While everyone figured that the American Hockey League would ultimately throw in its towel and cancel the 2019/20 season, the league held its cards to their chest for a surprisingly lengthy amount of time – until Monday. Yesterday morning, the AHL confirmed the inevitable and ended its year via a press release from President and CEO David Andrews:
“After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions.
The League’s operational focus has turned toward actively preparing for the 2020-21 season.
We are very grateful to the National Hockey League and its teams for their support and leadership in navigating through the challenges faced over the past two months.
The AHL continues to place paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff and fans and all of their families, and we all look forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-21.”
The news comes several weeks after most lower-level leagues have made their announcements, but well ahead of any concrete steps have been announced by the National Hockey League about a resumption at the highest level. Given the immense risks that there still are in having a fully functioning society during this COVID-19 crisis, it was unlikely that the league would be able to come back in it’s full, in-person and in-market form any time soon.
Due to the broadcasting deals, merchandise sales, and other non-gate streams of revenue, combined with the greater average capital of the ownership groups, the NHL can afford to take a hit on the rest of the season to release itself in an altered form that sacrifices tradition and revenue for an attempt at continuity – this likely means an abbreviated season with an expanded playoff. AHL teams typically don’t carry the same value, don’t have as much financial support from their ownership groups, and their revenue is heavily dependant on home crowds on game day.
Simply put, there would be little to no chance that a non-NHL league would be able to finish their season without a notable operating loss, and while some teams could handle that, most can’t. Even the pause could end up doing enough financial damage to cause teams to suspend for the upcoming year or fold entirely – this decision to cancel the season and look forward to 2020/21 isn’t the final step in his battle.
Here in Toronto, the Marlies are one of the few teams who come away relatively unscathed by the news, as the team is officially part of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment umbrella and, while there isn’t a green light to burn through money, the team does operate with a residual benefit mindset rather than a purely profitable one. The team put out a statement yesterday morning to go with the league’s statement, offering a peek into the franchise’s plans and offering refunds to fans who still had remaining games on their ticket schedule:
As the American Hockey League’s Board of Governors voted to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 AHL regular season and the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, the Toronto Marlies management and coaching staff will now shift their planning and preparation towards a return to play for the 2020-21 season. Select Marlies players will join the Maple Leafs roster if permitted by the National Hockey League’s resumption of play protocol.
Fans who hold tickets to any of the unplayed games remaining on the 2019-20 schedule will be contacted by a representative from the Marlies ticketing team to receive a full refund or the option to move credit to the 2020-21 season. For more information, please visit Marlies.ca or call 416-597-PUCK (7825).
The Marlies likely don’t have much to be stressed about in terms of “what ifs” for the rest of the year, given what has been one of their more disappointing regular seasons in recent history. The pipelining of young talent up to the NHL, along with coaching changes, chemistry issues, and a few disappointing additions to the lineups had led to a season that already looked destined to be Toronto’s first out of the playoff picture since 2010/11 – their 29-27-3-2 record wasn’t all that bad, but good for just 7th place in a deep North Division. A less pandemic-filled parallel universe would have required a dominant, near undefeated run to cap off the final 15 games – something that a 3-7 record in their final ten games indicated to be unlikely.
Besides the teams that are going to have to worry about finances from here, there are a few groups that one can’t help but feel let down for. Teams like the Milwaukee Admirals, Tuscon Roadrunners and Belleville Senators were in the midst of big leaps forward this season. The San Antonio Rampage are moving at the end of this year to the Henderson, Nevada area for 2020-21, and didn’t get to give their fans a proper goodbye after 18 seasons in town. Perhaps most notably around the league, Andrews sees his last season as President and CEO come to an unwelcome ending. Andrews, who has been at the helm since 1994, is one of the most respected league leaders in all of professional sport, and has been vital to the health of the AHL over the past few years. This year was announced early in this season to be his last, and instead of getting a victory lap, we get an abrupt end – hopefully the AHL finds a way to give him a proper send-off next season, even if he’ll have already moved on.
According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the expectation is that NHL teams that will be participating in the expanded playoffs will carry larger, 30+ player rosters that include many players on their affiliates. It’ll be very interesting to see which players each team chooses to bring with them. For example – will they prefer to call up veterans who could help in the event of injuries, or will they be focusing on giving their kids more time at the rink? Will they take into account travel, and allow some out-of-continent talent to stay home? A lot of this is still fluid and needs to be sorted out.
