"We've had seven years of incredible competitive balance; 29 clubs have made the playoffs [and] we've had seven different Stanley Cup champions." -Gary Bettman
Those words, from the Commissioner of the NHL, stung like a bullet to the chest of Leafs Nation. That's right, during the duration of the last CBA, the Leafs could reasonably be considered the least successful NHL franchise.
With a new CBA in the works, Darren and I decided we'd work together to figure out exactly what led to the Leafs' ineptitude during the course of the old CBA and whether the current team is any better positioned to take advantage of the one that will take its place. What lessons, if any, has the team learned from the mistakes of its past? This is the question, above all others, that we sought to address.
So grab a cup of coffee and a box of tissue with which to wipe your eyes (the tissue, not the box), and settle in. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
To put it bluntly, in 2003-04, the Toronto Maple Leafs were old. At 38, best bets would have said that Ed Belfour's best years were behind him; likewise with 37 year olds Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts. Add to that group Mogilny (34), Sundin (32), the tough miles on Owen Nolan (31), and deadline acquisitions Ron Francis (40) and Brian Leetch (35), and it was fairly clear that the pre-lockout Leafs would need to start leaning on the new guard.
Alex Steen (19), Matt Stajan (20), Carlo Colaiacovo (21), Ponikarovsky (23), and Antropov (23) would need to take a serious step forward in their development to fill the void in production left by aging or departing players. There was some degree of optimism at the time but in the new NHL where efficient contracts from young players would prove to be the best way to compete, the production of this group was never good enough to push a Leafs team led by a still reliable Sundin into the playoffs.
Heading into this lockout, the distribution of age assets is much better. Our consensus best player, Phil Kessel, is about to turn 25 years old while a group of promising players including Kulemin (25), Gunnarsson (25), James Van Riemsdyk (22), Kadri (21), Gardiner (21) are just entering their prime years. Even our veterans still have plenty of prime seasons left. Dion Phaneuf (26), Joffrey Lupul (28), and Mikhail Grabovski (28), should be able to play at their current levels for a few seasons before age starts taking a toll on their game.
All of this is without taking into account the potential impact of Morgan Rielly, a talented young defenseman who will likely have an impact on the team during his ELC. As the Leafs head into this lockout, there's reason to believe that they're a team on the upswing, rather than the downturn.
Heading into the 2004 lockout, the Leafs goaltending consisted of an aging Ed Belfour and a percolating Mikael Tellqvist. Despite his advancing age Belfour put together back-to-back stellar seasons for the Leafs. Finishing in 2002-03 with a goals against average of 2.26 and save percentage of .922; following up those numbers with an equally impressive 2.13 and .918 in 2003-04.
Even with his proven performance on the ice, the goaltending situation was murky heading into the lockout. Belfour, having just turned 39 in April, was no doubt nearing the end of his career and there was no clear succession plan in place.
Mikael Tellqvist was selected 70th overall by the Leafs in the 2000 entry draft. Leading up to the lockout he spent most of his time playing out of St.Johns in the AHL. He would see a total of 14 starts between 2002-2004 in the NHL. There was speculation that Tellqvist could eventually grow into the starting role; however, mixed results and sporadic play in the minors would temper fan expectations.
As fans brace themselves for the possibility of lost games, the uncertainty between the pipes during this lockout period is equally strong though for different reasons. James Reimer, 24, and Ben Scrivens, 26, form a tandem that is largely unproven -- the two have combined for a total of 83 starts at the NHL level. That said, there are some reasons for optimism surrounding the potential of both 'tenders. Reimer performed well in the stretch run of 2010-11 (20-10-5) when he brought the Leafs to the brink of a playoff berth. A wayward elbow from Canadiens forward Brian Gionta de-railed James' season last year, leaving more questions than answers concerning his future. Conversely, Scrivens' remains largely unproven at the pro level, but he did win the AHL's Harry Hap award last season, given to the goalie with the lowest goals against average (a minimum of 25 games). We’ve looked at a goalie's ability to carry forward elite numbers from the AHL to the NHL here.
