The Toronto Maple Leafs have been back to skating and practicing in “Stage 3” this week, and with that has come a favourite past time for this city – freaking out about practice lines. I’m not going to lie – even as someone still watching with baited breath given the health circumstances behind this return to play, the first wave of roster arguments made everything feel real.
One notable combination that drew the attention of many came on the first line. These past few days of drills and scrimmages have featured a once-constant trio at the top of the lineup, as Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander lined up with each other.
This line is one that still feels very familiar to this day, but actually hasn’t seen a lot of time together. According to data from Evolving Hockey, the trio has played just 36 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together over the past two years – likely even less than that when you account for line change overlaps and spill over from powerplays.
Both years seem reflective of short leashes, with less than a game or two’s worth of minutes in each case. That they were outscored 3-0 in this stretch likely did no favours to the reunion experimentation, leading to both Babcock and Keefe to look elsewhere for their goals.
With that said, the group has, historically, fed off of each other, getting similar or better on-ice shares in goals, expected goals, and shot attempts over the long haul. There is an interesting pattern at play insofar that Matthews produces a little bit better away from both players (slightly better with Hyman this year), but still gets a better overall goal share while with them.
My guess here would be that this has a lot to do with the play style of the line, which is where a lot of it’s value comes from. Under both coaches, the Leafs organization has built its forward lines around archetypes, trying to get a playmaker, a goal scorer, and what I like to call a “displacer” – others might prefer forechecker or “worker bee” for puck retrievals and distribution. This allows for a skilled, fast, and yet still heavy cycle, which eventually pushes itself to the front of the net.
Because these are collective group efforts, including the trio and the defencemen, points tend to be a little more randomly distributed compared to more direct, rush-based plays, where one or two players control the set play and it’s success guarantees them a spot on the scoresheet. Perhaps not coincidentally, Matthews’ top 5-on-5 point production rates (besides John Tavares, who is paired with Matthews as a hail mary) tend to be highest with straight line players of varying talent levels like Patrick Marleau, Kasperi Kapanen, and Mitch Marner, who can link directly with him.
The Leafs aren’t focused on winning any one player the Art Ross Trophy, however – they’re focused on winning a Best-of-5 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets – a well-coached, defensively stringent team with solid, but unproven goaltending. Columbus’ huge strength this year has come in the shot quality they’ve been able to limit in front of the goal mouth, particularly from the top of their lineup.
Loading up what might be Toronto’s best line at driving close-range scoring opportunities of the modern era, both individually and as a collective, seems to be a shrewd strategy to press the issue against an opponent that specializes in that strength. It also allows for another line to sneak up while playing more of a rush dynamic (say, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and someone like Ilya Mikheyev, Kasperi Kapanen, or maybe even Nick Robertson if he cracks the lineup), keeping the opposing group on their toes.
While this one move isn’t a game changer, it appears to be one that could suffocate their opposition’s strengths, by leaning on some strength’s of Toronto’s own. It’s also a reunion that will carry lots of goodwill within the city, as the Hyman-Matthews-Nylander trio marked a new beginning for the organization when they emerged in 2016/17. While there is no guarantee the move works, it’s very sensible on the surface and is something that people have been waiting to see again for a long time.
Today marks the seven-year anniversary of one of the single worst contracts ever given out in the history of hockey. On July 1st, 2013, the Toronto Maple Leafs brought Mimico native David Clarkson back to the city he calls home with a 7-year, $36,750,000 contract. It carried an annual average value of $5,250,000, had unprecedented protection against a buyout integrated into its bonus-vs-salary structure, and gave a forward with 170 career points at Age 29 an unprecedented amount of control over his destination.
It was an insane overpayment by a team desperate for a specific identity, and technically speaking, it should have ended today. For all intents and purposes, it probably has; the signing bonuses area ll paid, base salaries are based on a completed regular season, and to my knowledge, if Clarkson were to announce his retirement now, it wouldn’t create much cause for concern from a salary cap perspective. Of course, the COVID-19 related pause to the NHL season has pushed this year’s contract schedule back several months, meaning that the symbolism behind seeing that contract expire will have to wait.
Pretty funny, really, when you consider Dave Nonis’ quote when asked about the signing. “I’m not worried about [year] six or seven right now,” the then-GM of the Leafs said. “I’m worried about year one, and year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”
In the end, Year 1 was a disaster from before it started – Clarkson was suspended for the first ten games of the year for leaving the bench in a pre-season brawl – and his production fell off a cliff from already middling results. By the middle of year two, he was traded for Nathan Horton, who’s career was over but who’s contract could be used as a salary cap loophole. Horton shared a similar contract signed on the same date for the same amount of time, and soon Clarkson’s similar chronic back issues led him to an identical fate. Clarkson then became the LTIR contract who didn’t play, “moving” to Vegas at the end of Year 4, and “returning” to Toronto at the beginning of Year 7.