For now, though, the focus remains on next year, and that’s the right call. Frankly, I think that might be the best at all levels, though I can understand the eagerness for the top-level leagues to return and entertain the masses. As much as I am a passionate supporter of what the AHL does, though, it’s not big enough to carry a morale boost for returning early in an altered form, and the consequences of doing so would have been more harmful to the league’s health than helpful.
If you live on the hockey side of social media, or the social media side of hockey, you’ve probably already heard about what happened with Washington Capitals forward Brendan Leipsic yesterday. If you haven’t, you’re in for a roller coaster.
The “too long; didn’t read” version of the story, as far as we all know, is this: A friend of Leipsic’s had their Instagram account compromised, and within it, there was a direct message group chat. Also present to a smaller degree was Springfield Thunderbirds forward Jack Rodewald, who played with Leipsic on the Toronto Marlies several years ago. Other lower-level players and player relatives were present, the list of which seems to point to this being a social circle of Winnipeg-area players from about the same age group. In that case, one can assume that this is a long-term friend circle that had been compromised by the break-in.
Within this chat, in which screenshots have managed to Streisand Effect their way into surviving on social media, there are a lot of topics that are gross, offensive, and deeply personal. Degrading is probably the best term and one even used affectionately by a group chat participant. The leaker of this content mostly focuses on Leipsic’s end. Within that, you find a lot of lewd talk about his pursuits of women, often taking shots at their appearance. This also applied to women he seemingly wasn’t pursuing – including the partners of his own teammates. There were also some other, now harder to find screenshots that show him talking about teammates he disliked in Washington and Vancouver, and, probably the least important to everyone, some allusions to substance use.
As a quick preface: While my coverage of the Marlies overlapped with Leipsic and Rodewald’s tenures, I didn’t know either of them on any sort of off-ice level and didn’t really talk to either of them in their time here, so I can’t give many opinions on them besides how they play on the ice. I’ve spoken to some of their teammates in the time since these screenshots leaked, but mostly about the bigger picture of the incident and not about them directly. This was a purposeful decision, to keep the focus on the event and not any preconceived biases about the individuals. Because, in the grand scheme of things, the individuals are the setting more than they are the subject.
After all, if we look at this bluntly and objectively, we’re talking about comments made in private that make them look like judgemental jerks. The one comment that borders on racism was made by a former player who never made it to the NHL, so that’s likely out of the scope of their enforcement. The worst thing here from a legal standpoint is, truthfully, the break-in and the leak that made this public, which likely makes this a matter of the court of public opinion and one of the player code. Something where punishment comes via isolation and score-settling rather than a mandated suspension or fine.
The barrage of public disgust and attempts at education in his direction is probably the closest thing we’ll get to actual justice. Given that Leipsic has been riding the fringes of the AHL/NHL bubble for the past few years as it is, and that he doesn’t have a contract beyond last year, I would not be surprised if he’s played his last game in the NHL, and probably his last in North America for several years, until he shows some semblance of growth (and no, his screenshot of someone attempting to apologize for him doesn’t cut it). A player who is this candidly cruel about his teammates and their loved ones will never be accepted by them in a locker room again, and he’ll likely have to get as far away from them and their friend circles as possible to have any chance in any room. Heaven forbid he steps on the ice against a group that’s familiar and angry – the end result will not be pretty. Already polarizing and antagonizing as a player, this violation of trust just adds an even greater target on his back, and now there’s less than zero incentive for his peers to defend him.
In a way though, this is its own problem.
Make no mistake of this – what Leipsic is going to get punished for by his peers (and what will likely allow Rodewald and the others to slip through the cracks), is not the behaviour he exhibited, but who he exhibited it to. The reality is that this sort of behaviour – the misogyny, the objectification, the degradation, the insulting – all of these acts that many of us, myself included, feel to be despicable and character diminishing, are all too common in the hockey world. They’re all too common in the real world too, and there’s no venue where comments like these that show no form of respect, empathy, or care for others should be considered acceptable, but contrary to what’s been repeated by many in the public and even some of my peers, this isn’t something that should just be stated as “this is a societal issue”, a statement that has truth but also has deference of responsibility.
Hockey culture is a very mixed bag in what it cultivates. There are many ways where it can be positive, where it can teach respect, politeness, camaraderie, accountability, and how to speak politely to others who you’d like to earn the trust of. However, especially with the socioeconomic shift at the more competitive levels, it also shows its warts. Combining all the negative caricatures of jock culture with the privilege and feelings of power that come with having a “leg up” in society – particularly if you’re raised by someone who isn’t humble about their privileges creates a toxic mix of arrogance, ignorance, and disrespect for others outside your circle of trust. It doesn’t take much for the well-off, hot-shot, never-given-blame kid to think that they rule the world, and the modern hockey community, unfortunately, can link these personalities together and reinforce their beliefs past one’s youth and into their adulthood, especially with the zeroed-in focus of player development and celebrity status of the pros, further sheltering players from learning about how their habits negatively impact others.
