leafs young core, and as such would be making his most significant contributions to the team in the more immediate future, which could stymie the Toronto rebuild with undesired wins. The Maple Leafs have been mastering the rebuild as of late, losing games while competing on a nightly basis and showing a level of character and resilience not present during last season's debacle. While it’s true the next generation of young Leafs will need to be surrounded by veteran NHL players to aid their transition into the NHL, a critical oversight made during the Edmonton Oilers rebuild, it is unlikely that Stamkos is the key solution to that problem.
Looking at the recent success of the Florida Panthers, as well as that of the Chicago Blackhawks, demonstrates that a successful team can be built by repetitively selecting high at the Draft, as well as augmenting a young roster with veterans who exemplify how NHL players should train, prepare and behave. In the case of the Panthers and Blackhawks, they brought in veterans like Jaromir Jagr and Marian Hossa, respectively, and they have been excellent models for the young players to follow as they develop and mature. However, as shown by the case of the Edmonton Oilers, there must be careful consideration in which veteran players surround a young core, and that repetitively selecting first overall does not guarantee a competitive team in the future. It is my opinion that the Leafs are well on their way to executing their rebuild and replicating the rebuild model implemented by the Chicago Blackhawks, and have acquired some promising prospects, picks, as well as players who are likely to fetch draft picks from contending teams at the trade-deadline. These prospects should give Leaf fans hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel of this rebuild, and that the Shana-plan is well on its way to restoring the Maple Leafs to success and yearly playoff contention.
*Note #1: all statistics in this article are valid as from January 2, 2016
*Note #2: since writing this article, and as part of their rebuilding process, Maple Leafs captain, Dion Phaneuf, was traded on February 9, 2016, to the Ottawa Senators.