Now we bear witness to this weird moment of hockey purgatory. Clarkson had zero valuable years out of seven, ended up with just 17 goals and 30 points in that stretch, and now, due to a completely unforeseen sequence of real-world events, enters “Year 8” – not according to the NHL schedule, but the calendar.
Honestly, It’s a pretty fitting end to the whole saga, that he would come back, and that the world would keep him around for longer than expected. In a weird way, in fact, I kind of like it. Not the circumstances that led to the outcome, obviously – but the outcome itself.
Again, it cannot be overstated how bad this contract was from day one. While the analytics movement was still far from mainstream in the summer of 2013 – in fact, probably at it’s most polarizing within the context of the Toronto market at that point – most who were on board with the numbers were keen to the fact that Clarkson didn’t seem like a wise bet. As my Managing Editor at The Leafs Nation at the time, and long-time-since Leafs R&D staffer Cam Charron put it at the time, Clarkson was a good hockey player with positive traits both tangible and not, but was likely to fall apart with age due to his style of play and the team was likely best served by taking a player they already had and evolving their playstyle.
Free agency is difficult like that, and it’s important to remember the risks involved, especially when talking about physical players. Injuries beget injuries, as does age, and it’s really not a good idea to give a long-term deal to any player on the open market who isn’t a bonafide star. There is a difference between John Tavares two years ago, a superstar talent who has stayed healthy for most of his career, and Clarkson, a support player who was already showing signs of a degrading back while he was in New Jersey.
Philosophically, it was a massive miss by Leafs management, and in a weird, twisted way, that may have been to the team’s long-term gain. Several years of a shift away from the skilled nucleus of Toronto’s roster, who had inched the Leafs back towards success, had been thrown out the window in hopes of creating a poor man’s version of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks – with all the character and intimidation but significantly less Hall of Fame talent. An unlikely, percentage-driven and half-season aided qualification for the 2013 playoffs gave the impression that the shift towards brawns was working, even when it lacked the talent to match, and losing their first-round series in dramatic fashion inexplicably led to the conclusion that they were still right, but needed to get even grittier.
Many decisions were made that offseason to double down on that image, including a six-day run in June that might be one of the most incompetent stretches a management team has ever had. On June 30th, the Leafs traded three draft picks to the Chicago Blackhawks to get David Bolland, who played 23 games for the team. They used a first-round pick to draft Frederik Gauthier, knowing his ceiling was likely on the third line, and while the Goat remains a cult-hero in Toronto, we can all acknowledge the fact that he has yet to clear 15 points in a season and will be shown the door the moment he makes a penny more than the league minimum. Four days later, they used a compliance buyout on Mikhail Grabovski (who managed to get an identical contract to the one he lost a year later), instead of John-Michael Liles (who had concussion issues while he signed his contract extension, and would go on to be traded for a worse player and contract in Tim Gleason). The next day, they re-signed Tyler Bozak for five years (which admittedly went better than skeptics expected, but still not as good as the team did), and Clarkson, while Clarke MacArthur, another piece of the “MGK” line that was being broken up in the plan to go from controlling the ice to controlling the hit count, went to a division rival for free.
A week before this six days of terror, the Leafs traded two prospects and a 2nd round pick for Jonathan Bernier – a perfectly fine goalie who was plenty serviceable for 2 of the next 3 years, but a curious choice given James Reimer’s fantastic prior year, and the reasoning given of the new CEO liking Bernier’s mental makeup.
Astonishing, really. But that was the state of the Leafs at the time, and the Clarkson deal was their crown jewel, to show that they could get the big fish – even if in one of the smallest ponds in years – and that they’d play the game their way. We all know what came next; the 2013/14 Leafs started strong, but being one of the worst defensive teams in NHL history was only going to overlap with wins for so long, and a crater that would last the next three seasons began.
There’s perhaps a benefit to that, though – that a signing like Clarkson’s was such an explosive exclamation point on disastrous direction, that it caused the reflection and re-imagination in the organization a lot faster than advertised. It’s one thing to go back to losing after a fortunate season – it’s another to do so in a way that shorts your available assets, costs you tens of millions of dollars in cash, and burns trust. Clarkson became the main symbol of a failed regime, in that regard.
Interestingly, though, the collateral damage wasn’t much to the Leafs in the end. One disastrous season, a relatively decent half-season, and from that point on, the remaining five and a half years, be it via Horton or via bringing his contract back, were mostly just an accounting pain in the ass. You could almost argue that the deal worked out to their long-term benefit, as it became a warning sign when it was time to talk about extending Bolland (who went to Florida and was a similar disaster) or other players of his ilk. Clarkson’s contract became both a warning shot and a roadblock to making another mistake in the middle of the lineup, that lasted until a front office that seems to be more cognizant about what tiers and traits you pay premiums for was in place to avoid a repeat without needing the reminder.