Without proper education and leadership in a dressing room, these habits can bleed into teammates who might check some, but not all of the aforementioned boxes, and this often creates the division and “bro” culture we see in cases like this. Hockey itself isn’t more likely to create these sorts of attitudes, but the environment that exists today is more likely to bring people who develop these traits in life together, more likely to turn a blind eye to the problems until it immediately impacts the locker room environment, and less likely to take the greater issues seriously. The exceptions to this rule – the players that understand and the teams that educate – are commendable, but we still have a lot of work to do.
In other words, this is how a lot of people – particularly men – who have played high-level hockey (among other sports in similar situations) in this age bracket interact. You’ve probably seen the “locker room talk” phrasing more times than you care to over the past day – incidents like this are where that stems from. That is in no way to say it’s acceptable – every effort should be made to curb these sorts of personality traits, and to educate and develop all of these people into better forms of themselves, like all of us have had to do at some point. But it’s common, and common enough that Leipsic will likely face retribution in some way from peers who have done the very same things as they have – just not to their teammates or their loved ones. The punishment will come for a violation of trust (which, ironically, Leipsic is also the victim of here through the breach), not for the attitude he’s shown towards other people.
By punishing, ostracizing, or eliminating Leipsic from the picture, you aren’t removing the disease. You’re removing a symptomatic carrier of the disease that all of us have seen in real life, and many of us have seen grow in a toxic circle within locker rooms and off-ice friend circles and the like. We can hold Leipsic to the fire, educate him, or a little bit of both, and that will address his own faults, but it won’t solve the problem. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do those things to the extent that we can without crossing our own lines, but it means that this isn’t as simple as cutting him off and declaring the issue fixed. Nor is it as simple as punishing him – be it through league regulations or a player giving him the business on the ice. These are ways to settle this score, but not one to solve the fundamental problems that lead to a situation like this, a lack of respect for outsiders – particularly that is all too common within the community of our sport. Leipsic and Rodewald shouldn’t be absolved of responsibility for their own actions, which were reprehensible, but to create actual change, they can’t just be the fall guys that we make examples of before forgetting how this behaviour forms within locker rooms throughout our sport. This needs to be a look in the mirror as much as it is an iron fist towards these particular participants.
In a way, it’s an in-between concession between just running the NHL the way it was before and dealing with a pushed-back timeline, and going all-in with a 31-team, winner take all, somewhat weighted coin toss that admits that everything we care about in post-season hockey is kind of a sham anyway – which is what I threw out there as a spitball a month and a half ago.
It’s throwing a bone to teams that are just out of the playoff picture right now, and letting them into the party too, so long as none of the really bad teams come along. Except, in this format that involves 24 teams and a play-in round, divisional quirks put the 25th and 27th overall teams – the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks – into the post-season picture. Hey, if that happens, wouldn’t it be embarrassing if one of them were to win it all? What if they go on to win the lottery too, having their cake and eating it too? We can’t possibly have that!
No, seriously – at least that’s what Pierre Lebrun says is going on behind the scenes. “There were people on both the [Board of Governors] call and the [General Managers} call two weeks ago, who worried about a team winning the lottery, picking top five, and then making the playoffs when [the] season resumed [and] winning the cup, etc. There were [executives] who feared the optics of that“.
The NHL terrified of the fact that they might give the wrong 80 point team the chance to try their short-term puck luck against a 90 point team, is simply looking to include anyone who had a shot. To do that, they’re willing to bring in a 68 and 67 point team, but now have to appease a 62 and a… wow, okay, the Red Wings are bad. Anyway, it’s because they want to include Tier 1 longshots, but they don’t want two consecutive layers of embarrassment if a Tier 2 longshot gets both glory and riches?
I don’t know about you, but the idea of a team having a poor season, the world literally going on pause, coming back, getting their next “chosen one” player in the draft, and then rallying together to become the best team in the world (TM) sounds like the makings of a great movie, and about 600 years of marketing material. It would blow even the Blues and Golden Knights runs of the last two seasons seem conventional.
Why’s that? Because the odds of it happening are slim to none.
