I don’t think the Toronto Maple Leafs are a bad hockey team.
In fact, I’d even go a step further: they’re closer to winning a Stanley Cup than they are to missing the play-offs. They have a solid goaltender in Frederik Andersen, a Top-20 defender in Morgan Rielly, and some of the league’s very best skill up front in John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.
Don’t get me wrong, another early playoff exit for the Leafs nourishes me on a spiritual level. The tears of the Toronto fanbase will always quench the thirsts of those of us in Ottawa, and their roster is one that is full of glaring flaws. But in the interest of being fair, it’s important to give credit where it is due: the Leafs have drafted well, and they are still in a relatively good position to build a winning squad.
The Ottawa Senators, operating under a vastly different set of circumstances, are in the position of being able to learn a thing or two from their provincial rival. The Leafs have had great success in some areas and cataclysmic failures in others, both of which can serve as critical lessons for how the Sens should go about their rebuild.
The biggest positive for the Leafs is their forward core:
Toronto has built one of the more formidable forward groups in the NHL. The top half is loaded with skill, as Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander combined for 266 points in 260 games this season. Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman have proven to be highly-effective middle six wingers, despite the former taking somewhat of a step back this year. The bottom six is stocked with quality NHL depth, both younger like Ilya Mikheyev and Andreas Johnsson, and older veterans such as Kyle Clifford and Jason Spezza.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this group of forwards is that it’s been built mostly through drafting and development. Of their 12 main forwards, six were drafted by the organization, one was signed as an undrafted free agent, and another was signed after opting not to sign with their original draft team. That’s two thirds of their forward group, that have been developed internally.
As for the remaining four, the organization has shown a willingness to spend money in order to win coughs by signing John Tavares to a blockbuster deal. On top of that, they’ve shored up the bottom of the lineup, by acquiring key depth players like Spezza and Clifford.
Bottom line: the Leafs have found players with elite-level skills and top six forwards in the early rounds, as well as glue guys like Johansson and Engvall in the later rounds, and utilized trades and free agency to fill their requirements up and down the lineup. This is how you build a winning forward group: with a mix of youth, skill, experience, and steadiness. The Sens are on their way with a loaded prospect pool, but finding players who are at least comparable to the likes of Marner and Matthews with this year’s bevy of picks will be critical.
While the guys up front are Toronto’s bread and butter, the situation on the back end could most politely described as the area that needs improvement. Morgan Reilly is an upper-echelon defender, and Jake Muzzin has been a much-needed defensive-minded addition, but outside of them, Toronto doesn’t boast much at all. Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie both struggled this season, to say nothing of the play of Justin Holl and Martin Marincin - both of whom received contract extensions. Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are promising prospects, but the Leafs are in desperate need of quality middle-pairing options ASAP.
Ceci and Barrie will likely both come off the books this summer, but that will only free up a little over $7M in cap space before various contract extensions, both signed and likely-to-be-signed, kick in before the 2020-2021 campaign. To address their holes on the blueline, the Leafs will likely have to part with some of their key forward depth, rely on players on ELC’s that may not be ready for a full-time workload, or perhaps some combination of the two. Even then, their options are limited, at best.
This is where Pierre Dorion and Co. should be furiously taking notes. The Sens are in a similar position to the early days of Toronto’s rebuild. Thomas Chabot is an elite option on the blueline, but Ottawa is missing a top-level right-hander to compliment him and there’s a total lack of proven depth behind him. They have promising options in Christian Wolanin, Erik Brannstrom, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Lassi Thomson but they’ll likely have to address at least some of the blueline externally. Is Artem Zub a top-pairing defender? Time will tell, but that seems unlikely at this time.
The key for Ottawa will not just be adding to the defence group, but making sure they have enough money left to go around. This will mean avoiding handing out bad contracts, like the way Toronto did Nikita Zaitsev.
As for goaltending, Andersen is likely a good enough starter to backstop an improved Toronto team to a Cup, but their dire financial straits leave them without enough money for a backup netminder to lighten his load. As the league moves further towards more evenly shared goaltending responsibilities, the Senators are likely hoping that two of their prospects will develop enough to share the net. As of now, Marcus Hogberg and Joey Daccord appear to be the most likely candidates.
All this is to say that there are things that the Leafs have done well, and things that they haven’t. Ottawa, being at a different stage from them, is in a position to try and emulate their successes, while avoiding their failures. If the Senators want to surpass Toronto, they need to continue their recent draft success, be willing to spend money at the right times, but also pay extra attention to the blueline — especially considering their competition in the Atlantic.
ELC’s and a bare bones payroll will help for now, but eventually the Sens will need to pony up in order to win. In doing so, it may be worthwhile to spend a little less on the forwards, and save some for their defenders, in the name of balance. We’re seeing more and more defensive-minded teams have success, and it seems that will be Ottawa’s area of focus as well.
The Leafs have succeeded in a lot of areas, and failed in others. Ottawa should play to their strengths, using a deep prospect pool, and try to emulate their firepower, while avoiding their defensive missteps.