In a weird way, we can almost thank Clarkson for signing the deal, and maybe we should. Now 36 years old, Clarkson’s name has become toxic in this city, but really, that’s by no fault of his own. Clarkson really, really wanted to be a Leaf – the “tea leaves” in town suggested he was circling the signing date for years prior – and it’s been reported on several occasions that the Edmonton Oilers offered him an even more ridiculous deal on that day, that he rejected to go home.
David Clarkson really did “bleed blue”, and he really did want to live up to the idea of being a replica Wendel Clark. Perhaps that was why it didn’t work out for him on an individual note on the ice – a lack of effort never appeared to be the problem, but rather that too much expectation was placed on him, and he felt an obligation to try to live up to it. To the bench incident to the countless near-missed shots to the tripping over himself while trying to bag skate to the next zone, it always felt like he was overwhelmed, rather than mailing it in.
In that sense, Clarkson taught me to start looking at contracts more from the perspective of management, rather than blaming the players. This was simply a guy who wanted to live out his dream, who was given too much of the pie for him to chew on his own. But he still tried his best to do so, and left when it was clear it wasn’t going to work out, and while the team could still find a way out.
After that, the team appeared to learn their lessons, and moved forward to build one of the organizations best assemblies of talent in the modern era almost fast as they gutted their previous core, boosted further by pulling in “big fish” in free agency in consecutive years – something that Toronto had struggled with for years before that day in 2013. Clarkson proceeded to play 26 more games and score 2 more goals in his NHL career before his body gave up on him, as originally feared.
Now, he gets to retire as a Toronto Maple Leaf, and Year 8 is an inconsequential technicality. So let’s let him have it, and, while never forgetting the incompetence of his bosses, raise our sticks to a player who came back to his hometown in hopes of changing the fabric of the organization, and in a very convoluted way, did just that.
The National Hockey League is back! Sort of… eventually… okay, it’s all still really complicated, but league commissioner Gary Bettman announced preliminary details for the NHL’s return-to-play format yesterday afternoon. The gist of it is more or less what we expected, for better or worse:
The regular season is done, and the standings will be sorted by points percentage
A 24-team post-season will be played, with 12 teams facing each other in a conference (rather than divisional) format
The Top 4 teams in each conference will play a round-robin for seeding
Teams 5 through 12 will play a Best-of-5 Play-In to either qualify for Round 1 or fall back into the Draft Lottery
The playoffs continue from there, with “real” rounds 1 and 2 being Best-of-5 or 7 (TBD), and the Conference and Cup Final being Best-of-7
Hub cities are yet to be decided upon, and no dates are firm. Training camp will not begin until at least July 1st.
So, really, we’re still looking at at least a month and a half before the puck is dropped – and that could be extended if the COVID-19 outbreak gets any worse in North America (which, without getting too political here, is very well possible if pockets of the public continue to act like they’re above the guidelines). Really, this is all so fluid that anything could change before we see anything actually happen.
But, like many others, I enjoy having things to talk about with respect to the game, so we can run with the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs will, at some point, have a post-season to look forward to, including a Round 0 matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
One thing we can start to talk about already, with that in mind, is the roster that the Leafs will bring to that dance. The league’s return plan allows for 28 skaters, and unlimited goalies on an expanded playoff roster. Because players are only paid their salaries for the regular season, cap compliance is not a factor in how you assemble this group. Theoretically, if David Clarkson and Nathan Horton healed up tomorrow, were in the best shape of their lives, and wanted to go for one last dance, Toronto could include their $10.5 million in cap hits on the roster. So in that respect, we can work with some freedom here.
Exterminating The Injury Bug
There are a few orders of business that could limit players from making this cut. The first, and most obvious one, are injuries, and this season was full of them for the blue and white.
Entering the suspension of the regular season, the Leafs were without Andreas Johnsson, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin, and had just re-activated Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci from IR, playing them for one and two games respectively after eight and four-week absences. Johnsson underwent knee surgery in February and was projected to miss a minimum of six months after the fact, which brings him to a late-August minimum return. Mikheyev suffered a wrist injury in December and was projected for a late-March, early-April return, and started light casual skating and training in February. Muzzin broke his hand in Late February by blocking a shot, and was expected to miss two months. Muzzin confirmed in late April that his hand has fully healed.
This is all to say that the pause of society has cured the Leafs of most of their physical ailments, with only Johnsson not projected to be ready to start the playoffs. It’s possible that, should re-opening night be pushed very deep into the summer, or should the Leafs make a significant run, Johnsson might be able to return. I presume they would use a roster spot on him if the start date gets pushed back, but if the league gets anywhere close to the best-case, I’m not so sure it would be worth it – particularly when accounting for the effort that would need to be undergone to get him back to game speed.
Now that we’ve established that the pool here is “everyone except for Andreas Johnsson”, the main 18 skaters and two goaltenders will almost assuredly be some combination of this:
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – William Nylander
Kasperi Kapanen – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Pierre Engvall – Alexander Kerfoot – Ilya Mikheyev
Kyle Clifford – Frederik Gauthier – Jason Spezza
Morgan Rielly – Tyson Barrie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Travis Dermott – Cody Ceci
There are a couple of caveats here towards the bottom of the lineup.