Using MoneyPuck’s current playoff odds and Tankathon’s current lottery odds, which both use the previously agreed-upon rules, the odds of one of these teams winning both the current Stanley Cup Playoffs and the current Draft Lottery are about a combined 1 in 125. The odds of the two biggest offenders of double-dipping winning are about 1 in 38000 using this formula. That’s probably unfair since the MoneyPuck model is factoring in odds of qualification, but even if you gave all 24 teams an even share an even 1 in 24 chance at winning the cup the odds of any team currently looking on the outside double-dipping are about 1 in 25, or 1 in 50 for the Buffalo/Anaheim duo.
In other words, the odds of this turning into a “Cinderella times two” story, which should be considered a fantastic outcome rather than an embarrassing one, range from highly unlikely to microscopic, but the NHL is still buying insurance on it by guaranteeing a 1st or 2nd overall pick to Detroit and at least two of the Top 4 picks to Ottawa, the two teams that would likely be the most frustrated if a team hit their miracle shot.
It feels like a situation where the league is trying its best to set up a controlled outcome based on paused standings – which isn’t a bad response to take – in tandem with not having the confidence to put its foot down on it, spinning back around to an extremely weighted lottery system that does its best to keep the standings still.
That similar theme – supporting the least team outrage-inducing pathway with a disguise of both laying down the law and giving somewhat of an opportunity to the teams to break past it. It allows the teams that missed their shot to squeak in, yet it keeps the ones who avoided their moment of decline. It says the bottom feeders don’t get a free pass, yet two of them, for no reason besides their rivals being worse, get to stay in. It’s punting potential gripes forward, claiming that 70 or so games aren’t enough to know which of these teams were truly ready for the playoffs.
Well, if 70 isn’t, how do we know 82 is? If 70 isn’t, why was 48 okay in 1995 and 2013? Why was 70 the standard for decades, and even less prior to that? Why is the NHL’s International Best-on-Best tournament okay with having playoffs after 3 games?
That’s all to say, it’s all kind of arbitrary when we cut these teams off, how many we cut off, how we slice them. It’s borderline random what happens when you start the bracket, and in the end, you never truly know what’s going to happen until its done, because the odds are always too close to have certainty. That is what we love about playoff hockey. It doesn’t have to be the same 16-team, 4×7 format – any of them will give us the same thrill of the unpredictable and rarely steerable.
But in this scenario, the league:
Incorrectly assumes that it at some point had total control of the flow and merit of playoff hockey
Makes up a story to pretend that it lost control to protect some of its friends
Ends up losing some control because a few unwelcome guests snuck in, and
Punishes the friends for the presence of the guests
It’s a terrible sequence of tradeoffs caused by an unforced error, and then further damaged when the league realized that the unforced error could actually turn out really cool. For me, if you’re altering the process, this needs to be a situation where you admit that the process is dumb but fun and just go all-in on it with your craziest dreams and ideas. Altering slightly to give the illusion of normalcy but accomplishing little to negative benefit is a backwards move.
Speaking of backwards moves, I’m mixed on the Date Change – and honestly, mixed is probably the best way I can describe any of these alternations, so good for them there. Something I outlined in my debate about when we’ll actually see hockey again is that a cancelled season would probably be the best outcome for the natural umbrella, as a delayed draft would be very challenging for deciding players’ Draft+1 plans and having them involved in training camps, as most of the rest of the hockey world will likely outright cancel.
I hadn’t considered the idea of running the draft at the scheduled time regardless of incomplete results, if the season were to resume. That part I like about this plan, while there are some weird logistics involved and this removes a big part of the trade market for playoff teams on Draft Day, is that it keeps the younger players on schedule, especially since they’re the ones who need clear paths the most.
Moving it a few weeks up, on the other hand, seems a little unnecessary and unhelpful for anything besides fast-tracking the first audience ratings injection since the pandemic. Scouts could use the extra time to prepare their rankings, especially now that more weight will be put on the viewings they got in before the pause button was hit. Teams will have to organize new plans for what assets they can and can’t give due to post-Deadline playoff eligibility. Obviously, they won’t be able to be in the same rooms as each other while breaking everything down either.
In a lot of ways, the postponement of the sport has been both a blessing and a curse to teams, in a way that I don’t think we can really put a date to. Moving the draft up is, once again, a move to feign control of the circumstances where control isn’t present, that minimizes outrage due to the dangling carrot of return viewership.