Overall, heading into both lockouts the Leafs were faced with uncertainty between the goal posts. As we know, Belfour’s strong play preceding the lockout in 2004 was tarnished by abysmal numbers when the league resumed, playing only 49 games and finishing with a GAA of 3.29 and a save percentage of .892. In the offseason his contract was not renewed by John Ferguson Jr. Tellqvist would go on to start 25 games for the Leafs in 2005-06 before eventually being traded to Phoenix in exchange for forward Tyson Nash and a 4th round pick. Neither Reimer nor Scrivens have a proven track record, forcing fans to take solace in the promise of unrealized potential.
In addition to revamping the business of the NHL, there was an attempt to remodel the on-ice product to bring an end to the dead puck era.
For the uninitiated the dead puck era refers to the period between 1994 and 2004 when NHL scoring declined steadily (hitting a 50 year low of 5.14 goals per game in 2003-04). A number of factors played a part in the decline, including goalie equipment size, defensive coaching strategies (the trap), and loosened officiating standards, to name a few.
The NHL’s Rules Committee took action, as a number of changes were implemented once play resumed; a crack down on open-ice obstruction, streamlined goalie equipment, and removal of the red line.
This is where Leaf management is sometimes criticized for their decisions coming out of the lockout, where it would seem they underestimated the impact of the rule changes to the league's style of play. Where in the past a slower moving cycle game had dominated teams strategies, the ‘new’ NHL allowed smaller, more skilled, and speedy teams to take advantage of increased space on the ice and ballooning power play opportunities.
In free agency the team made significant additions, including signing veterans Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, and Jeff O'Neill. The Lindros contract was for 1 year at $1.55 million. When one considers talent he possessed, even with the obvious injury concerns, it’s difficult to call this a bad signings. He would start his Leaf career with a scorching 7 goals in 8 games, but ultimately spend most of the season hampered by a wrist injury that limited his Leaf career to 33 games.
Jeff O’Neill was traded to the Leafs for a conditional draft pick in the 2006 draft. He enjoyed mixed success during a 2 year stint on the team, but never regained the form of his early years in Carolina. Jason Allison signed a 1 year at 1.5 million, putting together a steady season of 60 points in 66 games. He would not return to the team the following season, retiring ‘unofficially’ from hockey. Despite the strong statistics, Allison became a poster boy for the old style of NHL. Watching him lug the puck down the ice could at times be painful for fans, begging the obvious question of why does he have cement in his skates?
The current lockout will likely not involve any major shifts in the NHL rules or style of play. There are some rumblings of a renewed focus on obstruction and of course the ongoing battle to limit head injuries and concussions. With the addition of JVR the Leafs' roster appears to be a more balanced one. Possessing a number of skilled, finesse forwards, while also mixing in some bigger bodies like Lupul and Van Reimsdyk.
Looking back at the team that emerged from the 2004 lockout it seems the biggest issue was the lack of long term plan. Signings like Lindros, Allison, and O’Neil represented aging veterans who weren’t capable of sustaining the team over multiple seasons. Sundin’s game continued to produce at his usual elite level, but it became painfully evident that players like Matt Stajan and Alex Ponikarovsky were not going to carry the team in the new NHL.
In 2004 the team was built around the consistent production of captain Mats Sundin. In 2003-04 Mats finished 13th in league scoring with 75 points. At the age of 33, Sundin was still playing at very high level and would go on to have 3 very successful seasons between 2005 and 2008 as the centerpiece of the team. Team management was often berated for failing to surround Sundin with secondary offensive players to round out the team's forwards. The post lockout team was forced to rely heavily on the likes of Alex Steen, Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood and Alex Ponikarovsky. None of which would have sustained success as a top 6 forward in the years to come.
One of the bright spots on the 2004 team was the defensive corps, led by Brian McCabe and Tomas Kaberle. Heading into the lockout McCabe was coming off of a 16 goal 53 point campaign in which he and Kaberle had established themselves as an elite offensive pairing. Criticism of the two centered more on their defensive zone coverage, where neither player would ever truly excel.