For one, the Leafs had been giving Denis Malgin a look before the break, playing him in eight games after acquiring him from the Florida Panthers. While unproductive on the scoresheet, he did show spurts of speed and tenacity, drove play in an offensively-oriented way, and the lack of production is more likely explained by an on-ice shooting percentage of 3.2% than it is by him being incapable. On the other hand, Frederik Gauthier is a lot more familiar to Sheldon Keefe and to his teammates, and the head coach has won an AHL championship with him playing a shutdown role. His play-driving experience is much different, however, and his 2 points in 18 games are technically better than Malgin’s, but still effectively worthless.
Both players will be on the roster – I’m not dead-set on which one will start on the fourth line.
The second point of concern is the defence, and specifically, those 5 and 6 spots. Common sense defers this to Travis Dermott, who has been part of the team for three years now and was looking like a player to watch for the first two, and to Ceci, who is used to playing tough minutes and is being compensated well.
All the same, as much as I think Ceci takes too much heat in this market, he’s still a low-end, often-bad depth player and he likely doesn’t have a future in the organization beyond this year, and Dermott has had a down-year in pretty much every way. To his credit, he missed the start of the season to a shoulder injury, and if he was playing through nagging pains as a result of that, this break has likely helped him.
Just below them, though, stand two of Toronto’s top prospects in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, who began their NHL careers to some degree this season. Sandin has played for 28 games, and Liljegren for 11; both burning the first year of their entry-level contracts but not a year of restricted status. You have to imagine that the team would like to look forward with the two players and capitalize on their mobility and youthful energy, especially since they’ve both missed time this year to injuries as well. I think this ends up as a bizarro-Training Camp battle, with both players fighting for at least one spot against the presumptive third pair.
The above leaves us at 18 skaters, giving us room for 10 more. Proportionately, the easiest play here would be to go with two forward lines and two defencemen; some teams won’t do this due to how their depth chart balances, but Toronto has sufficient runoff depth signed to NHL deals that they can fill out both position types sufficiently.
Nick Robertson – Dennis Malgin – Pontus Aberg
Kenny Agostino – Nic Petan – Andreas Johnsson
Rasmus Sandin – Timothy Liljegren
Martin Marincin – Calle Rosen
The first thing here, to clear up any questions: The Leafs can’t bring in Mikko Lehtonen or Alexander Barabanov, their two top European UFA signings of the spring, as their contracts begin in 2020/21. They also can’t bring in any of their prospects who don’t have entry-level deals yet, nor can they bring in Kristians Rubins, who has played out this season on the Marlies and earned an Entry-Level deal, which again, doesn’t kick in until 2020/21.
In this scenario, I’m imagining that it’s going to be very tough to become one of the extras if you’re a veteran who doesn’t have a commitment for next year. That includes Miikka Salomaki, Garrett Wilson, Tyler Gaudet, Matt Lorito, and Kevin Gravel. It very well could include RFAs Max Veronneau and Jeremy Bracco as well, as the former is still very new to the organization (and not particularly good), and the latter hadn’t played in months even before the pause.
Injuries can come into play as well. Johnsson takes the last forward spot because the reward for him being activated is a tangible upgrade on the roster, should the team get that far. Adam Brooks, who I’m very fond of, didn’t make my cut, as there isn’t an update on his status available on his concussion that he suffered in mid-February. In speaking to various reporters after signing a contract extension a few weeks ago, Brooks sounded positive about the idea of being a Black Ace, so it’s very possible that he fits in and knocks someone out of the lineup.
If it is, that person is probably Pontus Aberg, who seems poised to move on from the organization at the end of the year. At the same time, Aberg has some of the most meaningful Stanley Cup experience in the Leafs organization, having been part of the 2017 Nashville Predators run to the Finals. Aberg is a high-talent player who’s competitive instincts have come into question in recent years, so it really depends on how committed he would be to joining the group, but the potential upside of him coming in and getting his proverbial groove back would be immense. Kenny Agostino and Nic Petan, both signed into next year, were key contributors on the Marlies who can play multiple different forward positions.
Lastly, you get Nick Robertson, who could have the highest upside of anyone on this part of the list if he has a great training camp. Arguably now Toronto’s top prospect, the 2019 second-round pick had a Draft+1 season that put him on everyone’s radar, scoring 55 goals and 31 assists in 46 games with Peterborough in the OHL. Given that Robertson was just days removed from sliding to the 2020 draft, these numbers have people wondering if he’s the next instant-impact star in the Leafs system – if he shows up prepared, Line 5 could very, very quickly turn into Line 1 or 2.
If not, it’s still a great learning experience for Robertson, to get to know his future teammates and see what level of preparation Toronto expects out of players in their program, which, judging from what we know of him, will likely be more of a fine-tuning than a “kick in the ass”. Kyle Dubas confirmed today that Robertson will be a part of this 28-skater lineup, so while he would’ve been an “I don’t know if they’ll do it, but I would” had I written this yesterday, he’s a lock with a sliding spot right now.