This all goes to say: I think what the NHL is doing here, from the 24-Team Playoff Proposal to the Lottery Format to the Draft Rescheduling, is trying to re-imagine new ways to feel like we’ve solved some unsolvable riddles – who the best team is and who is the most deserving of good fortune. These methods don’t seem to attempt to actually solve anything, though – they just project an effort while subtlety travelling on the path of least resistance. They don’t push any boundaries, and the best possible outcome within the new formats is a double worst-case-scenario gambit that the league, for some reason, is keen on avoiding.
None of it makes sense to me. Give me a chaos playoffs and a make the draft lottery a mascot Royal Rumble. Chop off the points percentages and give me the usual formats. Either outcome sounds great to me. An in-between outcome that’s a Jack of both the Chaos and Structure trades and a master of neither, on the other hand, doesn’t cut it.
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.
Within NHL circles, the buzz around the Entry Draft has hit its high gear a little early this year. Or a little late in some respects, depending on how you look at it. The postponement of the season due to the COVID-19 epidemic has pushed back the Draft Lottery, which would have typically happened 2-3 weeks ago, but several reports indicate that the Entry Draft might be the first league event that makes its return.
This, combined with the expectation of a revised lottery format that essentially guarantees a Top 2 pick to the Detroit Red Wings, and two Top 4 picks to the Ottawa Senators, has lit many conversational fires. Within that comes an explosion of talk about the players presumed to be at the top of the rankings, especially on social media, where Sudbury Wolves forward and presumptive second overall pick Quinton Byfield was briefly a Twitter trending topic in Canada. Within that, came a very fun question, that we’ll try to answer here.
It’s a crazy-sounding thought exercise, given the Toronto Maple Leafs’ aspirations to be contenders at this stage in their build. Marner has established himself as a high-end NHL star, so to trade him for an unknown is a tall order. Let’s evaluate the two sides of the coin.
The Argument Against The Trade
Given that Marner does not appear to actually be on the trade market in any way, and he is the boat to Byfield’s mystery box, I think it’s only fair to make the argument against the trade first.
The primary argument here is pretty simple, and it’s that Mitch Marner is really, really good at hockey. This is a thing that I feel like I specifically have to stress, given that most of the posts I’ve written about him on this website involve concerns about his contract negotiations last summer, and now we’re talking about trading him for a rookie.
This is more of a product of circumstance more than anything; previous writing venues have seen me speak more to Marner’s extremely high-end talent because, at the time, that was put into question. Last year, the climate was much different, and rather than a lack of confidence in the player’s abilities, there was too much confidence in the player’s abilities.
Trying to figure out the climate on Marner at this second is difficult; many fans feel burned by last year’s negotiations, while some forgave quickly. It’s hard to blame either side; Marner’s comparables all took much more team-friendly deals, but he once again put up the volume of production that you’d hope for from a player like him, tallying 67 points in 59 games before the season paused, which paces to only a one-point drop over the season prior.
Since debuting in 2016/17, Marner has put up the 21st-highest points-per-game total in the NHL – ninth among full-time wingers. Focusing on the last two seasons, Marner climbs to 12th on the list, and 6th among full-time wingers, behind only Nikita Kucherov, David Pastrnak, Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand, and Artemi Panarin. Hockey-Reference ranks him as 30th in point shares over the past two years, and Evolving-Hockey ranks him 23rd in Goals/Wins/Standing Points above Replacement in that time.
There’s no denying at this point that Marner is one of the best wingers in the NHL, particularly if you’re looking for point production, and especially if you’re looking for players who can be directly involved in scoring plays. While the arguments about where exactly he ranks in Toronto’s “big four” forward core remain one of the most obnoxious and least fun things about following this team, there is no denying that the team is better with him than without him and that a player like him would be very difficult to replace.
Even with Marner’s contract ultimately coming in at a decent chunk above market value (my “fair offer” to him in my salary projection article was about $1.8 million per year under what he actually got), his overpayment is not in the realm where I’d consider his presence a detriment. I’m a big believer in a development-heavy “Stars and Scrubs” model; in a game that is heavily driven on uncontrollable fortune, you want players who have the talent to break the mean, and can play big minutes when they’re hot.
Throughout hockey’s history, the key to winning in the playoffs has routinely been “good goaltending and a few hot sticks”, with the underlying process being beneficial but not game-breaking. It’s unfair and makes it so the best team doesn’t necessarily win in the postseason, but adds to the excitement level, and the best way to combat against that is to have players who can push back on the odds. Marner absolutely does that, and an extra $1.8 million on him is a lot better than paying $5 million for a $3 million player, which is a much more common method of cap mismanagement that Toronto will appear to be clear of at the end of this summer. Like the rest of Toronto’s stars (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and William Nylander), you would have hoped for more team-friendly deals given that other stars have conceded money for their teams, but you’d happily, unregretfully give those contracts up to sign the players in the open market.
