*spits out coffee* an actual Mailbag? Our eyes aren’t deceiving us? Yes, it’s true; this week’s amassment of questions will actually lead to answers. Hopefully, this is a return to routine, and not just a positive yet misleading blip, but we’ll see how the weeks ahead go.

I think that’s the approach that every NHL team, and to an extent, every pro sports team should be taking. The NHL’s biggest issue is the amount of money that gets paid to the middle tier; likely because superstars rarely make it to the free agent market, and once-stars are usually at the back end of their careers before they explore an open market pay day.

If you skip out at paying a premium for the middle-six, second-pair type players, you should have the room to pay your superstars, who are the least replaceable players on your team. If your scouts and your data folks are good, and you continuously acquire younger players, your odds are pretty high of getting a couple that are at or very close to the middle tier, with a chance of being something more, at a cost-controlled price in their early years. As long as you don’t get attached to them and hold onto them in the back-half of their career, you should be able to move them for the assets you need to reload your proverbial chambers and start the process again.

Pittsburgh does this pretty well with Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang. Chicago did similarly well at with Toews, Kane, Keith, Crawford, and Hossa on the younger core’s first deals, but lost track over time and committed too hard to players on the fringes once “winner” became “dynasty” and the pressure to keep everyone grew. If the Leafs can remain rational, invest their money in their top players but accept that the support core is interchangeable, they should be able to maintain strength for years to come.

This question somewhat ties into the one above. The answer? It’s complicated. I would argue that the Marlies have gone through four phases:

  • The “lets make some money” phase, where the Marlies were a bit more of a spill-over squad designed to get a few extra ticket sales. This covers the John Ferguson Jr. and Cliff Fletcher Pt. 2 era; the prospect pool was pretty gutted at this point and there weren’t many efforts made to replenish the lineup.
  • The cupboard restock phase: To Brian Burke’s credit, a noticeable uptick in effort made into making the Marlies an attractive development venue was made in his time with the club. Facilities were improved upon. Effort was placed into getting quality veterans to help the prospects they did have available to them play competitive games. Dallas Eakins brought stability to the bench. Bigger names (Nazem Kadri most notably) spent some extended time there, though the pool was still largely full of depth prospects.
  • The “Its complicated” phase. In between Burke’s firing as GM and Kyle Dubas’ hiring as Assistant GM, the Marlies were left in a bit of a tweener state. Morgan Rielly’s jump from junior to the NHL left the team without a blue-chip AHL prospect, and Toronto’s most important players were all veterans or long shots.
  • Modern Day: After Dubas’ hiring, the Marlies’ roster composition shifted to a combination of youth and prime age low-buys, with an emphasis on player development. While there were still “signed to win”-type players, those mostly came as role specialists, or players originally expected to make the Leafs. While the first few months of the transition were rough on paper, the arrivals of Byron Froese (via an AHL PTO) and William Nylander (via an early move from Sweden) turned the fate of the 2014/15 team around and the team has been the AHL’s most dominant franchise since.

In short: The advent of young, undervalued players calling the shots has very much been a post-Shanaplan move. With that said, the infrastructure began to take form years before, and contributed to where they are today.

There are a few players who are likely capable of playing for the Leafs right now. Andreas Johnsson and Miro Aaltonen are jumping out at people because of their recent point totals, but they’ve looked NHL ready all season, and Aaltonen, in particular, seems like a solid option at the 4C role. Justin Holl could definitely make a case for being on the right side of the third pair right now, and his partner Rinat Valiev is only really being held back by the depth chart. Similar can be said for players like Kerby Rychel, Colin Greening, Andreas Borgman, Martin Marincin, and maybe a couple others, who could easily find places on other NHL teams right now. Both Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard look like they could be at least 1B’s at the NHL level as well, based on the season’s they’re having.

As to Timashov and Liljegren: both are on their way. Timashov has been one of Toronto’s most improved players thi syear and I can’t imagine him being more than a year or two away from knocking at the NHL’s doorstep. Liljegren is harder to gauge because we know his raw upside: He isn’t a guy who can drop in today, and that would lead you to say “one more year”, but he’s got the upside of a player who could make that massive leap in a matter of a few dozen games and a focused offseason, so I wouldn’t rule him out.

Their only truly abundant weakness is probably at the 4th center spot: Dominic Moore hasn’t looked super great this year, and Frederik Gauthier’s attempt to take his place, with no disrespect to the Goat, didn’t look better. As referenced above, I’d be willing to give Aaltonen the chance in that spot before giving up assets to commit to a 10-minute timeslot; someone who kills penalties and scores at a 50+ point AHL pace at the age of 24 is probably worth giving an initial look at in games that matter.

Without going into more detail (we’ll save that for another day)…

  • I’m not yet ready to move any of the “Big Three”
  • If you forced me to move any of them, I’d probably lean towards Marner
  • For this to work, they’d have to get a superstar with long-term security
  • Doughty is a very good hockey player, but given his recent comments about getting true market value, I can’t imagine that Toronto will come out ahead in the long run by signing him to a long-term, premium contract

Summarizing this: You could probably sell me, at some point, on the idea of moving Marner in a blockbuster. I don’t want to do that right now, and Drew Doughty isn’t the superstar I’d do it for.

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