Goaltending here is pretty much a lock, just like it was with the big club.
Amazingly, there are still a few players that could be considered in this process, some of whom were mentioned above.
For example, while they’re veterans who likely won’t return to the team next year, the Marlies did appreciate the veteran presences of Tyler Gaudet and Kevin Gravel, with the latter getting a cup of coffee with the big club this season. If Adam Brooks is in fact healthy, he’ll be in the mix. There’s a possibility that Jeremy Bracco does get to tag along to see what his level of buy-in is and gauge whether a qualifying offer for him makes sense.
Beyond revisiting that group, you also have a few defencemen you could look to for the final pair; Teemu Kivihalme provides you with similar elements to Calle Rosen, though the latter is likely better. Joseph Duszak could be worth having around if one of the powerplay point men go down, and Mac Hollowell is a player that the team sees potential in, so maybe he’s someone they consider bringing for the ride.
Another route could be to replace one of the forwards with another prospect in Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, to give him a similar experience to what Robertson will get, and give them both a friend to be somewhat around in a strange time for them, having been linemates with the Petes. It’s also possible they’ll bring Ian Scott as a fifth goalie, though with him still having at least another month remaining in his hip surgery recovery time, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to do much for them.
Prairie Jesus is here to stay, at least for now. The Toronto Maple Leafs announced this morning that they would be signing forward Adam Brooks to a two-year contract extension, carrying an AAV of $725,000.
The exact terms of the contract were not disclosed, save for the fact that is a two-way deal, which implies a different salary to be paid should Brooks be re-assigned to the Toronto Marlies at any point. One would also guess that the deal pays $700,000 in 2020/21 and $750,000 in 2021/22, given the AAV and the fact that the league minimum moves up from the former to the latter at the end of next year.
Brooks was drafted as an over-ager by the Maple Leafs in the 4th round of the 2016 Entry Draft, after putting up a 120 point Draft+2 season with the Regina Pats of the WHL. There was some thought that Brooks wasn’t put in a sufficient position to succeed by Pats staff early in his junior career and that he was blooming with the newfound opportunity, which was intriguing to a Leafs managerial group that was looking to speed up the re-stock of it’s prospect cupboards. At the time, I compared Brooks to then-Leaf forward Connor Brown, pointing out their similar development curves in junior. Brown caught enough eyeballs to be drafted late, but at a more traditional age; Brooks slipped through the cracks but produced like a pleasant surprise late-round pick.
Since then, Toronto hasn’t quite hit a grand slam with Brooks, but they’ve at minimum landed a strong, base-earning hit. Brooks returned to Regina for a final season in 2017, and joined the Marlies following that. As an AHL rookie in 2017/18, Brooks struggled to produce for the first few months, which can be chalked up to league adjustment, a deep roster, and his own battles with mono in the summer. As the season progressed, Brooks found chemistry with Mason Marchment and later Trevor Moore, and their fourth line became a sheltered play-driving line in the playoffs, pushing pace and driving possession en route to the 2018 Calder Cup.
Brooks started to see a steady increase in his productivity from there, producing at a respectable Top-6 rate for the AHL level and having a noticeable impact on possession. In 2018/19, Brooks’ Corsi-for Percentage consistently hovered in the 60% range and his point total jumped from 19 to 40 within a similar games-played threshold.
This season wasn’t quite as kind to Brooks; while he maintained his point production rate with 20 points in 29 games, concussions and other injuries set him back, as did a weakened surrounding roster and the departure of his favourite linemates – Moore to an NHL graduation followed by a trade to Los Angeles, Marchment to a trade to Florida. But there was a silver lining that came in the form of an NHL call-up; Brooks played seven games for the Leafs this season, picking up the first three points of his NHL career while averaging about eight minutes per game.
Brooks’ immediate future remains in question. At 24-years old as of this week, he’s approaching the “put up or shut up” stage of the development curve – even if his personal development was stalled in his youth, athletic prime waits for no one. His underlying numbers weren’t particularly good in his cup of coffee, and if he wants to compete for a 4th-line centre spot, he’ll have to come to camp 100% healthy and with some work done on skills that match his role. While Brooks has the brain to play a responsible two-way game, he’s typically had at least one winger to defer to for physicality, and while he’s improved since coming to Toronto, he remains relatively weak on the draw, winning about 47% of his faceoffs over the past two years.
Obviously, this is one of those signings that can be brushed off as business as usual – an NHL team retaining a low-cost prospect who had RFA status is hardly major news. I do like that Toronto got an extra year on the deal, which works as a way to keep Brooks affordable if he does make a permanent leap this season or works as a pseudo-barrier to him being claimed off waivers should he not make the big club. At minimum, Brooks is a valuable piece of the Marlies, so protecting yourself from teams who just want to try a player out without having to worry about him the following season by adding a second year is a solid strategy.