This all goes to say that, with all the frustrations about contracts and people incorrectly thinking that he’s the second coming of Wayne Gretzky, Mitch Marner is the type of player that you’d like to keep on your contending roster if you’re pursuing a championship. There is no reason to want to trade him at this time. The offer would have to knock your socks off, and convince you that it gives you a better chance of winning. To me, exploring a Marner trade is not a case where you identify that you want to move him, and then negotiate the price, but rather one where the incoming pieces are established and he happens to be the price. You move him for a specific improvement, not just to move him, and it would be colossally dumb to say otherwise.
Some would argue that Byfield isn’t established enough to be a fitting incoming piece. Ultimately, he hasn’t played a single NHL game, and with that in mind, it’s hard to give too much certainty on what he is. High-end prospects are great to have in your system, but they aren’t sure things. Marner, on the other hand, has given you back to back 90-point-pace seasons, which might not mean as much as it did five years ago, but is still the mark of a superstar winger. It’s a hell of a sure thing for a contending team to give up.
With that said, I’m pretty confident about Quinton Byfield. I think he has all the makings of a player who can be just as good, if not better than Marner – a tall task, but one that there’s encouraging evidence for.
One great thing for this comparison is how similar their development paths have been leading into their draft years. Both players are suburban GTA products; Byfield from Newmarket, Marner from Markham. Both played their minor hockey in the GTA – Marner getting his early touches in the GTHL with the Vaughan Kings and Don Mills Flyers, Byfield getting his in the ETAHL with the York-Simcoe Express. Both were Affiliate Player call ups in the OJHL in their Minor Midget seasons (similar to ATO players in the AHL), though Marner’s look with St. Michaels involved being a semi-regular in a championship playoff run while Byfield played just one game for Newmarket in his AP call-up. Both were drafted into the OHL and played right away; fittingly, Byfield once again went Northbound to Sudbury, while Marner went southbound to London.
Combine this with the fact that they’re only five years apart, we can compare the two pretty directly. So let’s do that.
Byfield’s Minor Midget numbers are significantly better than Marner’s, though the ETAHL is a weaker league than the GTHL is, making it easier for stars to feast. CJ Turtoro just released a great new Network-Based NHL equivalency model two days ago, and his results suggested that an ETAHL point is worth roughly 70% of a GTHL point at the Minor Midget level. Balancing this out brings Byfield’s “GTHLe” to about 1.82 points per game – which still exceeds Marner by about 17%.
I wonder a little bit about usage context there, given that Byfield has had an adult build since his early teens, and Marner was a late bloomer in terms of physical stature. All the same, Marner led the Flyers in points by nearly double, so it would be safe to assume that he was getting all the minutes and opportunities that a player of his build normally wouldn’t. Therefore, I’m giving Byfield the edge here overall.
The AP call-ups are extremely difficult to compare given the sample sizes and the contexts of them, to the point where I’m presenting them but largely throwing them out the window. Byfield only played a single mid-season game for Newmarket, though it’s very impressive that a Minor Midget player would pick up points on 2 of Newmarket’s 3 goals in a game on the younger side of 15 years old. Marner’s call-up was much more significant, involving six regular-season games, 14 playoff games, and 3 provincial championship games on a contending team that historically doesn’t look to Minor Midget for APs.
Moving to the OHL is where this gets really interesting. Byfield has a slightly better rookie season, while Marner has the better draft year. Each has benefits going their way. Again, the 6’4 Byfield didn’t have as much to worry about physically, though the leap in talent level was probably more jarring to him than it would be for Marner, who had to play above his weight class for most of his youth. Marner benefits in his draft year from playing with a deeper roster, seeing lots of time with players like Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, and Victor Mete, who are all regular NHLers. Byfield’s support system, on the other hand, consists of over-agers who are have gone undrafted or been drafted very late.
A great example of that gap in support comes within their rookie seasons. Marner’s 0.93 pt/game effort ranked him 6th on the Knights in scoring, behind Domi, Chris Tierney, Bo Horvat, and the Rupert twins, and was ultimately 34 points from the top. Byfield’s 0.96 pt/game effort, on the other hand, led the Wolves in scoring by 7 points.
You can also look at the leads they’ve established in their sophomore/draft seasons to control for support. Marner scored 16% more than the second-highest point-getter on the Knights in his second year, while Byfield’s lead is by 12%. Interesting, though, is that Marner played in 93% of London’s games, to Byfield’s 71% of Sudbury’s.
