In praise of Maple Leafs’ brilliant rebuild (Trending Topics)

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Toronto Maple Leafs' new head coach Mike Babcock laughs during an NHL hockey press conference in Toronto, Thursday, May 21, 2015. Babcock spent the last 10 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, where he won the Stanley Cup in 2008. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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A great way to rebuild in the NHL is to do two things: 1) Have the will to be bad for a while, and 2) Have a lot of money on hand 

The Toronto Maple Leafs have both.

This is now the second summer in a row in which the Leafs have mostly made smart, small moves that probably improve their team marginally in the short term, but will likely have benefits lasting far longer than the contracts will.

One must assume that this has a lot to do with assistant GM Kyle Dubas and new team president Brendan Shanahan entering the decision-making process last year, because the Leafs made just a handful of NHL unrestricted free agent signings ahead of the 2014-15 season. These included Stephane Robidas, Mike Santorelli, David Booth and Daniel Winnik were all brought aboard. And if you're thinking one of these things (Robidas) is not like the others, well, please keep in mind that Randy Carlyle was still running the show at that point. Santorelli and Robidas were the only two signed before Dubas came aboard.

The Leafs spent a lot of money to be a very bad team last season, but these deals were, mostly, not the reason for it. The Robidas contract is inexcusable — three years and $3 million per for a 37-year-old stay-at-home defenseman coming off a broken leg — and it's especially problematic because he only played 57 games last season, a number that is not likely to improve.

But the other three were all tidy bits of business: Santorelli got $1.5 million for one year, Booth $1.1 million for one year, and Winnik $1.3 million for one year. What's important to keep in mind here is that all three were something like advanced-stats darlings whom the traditional scoring numbers never really supported at having a ton of utility, and all of whom were probably going to be looking at show-me contracts anyway.

All three drove possession for their various teams pretty convincingly, albeit in limited roles, in the four seasons leading up to that summer, and had often been hampered by injuries. They likewise generated more scoring chances but fewer goals than their teammates, often owing to bad luck (all had PDOs well below 100). These players, then, basically had profiles that scream “value” and the prevailing inefficiency of the NHL free agency market at the time allowed the Leafs to exploit that value.

That's three apparently useful, proven NHL players for a combined $3.9 million, with no long-term cap commitment, who suffered bad luck (small fluctuations in percentages, represented by PDO, have a huge impact on goalscoring). They were betting relatively little that these players would prove to be useful NHLers, and all those bets paid off to one extent or another. Relatively to the numbers posted by teammates when they were off the ice, Winnik and Booth had positive possession numbers, Winnik drove scoring chances, and Winnik and Santorelli provided improvements in goalscoring. The value was very much there, and demonstrably so, even as the team spiraled into the shambling disaster the season became.

And all these things are important for what the Leafs plan next. Because the plan, probably all along, was to wait for the percentages to normalize, and see these positive-possession players become positive-goalscoring players as well, then spin them off when other GMs around the league notice, “Oh hey, this guy is posting pretty good numbers on a bad team.”

Toronto, in fact, might be uniquely positioned to take advantage of this kind of “sign a guy to showcase him” tactic because, hell, everything in hockey has to revolve around the Maple Leafs (including this column) even when they're downright awful and unwatchable.

Because by not being able to compete for a playoff spot, the Leafs were able to spin off some of these players for futures, which speeds up a rebuild considerably. They first traded Santorelli, along with Cody Franson, to Nashville for Olli Jokinen, a prospect, and a first-rounder. A week and a half later, they flipped Winnik to Pittsburgh for Zach Sill (whom they just let walk in free agency, and rightly so) as well as two picks, including a second-rounder for this coming draft. Then they traded Jokinen to St. Louis for a pick and a mediocre veteran on an expiring deal as well, though this was mostly just to get that contract off their books.

They couldn't do anything with David Booth because, as Booth so often does, he injured himself early in the season (missing 21 games with a broken foot) and never really got back on track even if his numbers were solid enough.

But two out of the three bargain deals worked out, and netted the Leafs a solid prospect and three picks. They also turned one of those first-round picks into three more picks (two in the second, one in the third) at the draft a few weeks ago. That's a very good return for the combined $2.8 million those two guys cost, and Toronto has no reason to care about the $1.1 million they paid Booth because, again, he was perfectly okay last season — just not enough so to garner trade interest — and the team is effectively made of money. Someone from that organization could burn $1.1 million next to the Phil Kessel Memorial Hot Dog Stand and no one would really care.

Now consider their wheelings and dealings so far this summer. The Leafs have only really made a small number of moves at the NHL level: They traded Phil Kessel, and also signed Matt Hunwick, PA Parenteau, Mark Arcobello, (hey whaddaya know!) their ol' buddy Dan Winnik, and Shawn Matthias. 

Moreover, all of them were signed to short-term, low-cost deals. The only one to get more than one year out of this was Winnik, who's a good soldier and you could say he “earned it,” but he still only got two. And the combined cap hit of these five players? Just $7.75 million, or an average of $1.55 million per. This is, again, chump change for any team to spend on five players, let alone the Leafs. Therefore, the likelihood that there's value on the deals, even if the players can't be moved, is going to be high.

This is what we in the “looking at numbers professionally” field call a pattern, to some extent. Obviously only three of these guys have PDOs below 100, but they were undervalued in the market anyhow because they're bottom-of-the-lineup players who no one is clamoring to sign for big money despite the fact that they mostly outplay their roles.

(Winnik's numbers took a beating because of the season of the Leafs, by the way.)

You'll also notice that Matthias is below-average in just about every category here, but data suggests that he was somewhat miscast as a center, and the move to the wing he took on last year has done wonders for him. The fact that the linked article is entitled “Shawn Matthias Just Scores Goals” is not in any way misleading; he was a dominant scorer as a wing for most of last season.

In addition to this, the pursuit of picks, prospects, and guys on movable and/or expiring deals was also evident in the Phil Kessel trade.

Did the Leafs get as much back as they probably should have? Most would say no, especially because they retained salary. But if you trade three players you don't want and a second-rounder for a first- and third-round pick, two prospects, and a useful player like Nick Spaling (whose contract is up after this season and pays him just $2.2 million against the cap), that isn't a bad return. Especially when you consider they might move Spaling for picks or prospects (or both) at the deadline this year.

This is such a clear organizational direction that, before the NHL amended its executive compensation rules, the Leafs had openly discussed scooping up as many Smart Hockey People as possible — because again, they have the money to do that sort of thing — and then selling them off to interested teams for the compensatory draft picks. Same idea, but now less likely to result in as many benefits as they might have liked.

There is an argument to be made that this kind of ruthless approach at filling out an NHL roster with guys you probably just intend to trade is going to lead to Toronto not being able to attract these types of players. And that's probably true moving forward, as more NHL teams smarten up about player value — a trend which has already emerged to some extent this summer, given how there haven't been a lot of UFA overpays — and see guys who drive possession but don't necessarily score a lot as still being useful and worth signing.

But for now, it's pretty smart for a team like the Leafs, years away from being legitimately competitive, to trade their financial resources for future on-ice resources.

The Leafs made nine picks in last year's draft, five of which were in the first 68. And most scouting people think they did quite well for themselves. They're going to get another kick at that can next June, because they have at least nine picks, and potentially as many as 11, right this second. That's before they trade any of these guys they almost certainly intend to trade.

When you draft 20 or more guys in two years, that significantly increases your odds of getting quality NHL talent out of it. Especially when you're planning on being bad anyway.

Again, this tactic probably won't work for Toronto much longer, but for right now, it's brilliant.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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