Toronto still has several other lower-level RFAs to address over the coming months. Frederik Gauthier, Denis Malgin, Max Veronneau, Jeremy Bracco, Pontus Aberg, and Teemu Kivihalme will all have to be extended, qualified, or let go in the coming weeks and months, with Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev being in the RFA priority tier above them.
Just because we don’t have hockey to watch, doesn’t mean we don’t have hockey-related things to debate about. News, transactions, and the like still exist, though admittedly they’re sporadic and scarce. This has led to various platforms coming up with throwback content, and one of the most interesting variants of that is TSN’s “All-Time 7” series, where their panel of experts goes over the history of all seven Canadian NHL teams and attempts to derive an All-Time roster for them.
The approach that TSN has taken is interesting, though, in the sense that they’re actively pursuing “imperfect” lists, by creating caveat rules. The criteria that they’ve chosen to go with is as follows:
Team: two goalies, six defencemen, 12 forwards and one foundational player
Members must have played at least 225 games with the team
At least one member of the all-time team must be from the 2019-20 team
Players are slotted in positions they played with the team
One line must be comprised of defensive standouts, aka a checking line
One pair must be comprised of suffocating defenders, aka a shutdown pair
Lines and pairs are put together because they fit together, not because they are necessarily the first, second and third best at their positions
Foundational players are defined as players part of the fabric – the DNA – of a franchise
Last cuts by position are exactly as advertised, the players who just missed selection to the all-time team
These rules come into place to try to mitigate small-sample bias, stacking of overloaded forward positions, and, quite frankly, not just outputting a raw list of players who can’t be argued. It’s designed to be unique and to create conversation.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s a great ruleset. For me, there are a few of these stipulations that I disagree with. For example, the “must be from the 2019-20 team” rule appears to cause more trouble than benefit. Six of the seven teams have at least one current player that makes the list on merit – the rule didn’t do much besides knocking Patrick Roy off the Canadiens’ roster in favour of Carey Price, which even the biggest fan of Price’s can agree is absurd.
I’m also not big on the “checking line” and “shutdown pair” stipulations, as they allow wiggle room for players who are steep downgrades from the first three lines and first two pairs to make the teams. Thankfully, this hasn’t caused a huge problem, as a lot of teams have sufficient two-way weapons to create high-quality bottom groups. I would probably push the boundaries on this more, and lean “scorers with a dash of defence” over “defence in the absence of offence”, but this isn’t as bad.
With all of that out of the way, the list that I can speak the most to came out today, and that’s the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto is a very interesting team in the sense that they have one position that’s overflowing, one that’s got just enough talent to be inarguable, and then four others that are a bloodbath entirely because the lack of high-end depth doesn’t really match up with 100 years of history and 11 Stanley Cups. TSN’s list looks like this:
You can read TSN’s full explanation and layout of their thought process here. After being given the heads up from Bob McKenzie that this was going to be a very interesting roster, I made my own over the course of the weekend to compare to the final one. Doing this early was important to me in the sense that it meant that I wouldn’t be “anchored” into players by the TSN list, nor would I be able to nitpick if it turned out that we were close or identical.
In the end, we agreed on 8 of 12 forwards, 2 of 6 defencemen, and both goalies. Not bad! I’m not surprised that the spread of difference broke down this way either, given my more counter-attack driven approach to defensive play. But rather than just leave it at a number, let’s actually compare notes.
Left Wing: Vincent Damphousse in for Bob Pulford
Let’s start off with a tricky one. Most remember Damphousse as a member of teams that were very much not the Maple Leafs. I was a fan of his as a kid, but knew him mostly as a Shark, a little bit as a Hab, but given that the Leafs traded him when I was in my mother’s womb, I can’t say that I have memories of him playing for the Leafs. He played just five of his eighteen seasons here, so he’s not difficult to dismiss. He is also mostly remembered as a centre, as that’s where he drew in once he left Toronto, but he spent a significant amount of his time with the Leafs on the wing.
Frankly, I wouldn’t blame you if you had him off your list either, but Toronto is pretty weak on the left side. How weak are they? Well, the amount of consideration I gave James van Riemsdyk and Zach Hyman were both more than 0%, and as good as those two are respectively, that’s not something you expect to say about a team that’s been around for a century.
Pulford isn’t a bad pick, particularly when you consider the push for “fit” and the fact that he would have played with Keon and Armstrong (who both TSN and I had as the other 2/3 of the checking line). There’s no second-guessing whether it would work – it did. As well, Damphousse was an exemplary offensive player in Toronto, but wasn’t quite known for his two-way game at that stage of his career.
With that said, he wasn’t lost in his own end and did develop into a guy who got Selke votes in Montreal. The fact that he developed into a strong two-way centre makes you think that he could have done the same in his early Prime in Toronto, with the right focus. There appears to be an offensive benefit in going with him, and I imagine playing with Keon and Armstrong instead of on the late 80’s Leafs would be a better environment for playing in his own end.