One other control you can do here is to look at their total contribution to their team’s offence over the two-year span. Accounting for games missed, Marner contributed to about 32% of London’s goals when available, while Byfield projected to about 33% of Sudbury’s.
What we essentially get at here is that, from a productivity standpoint, Byfield matches up well with Marner’s minor and junior career arc and even comes out slightly more impressive in a few areas. He has an advantage in size but a disadvantage in support and age – both land in the “young” half for draft age, but as a late August birthday Byfield will be one of the youngest players in the entire draft this year. These numbers were the same ones that many of us used to project Marner’s superstar upside with reasonably strong confidence – the fact that Byfield can go toe-to-toe with him bodes very well for his odds.
The bust concern is the next one on the list. I don’t think that it’s unfair, though I will note that we do a pretty good job at evaluating the highest-end players in the draft these days. It’s less of a crapshoot than it’s ever been, and that’s especially true when it comes to forwards. Data informs the scouting process more than ever, and as it turns out, putting the puck in the net is pretty transferable, which had led to fewer crashes and burns when picking high-end forwards. The only definitive “misses” we’ve seen for forwards in the Top 5 in the 2010s are Nail Yakupov and Michael Dal Colle; the former coming with concerns about foot speed and compete level even before draft day, and the latter being a last-second riser due to a big playoff run in his draft year. Even players who looked like they were going to stumble at first have found new life after changes of scenery, such as Dylan Strome and Nino Niederreiter.
Forwards who have been pegged to be can’t-miss at an early age, something Byfield has to his credit, have by and large lived up to their expectations as well – even the ones who started slow. Sean Couturier fell from a sure-fire 1st overall pick to 7th in his draft year and has since grown into one of the best two-way talents in the league. Nathan MacKinnon initially looked like 1st was maybe a little high for him, and is now a Top-5 player on the planet. Not to appeal too hard to authority here, but when evaluating risk, a player who was identified early for their qualitative exceptionalism and matched it up with quantitative dominance in their youth career is probably a little more than a mystery box.
There is a pretty safe bet here that Byfield is going to be a superstar forward in this league, and his style of play matches up with the sort of developmental DNA that Toronto has applied to their program. He’s not a physical initiator, which has let people down given his build, but he isn’t scared of the boards or clustered areas and he is intelligent in terms of protecting the puck. He’s got great speed for his build, and has a level of hockey IQ that puts him in scoring position frequently and helps maintain puck possession. He’s not afraid to shoot and he has great reach. These are all elements that we’ve seen in one or both of Auston Matthews and John Tavares respectively, which makes a player like him feel a bit redundant, but they’re also the types of elements that you wouldn’t mind all 12 of your forwards having if you could.
Toronto believes in this enough that they’ve made repeated efforts to develop their lower-end, larger forward prospects to build their IQ and skating ability, in order to make them more likely to be professional successes. Byfield would be tantalizing in the sense that he already has all of the tools and traits that they would want, and the focus would be on developing his strength and intensity, which aren’t easy to do, but are less difficult than teaching someone like him to be as smooth with the puck.
This all sounds great but misses the inescapable point that, while can reasonably expect good odds that Byfield becomes as good or perhaps even better than Marner, you’re still punting backwards to an extent. Marner is, after all, five years older and has had an extra OHL season and four NHL seasons to develop.
The good news there is that I don’t think we’re truly talking about a five-year gap in development time here. Especially now that we know that most superstars hit their primes in that 22-25 range, it’s likely that you can rush the clock a bit on impact players like these two. The Leafs didn’t rush the clock on Marner, however – they sent him back to avoid putting him through what was expected to be a tank year, and he was largely used as a sheltered minute, low-defensive responsibility forward for his first two NHL seasons, for better or worse. To me, it’s likely that Marner could have been used in the NHL sooner if Toronto wanted to do so, and that he could’ve been used for higher leverage minutes sooner as well.
With the team in a better position now, it’s likely that Byfield would come straight into the NHL, and probably get some reps on the wing to start off, with either Tavares or Matthews to both keep the top two lines as multi-threatening and give him someone to learn from. I wouldn’t be shocked if we were talking much closer to 1-2 years to close the gap here, rather than 4-5; and this likely still applies with most other organizations. Toronto took it slow with Marner and that made sense at the time, but it wasn’t a typical situation.