Turning to the 2012 roster we see a core group of players that has the potential to provide a more stable and long term foundation than their 2004 counterparts. While there is certainly no center of Sundin's calibre on the current roster, there is a deeper pool of young players around which to build the team over the next 3 to 5 years. The Leafs have group of players in Kessel, JVR, Grabovski, and Phaneuf that are all under the age of 28. Supporting them is a talented group of youngsters led by Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly.
The most obvious difference between the young players in 2004 and 2012 is the staggering separation in draft pedigree. In 2004 it was believed that players like Stajan (57th 2002), Steen (24th 2002), Ponikarovsky (87th 1998), and Antropov (10th1998) had a chance to carry the team through to the next generation. A look at the current roster shows a group comprised of many high first round draft choices: Kessel 6th in 2006, JVR 2nd in 2007, Phaneuf 9th in 2003, Kadri 7th in 2009, and Rielly 5th in 2012. Being a high draft pick by no means guarantees success, but the Leafs mix of proven players and youth with high ceilings gives one more hope for future stability than the group entering the 2004 lockout.
In the 2005-06 season, with a cap of $39M the highest paid player on the Leafs was Mats Sundin who earned an astonishing $6.84M per season (17.5% of the cap). At today's $70M cap (which will presumably come down), the Leafs' highest paid player is Dion Phaneuf at $6.5M (9.3% of the cap). The 2005-06 roster was full of old players with middling contracts (in the $1.2 to $2.3M range) and Sundin's deal on its own was a serious strain on the Leafs' salary flexibility.
As far as today's team is concerned, flexibility may be the greatest asset Burke will have left us with. At today's cap levels, the Leafs look to have about $28M in cap space headed into next offseason and though that number will likely come down as the owners reduce the players' share of revenue, this number is likely to exceed the amount of disposable dollars that other big market teams will have to play with. There's a very real chance that next offseason the Leafs will be in a better position that any team in the NHL to add premium talent and it certainly looks as though there will be some available.
Consider first the number of contracts that were signed in the lead up to the expiration of the old CBA. Notice that the two most favoured saviours, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, were not extended during this period. While I'm not suggesting that these two intentionally didn't sign because they have their eyes set solely on Toronto, I do think that the fact that neither has an extension in-hand is telling. I would expect one, if not both, to hit unrestricted free agency next July.
Management Mis-Steps Relating To The New Landscape
As many teams prepared for what an NHL might look like after the 2004 labour stoppage, the Leafs were conducting business as usual; adding aging rentals Brian Leetch and Ron Francis with 1st, 2nd, and 4th round picks headed out. While it's tough to fault a team for taking a shot at a championship, these are the kinds of moves over time that lead to a depleted prospect system. This weak farm system combined with the importance of having cost-effective contracts in a cap system was a major handicap for the Leafs in the years immediately following the lockout.
Further stunting the team's ability to adapt was JFJ's well documented propensity for handing out no-trade clauses. By the time management and ownership realized that a re-build was the best way to proceed and had developed an appetite for such, they were unable to move any of their saleable assets for meaningful returns as each member of the team's veteran core refused to waive their no-trade clauses. With no movable assets and a thin crop of futures, the only way to add talent was through free agency which meant further overpayments and more inefficient contracts. You can see where we're going with this.
Burke's Leafs, for all of their failures, are a team with options; while there are bad contracts, they all expire either this offseason or the following offseason, no player earns a prohibitive salary, NMCs have been kept to a minimum and have almost always been limited in nature, contracts have been staggered to come off the books at intervals, and the system, while it may not be among the league's best, are not among the league's worst either.
Burke has also occasionally recognized --though begrudgingly-- when he's erred, and made moves to right the ship. Rather than continuing to try to force his head through the wall with tough but immobile defesemen, Burke has placed an emphasis on defensemen who can skate. This is also largely true with the forwards as the Leafs have a small but fast group, as the general feeling is that speed is more valuable than size in the new NHL.
Make no mistake, today's Maple Leafs have plenty of deficiencies but the way Leafs' management has conducted itself heading into this lockout will leave them the flexibility they need to improve the team on a go-forward basis.