This is very much a “personal preference” pick – I don’t think going with Pulford is a mistake, just not my personal choice.
Centre: Darryl Sittler in for Syl Apps
This is the position where you’re going to have the most arguments, and that’s because there are so many players to work with here. Put it to you this way: Toronto’s “B” team at centre would likely include Syl Apps, Teeder Kennedy, Doug Gilmour, and John Tavares. Contrasting that to the wings and defensive corps is incredible – you’ve got about eight guys here that can be boiled down to preference in some way, shape, or form.
Like the Pulford pick, I can understand the idea of going for fit here, though Apps only played with Jackson (a worthy left-wing choice), and Conacher (for my money, the incumbent Greatest Leaf of All Time) for two seasons. This leaves me a little more open to picking the player who had the best career as a Leaf out of the remaining five. Gilmour had a crazy peak, and Tavares is off to a historically good start, and Kennedy had his share of amazing moments for the team (and, given the players who were on TSN’s roster, was their logical pick for a foundational player).
Sittler gets my nod because he combines a dominant peak (Hart votes in six of seven years between 1974 and 1980), with a strong overall body of work (second in all-time scoring for the team, only surpassed by Sundin since), and an unforgettable moment that lives in even current fans’ minds (the 10 point game). He’s got a resume that covers all the bases to some degree minus a championship – and given the era he played in, both in terms of team management and opponent dominance, it’s hard to blame him for that.
There is some debate about Auston Matthews being on the list. TSN put him on as their current player representative. I have multiple current players, so for me, it’s truly about the upside here: Matthews is the most dominant player Toronto has had, arguably, since Conacher – putting up goal totals that are among the best in NHL history for his age, and currently projects to rip apart the record books if he stays a Leaf for the majority of his career.
Right Wing: Phil Kessel and Mitch Marner in for Rick Vaive and Lanny McDonald
One of these will anger many, and one of these will confuse many. Let’s kick off with the confuse: This site has been host to some skepticism as to what Mitch Marner’s upside and value is over the past year or two, which many have correlated with a dislike for the player. Heck, I just wrote an article exploring trading him yesterday.
That has more to do with how he is talked about and the price tag he set for himself in contract negotiations, more than it does to do with concerns about his actual talent level. Hockey has evolved a lot in even the past couple of decades, and “building the best team” doesn’t necessarily mean “get the 20 best players you can” anymore. I also don’t think he’s the second coming of Wayne Gretzky. I do, however, think he is an absolute superstar, one of the most dynamic players the Leafs have had in my lifetime, and I firmly believe that, should he remain a Leaf for the long haul, that he will take a serious run at being the best winger the team has ever had.
I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue against a guy who paces for 90 points in back to back seasons, has decent enough possession numbers, has an ability to kill penalties, and has elite tools, right? He’s already put up some of the best seasons we’ve seen from a winger; his biggest weakness here is a small sample, which is where I can see someone wanting to put McDonald on the roster instead – particularly if you’re lining him up with Sittler for “fit”, though TSN’s list doesn’t do that.
Kessel is the lightning rod here, as he was an immensely polarizing player in Toronto. I don’t think that’s in any way fair to him – the Leafs were, quite frankly, terrible and poorly built for almost the entirety of his time here, his shows of frustration were mostly manufactured by the media, and when he did seem legitimately peeved, he was right – and that was usually in defence of his teammates.
He also was really, really good as a Leaf. Like, we forget just how good. He scored 25+ goals in every full season he played in Toronto, still scored 20 in the 48-game lockout season, and developed a talent for playmaking as things progressed. Had the lockout season been full, he was on pace for three consecutive 80+ point seasons – and that’s with the same wingers that even Marner was capped in the 60ish point range with. In his time in Toronto, he was 5th in the NHL in goals, 16th in points, and 19th in Point Shares. He also didn’t miss a single game from his Leafs Debut to his final appearance. He deserves way more respect than he gets.
Vaive is my “thanks, but no thanks” on this list. He was a quality NHL player, and is best remembered for having three-consecutive 50 goal seasons in Toronto, including a 54-goal year that currently stands as the team’s single-season record, tied with Dave Andreychuk in 1993/94. But his peak output came in the highest-scoring era in NHL history – none of those three seasons peaked higher than 5th in NHL scoring. A high bar here, but when he was averaging 52 goals for a three-year span, the league leader (some guy named Wayne) averaged 83.
Hockey-Reference’s era adjustment tool puts Vaive’s three-year run at 39, 41, and 41 goals in neutral years. By comparison, John Tavares’ 2019/20 output of 47 goals adjusts to 48, and Auston Matthews’ pace this year (55, which would break the record) adjusts to 58. Kessel’s best three year run in Toronto gives him 2 more adjusted goals and 74 (!!) more assists. You have to go with Phil – the teams he played might have sucked, but the same goes for the player he’s knocking out. Marner for McDonald I’ll leave to you – though I stress that if you defer to Lanny now, you probably won’t in a year or two.