For that year or two, the gap would be tough to swallow, but where this is made back up is in the roster flexibility it provides. One would safely assume that Byfield would get a maximum entry-level contract for a North American, which comes in at a base AAV of $925,000, that could go up to $3,775,000 with Schedule A and B bonuses. This gives the Leafs a minimum of $7,118,000 in cap benefit for the next three seasons, with a maximum of $9,968,000 in annual benefit in the unlikely event that he is a complete dud in his entry-level deal. Realistically, it’s safe to bet on it being near or at that minimum number.
That’s a lot of money to work with, especially if Byfield is a star forward out of the gate as expected. It’s enough to make you an Alex Kerfoot or Andreas Johnsson trade away from being able to go big game hunting to get Alex Pietrangelo, who is locally developed, and expected to be leaving St. Louis to test the market. Or maybe you cover your bases on the wing and see what Taylor Hall is looking for. Or you look at the second rung of talents, such as keeping Tyson Barrie, or taking a run at someone like Torey Krug, Sami Vatanen, Justin Schultz, TJ Brodie or Chris Tanev; defensive additions who should leave you with some surplus to spare, or bolster the bottom half of the forward lineup with someone like Mikael Granlund. Maybe you save it to make sure that you can retain all of Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, and Frederik Andersen instead of having to play FMK with them or move even more salary out to keep them all?
Free agency is a risky game, and I wouldn’t want to give much term to the players that are on the second and third tiers of it, but the underlying point here is that there are many, many routes to flipping that surplus cap space into something that exceeds the short-term gap in talent that we’d expect to see between Byfield now and what the Leafs currently get out of Marner – particularly if they can parlay it into a big game hunt.
You also have to imagine that, if this is the sequence of events that leads to the acquisition of a talent like Byfield, you’re likely going to have better luck with his second contract than you did with Marner’s. There are lessons learned in controlling the message, and it’s unlikely that on a team where John Tavares is the captain and Auston Matthews is shaping up to be a perennial Rocket threat and potentially even an Art Ross & Hart Threat, that Byfield will be able to steal the show to the outside world – external pressures and message-shaping were Toronto’s biggest failures in negotiating with Marner, as they allowed for his camp to spend multiple years setting media and fan bars that escaped common sense. One would hope that Kyle Dubas and company have learned from that, and would be able to get a more team-friendly deal three years down the line with their new prodigy; especially when the most “overpaid” of the prodigies would be shipped out less than a year after explicitly chasing the payday (which, as said before, is 100% fair and his choice – but it is the choice he made).
So Do You Do It?
First and foremost – this trade isn’t going to happen. Let’s make that part perfectly clear – this isn’t a legitimate rumour, but rather a spitball on Twitter that I’ve decided to morph into a thought exercise. I don’t think Toronto is in a rush to trade Marner, and I don’t think whoever gets Byfield will be in a rush to trade him. The presumptive teams don’t really do many favours in this scenario either.
I feel like the Senators would philosophically prefer to develop their answer to the Leafs, though having a Leaf-killer come from the inside is a fun timeline. More importantly, they’re an internal budget team that’s not pulling in revenue in a pandemic, and I can’t imagine that $15 million US signing bonus that Marner gets on Day 1 of Year 2 of his contract is going to be intriguing to them; they could always wait until after that, but then risk seeing “Drafted By Ottawa” on the byline of a Toronto superstar’s info sheet – and given what we know about those in charge over there, I feel like they wouldn’t be too thrilled with that optically.
As for Detroit, they’re in no rush to accelerate the development cycle, meaning that Byfield being behind Marner in the process is something they’d prefer, not discourage. That’s if they’re even interested in Byfield at all – there’s a fair bit of gossip that they’re intrigued by the idea of picking Tim Stutzle instead if they don’t end up with the 1st overall pick (in which case, everyone is taking Alexis Lafreniere, who looks to be even better than Byfield).
What this is, more than anything, is a thought exercise to address what we know about player development, scouting, and roster management. This isn’t as simple as “which one is going to be better” – there are layers at play, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed exploring them with me. Given that you’ve survived 3600 words at this point, I assume you did, and I thank you for your patience.
All said, gun to my head, in a world where this trade is actually offered to me, I probably do it. It’s not one I’d do lightly, even with Marner’s contract not being optimal for the roster build, and even with high confidence in what Byfield will be. You have to spend a lot of time weighing whether the potential upside exceeds the potential downside. I ultimately think it does, and that we’re talking about an equally special if not more special player coming in within this scenario, and that the surplus in cap space can be very beneficial in this window of opportunity. But I also wouldn’t fault anyone who would say no.