eDynasties like the 1980’s Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders are a thing of the past. The Islanders won the Stanley Cup in four straight years before the Oilers won five in seven years, so the 80’s were not a fun time for non-Albertans/Long Islanders.
That was before the salary cap era, when team owners with money to spend would open their wallets and grant their general managers permission to sign or trade for just about anyone and everyone they desired. Since 2004 though, organizations have had to operate under a system that worked to prevent such practices and make teams more competitive.
That’s why teams in the last ten years that have been perennial contenders are serving as the first real-life models for general managers to build their franchises after. The current “Big Four” – the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins – have all been structured in unique and creative ways by their respective general managers. And they are constantly referred to by GMs of rebuilding teams starting fresh.
Starting The Rebuild The Right Way
Compared to the other three teams in this series, one could hardly call the Maple Leafs a budding dynasty. In looking at the acquisitions these teams have made via trades, free agency and draft selections, the Coyotes have a general idea of what their foundation is, the Sabres rebuild is almost over (if they can get Connor McDavid) and the Flames rebuild is pretty much complete. And though those three teams have yet to become serious contenders, brighter days are much closer for them than they are for Toronto. This tweet says it all:
With the #Leafs in rebuild mode, tonight's @OHLCUP2015 Final features several top prospects that could wear the blue & white in the future
— Brendan Ross (@RossyYoungblood) March 23, 2015
The Toronto Maple Leafs have kicked off their own rebuild the right way this season after years of mediocrity – they haven’t won a playoff series since just before the 2004-2005 lockout. They have only qualified for the postseason once since then, falling 4-3 in their 2013 quarterfinal series with the Boston Bruins in heartbreaking fashion – most can recall with amazement how that happened. But that playoff appearance was the only solace Leafs fans have had in over a decade.
In the 2013 offseason, Toronto GM Dave Nonis had a knee-jerk reaction to coming within one goal of advancing to the second round of the playoffs when he signed David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. Luckily, they were able to relatively negate that horrid deal when they traded him to the Blue Jackets for an injured Nathan Horton. Nonis also traded pending UFAs Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, Korbinian Holzer and Olli Jokinen at or ahead of the trade deadline, ensuring that only David Booth will be walking away without any compensation coming the Leafs’ way on July 1.
Acquiring Pieces For The Future
In the midst of the disastrous second half of the Leafs’ 2014-2015 season, Toronto has taken a different approach to how they deal. In past years (especially during the Brian Burke era), big blockbuster deals were common in Canada’s biggest city for addressing the future of their team. This season the best deals were the smallest ones that were geared toward the future, such as acquiring Brendan Leipsic and a first round pick from Nashville for Franson and Santorelli, and getting a slew of picks for the rest of their pending UFAs.
Story: The newest Leaf, Casey Bailey, and why he chose to sign in Toronto http://t.co/xaCSwerFdj
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) March 26, 2015
The Leafs also made a pair of free agent signings this past week, signing 23 year-old forwards Nikita Soshnikov (native of Russia and former MHL/KHL player) and Casey Bailey (native of Anchorage, Alaska and former Penn State University player) in back-to-back days. They’ll most likely be in on both the Matthew O’Connor and Mike Reilly sweepstakes this offseason, acquiring as many college/junior players as they possibly can.
There is no way to tell which trajectory the Maple Leafs are on just yet, as their rebuild is just getting underway. The Boston Bruins traded for a lot of the players that were on their Stanley Cup-winning roster, but then again, the depth that is on the way with all the draft picks the Maple Leafs have acquired can closely resemble the Los Angeles Kings’ rebuild. If the Maple Leafs win the draft lottery and draft Toronto-area native Connor McDavid, one could say it would be akin to Pittsburgh’s rebuild a decade ago; but it’s quite possible that the hype in that situation would make the Crosby-Pittsburgh draft hype look like a small celebration (a parade may very well occur on draft day in the streets of Toronto).
Bozak is 29. He's a 45-point player when he's getting top line ice time and PP minutes. Very little at evens. Leafs need to move on.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) March 29, 2015
What’s next for Toronto is assessing how they will build this team, and from there, trading away some of their top players who are not in their future plans – namely, from the group of Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. Those four veterans can fetch the Leafs a whole lot of prospects, young players and draft picks, and Nonis will absolutely be exploring all his options in trading them away on draft day, at the start of free agency and beyond, before the 2015-2016 season kicks off.
The Leafs will most likely be drafting third or fourth overall at this year’s draft, and the biggest names available in that range will be Noah Hanifin, Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner. Though the Leafs need help on defense, the left side is not the one they need to address, so Hanifin is not the best choice; similarly, the right wing position is already stacked in the organization, with top prospects William Nylander and Connor Brown, as well as newly signed Casey Bailey and Nikita Soshnikov already in the system, so Marner would not be the wisest selection.
— Mike Johnston (@MikeyJ_MMA) March 26, 2015
The biggest need organizationally is at the center position, and playmaking center Dylan Strome grew up a Leafs fan in Toronto. Strome led the OHL this past season in scoring this regular season with 129 points (45G, 84A) in 69 games with the Erie Otters and has the makings of a future number one center. And with so many picks in this draft and the next, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of players they will select in the next few years.
It remains to be seen whether Toronto will build their team like the other three teams in this series have, or whether they’ll follow a model like one of the “Big Four” from the past decade. Hopefully better days are ahead for Leafs fans – the suffering has to end soon, and Brendan Shanahan, Mark Hunter and the rest of the front office will make sure of it.