Left Defence: Tomas Kaberle and Carl Brewer in for King Clancy and Allan Stanley
Again – we were never going to agree on defence. Very few people will probably agree with me on defence in general, but especially people looking to factor as much as possible for history, and for the old-school style of play. The reasons for selection just become so subjective if you’re looking solely at the defensive side of the game – you can look to points for offence, but without data and really without much video, you’re relying on second-hand stories, distant memories, and maybe wins, Plus/Minus, penalty minutes, and if you’re trusting of the opinions of the time, Norris Voting.
I tend to lean towards the tangible, particularly because I think being a defensive specialist is a historically overrated role the game – like the Kent Wilson blocking shots adage goes, I’m delighted when someone kills a rat but worried when I see that their time is largely spent on extermination. I’m looking for players who push the puck up the ice and eliminate goals against by eliminating defensive zone time – something you can also find via some of the above information but can also lean a little more into production with.
So, different playstyles, different tools. I’m also of the opinion that the game has significantly changed, and that pre-Bobby Orr defencemen need to have shown steep levels of dominance to really make it into an all-time conversation, akin to pre-Patrick Roy goaltenders having to do the same.
Even if I wasn’t all of the above, though, I’m still a little perplexed by Tomas Kaberle not making the list. I don’t think there’s an argument for him that puts him any lower than the third-best defenceman in Leafs history. Let’s take a look at the Leafs resume:
3rd all-time, Point Shares (2nd offensive, 6th defensive)
Kaberle had a 5-year run where he received Norris votes in 4 of the 5 seasons, despite a more “aggressive” perception to what the average defenceman should be, and despite him getting Lady Byng votes in 2 of those years. In the time he was a Leaf, he ranked 11th in the NHL in point shares, 4th in points, and played the 6th-most minutes of any defencemen in the NHL. He was Toronto’s offensive sparkplug, and also one of their defensive crutches. A list without him is an incomplete one, and he replaces King Clancy – who is known in hockey lore as the first “big money” acquisition by Conn Smythe in 1930 ($35,000 and two players were his price – chump change today, but gigantic then). Clancy was great for his era, but the position has changed so much, and he didn’t have the longevity with the team, at least on the ice, to supplant Kaberle’s efforts.
Choosing between Stanley and Brewer is a little bit more difficult. Both were fantastic defencemen for Toronto in an era where they had a lot of success and played together. Stanley’s Hall of Fame induction makes a good case for giving him the tiebreaker, but that also includes half of his career played outside of Toronto, including his athletic prime. Brewer played his prime in Toronto and got Norris votes in more seasons. Point Shares are reasonably close as well, as is their production. I leaned towards Brewer in the end but can respect either choice. Also, I’ll never say no to including more Timmins-born players, as the son of a Timmins-born father.
Right Defence: Ian Turnbull and Bryan McCabe in for Red Horner and Bobby Baun
The biggest thing for me when building my defence was finding the three anchors in Leafs history to give a pair to, followed by finding each of them a complementary partner for the sake of “fit”, as the second tier of talent is a bit more subjective than the first. For me, those three players were Borje Salming, Tomas Kaberle, and Tim Horton. Loaded up and put Salming and Horton together, which isn’t a bad strategy either, but I saved Horton for my shutdown pair and decided that my Top 4 would be a little more wild-west.
As described above, Brewer becomes Horton’s partner, since the two of them are the same era of the team. I would imagine that era played a big part in the selection of Horner and Baun, who were best known as defensive specialists. As you can imagine, I’m a little hesitant to use one-dimensionally defensive players on my non-shutdown pairs, particularly because I don’t think that “compliments” and “balance” are necessarily the same thing. Sometimes, you want to double down on a strength rather than diluting it – mixing similar colours together for the perfect shade rather than a yin-yang approach.
Thankfully, Salming and Kaberle regularly played with two of the best offensive defencemen in team history, which makes the “fit” part very easy. Salming gets Ian Turnbull, who played 9 years in Toronto and put up pretty insane offensive numbers, including five seasons in the 55-80 point range in a span of six years between 1976 and 1981. He was Toronto’s first crack at a post-Orr offensive defenceman, and he was electrifying – hitting his absolute peak with the most goals in a single game for a defenceman in 1977.
McCabe is a funny one for me, of all people, to bring up – given that my first fifteen minutes of fame as a teenager involved creating a website to explain how bad he was. The truth is, 15-year-old me was wrong – something I outlined in an article where I debunked myself and interviewed him in 2014. McCabe was one of the league’s most productive defencemen in his time in Toronto, received his share of Norris love, and at the start of the Real-Time Statistics era, we didn’t quite know for sure what stats like giveaways, takeaways, blocked shots and the like all really meant. He ranks in the conversation among the great Leafs defencemen in many key statistics, and he was the favourite partner of an automatic inclusion on this list, so that puts him in for me.