Thursday Morning Leafs Roundtable (Off-Season Edition) – Realignment, Competitive Landscape & Outlook

Thursday Morning Leafs Roundtable (Off-Season Edition) – Realignment, Competitive Landscape & Outlook

It’s not often that a tectonic shift like realignment occurs in the NHL, but when it does the competitive landscape is bound to shift, with winners and losers emerging from the rubble. From a scheduling and time-zone perspective, Detroit, Columbus, Winnipeg and Dallas stand to benefit the most.  The new scheduling mandate will also ensure that fans in every city will get to watch every team play in their home building at least once, thereby allowing Coyotes fans to fill half the stadium to watch Sidney Crosby torch their team. All joking aside, this will be great for the game as the league’s stars like Stamkos, Tavares, and Giroux will get more exposure around the league, and I’m all for growing the popularity of the game we all love.

Of particular interest to Leafs fans is the renewal of the Detroit-Toronto rivalry, an Original Six tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of the league. I may be too young to remember the battles of days gone by, but I’m not too young to appreciate the wondrous skills of Datsyuk and Zetterberg.  I’m looking forward to the renewal of a storied rivalry and being able to one day tell me kids and grand kids about amazing playoff duels.  However, as I watched the Red Wings dominate the Blackhawks in Game 3, it made me wonder what their introduction into Division C would mean for the Leafs.

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Given that the top-3 teams in each division will make the playoffs, with the final two spots going to teams with the highest regular season point totals, the insertion of a perennial playoff contender in Detroit could make it more difficult for the Leafs to make the playoffs… or will it?

To answer this question, I thought we’d take a chapter out of free market capitalism, namely the effect of increased competition. Stay with me and I promise there won’t be any supply and demand, or utility functions. In a perfectly competitive environment, firms must compete for market share either through gains in operational efficiency, proprietary technology, economies of scale, or other competitive advantages. ($800 if you asked: who is Michael Porter?) In other words, competitive forces should drive firms to improve, or face the prospects of being blown away by the perennial gales of creative destruction.

Now, if we apply this same framework to the NHL, what the Leafs face is an entrant into their division that is intent on eating their lunch, and Detroit happens to be pretty good at it, too. The Leafs have two choices, either adapt to this increased exposure to Detroit or perhaps miss the playoffs for the ninth time in the past 10 years.  A quick look at current rosters may indicate that the Leafs will have a hard time repeating their performance from this past season. However, it’s hard to gauge the competitive outlook without looking at what’s coming through the prospect pipeline and the relative resource advantages/disadvantages within the division.

In the end, what does realignment and Detroit’s insertion into Division C do to/for the Leafs? Here’s what our roundtable fellows had to say.

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Judging from current rosters, are the Leafs more, or less, competitive, post realignment?

“That’s a tough question because the Leafs are in a state of wanting to start pushing to compete now.  They got the taste of playoffs, their core is a year older, and younger bodies are beginning to enter the pro-level. I would say that the Leafs are much more competitive now that they have Tampa Bay and Florida as part of their new divisional opponents.  Tampa Bay and Florida are in a state of rebuilding and their long-term projections don’t really suggest a competitive edge for the foreseeable future.  In Tampa, the core has questionable goaltending, one franchise player up front (two forwards are in the tail end of their 30s), and their defensive core has one stalwart.  Florida on the other hand has core youth down the middle, in net, and on their defense.” -(@mORRganRielly)

“It seems obvious, but I’m going to take the cop out answer and say that they are in about the same position. The Sabres aren’t doing anything next year, the same can likely be said for Florida, and Tampa but they have some nice building blocks that make me worry about all three of these teams in a couple years. Boston might decline a little next season, but they’ll still be near the top of the division, and then it’s a dog fight between Ottawa, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto. It’s a tough fight to get to 4th, but it’s doable.” -Jon Steitzer (@YakovMironov)

“Realignment is going to make the task of making the playoffs a lot harder for the Leafs next season.  A lot of the underlying numbers suggest that the Leafs team as constructed would have been hard pressed to make the playoffs in an 82-game season.  Adding Detroit into the mix, despite their aging roster, makes the climb a lot tougher.  Their addition leads me to believe that the Leafs will be the fourth best team in the division next season, behind the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and the Wings.  However, with the potential to play 18 games against the Habs (who punched well above their weight class only to be bounced by the Sens), Sabres, Panthers and Lightning, this Leafs team should – at-worst – remain a challenger for a Wildcard playoff berth.” -Michael Stephens (@MLHS_Mike)

“I think the parity in Toronto’s new division is perhaps slightly increased, but overall, ‘competitiveness’ (I think) tends to be better evaluated based on an individual team’s strengths and weaknesses rather than those of the ones around them. The Leafs are young team, partway through a rebuild, and well-positioned for the future. Some glaring holes, but I think they’ll become increasingly more ‘competitive’ as time rolls on.” -Matt Mistele (@TOTruculent)

Factor in prospect pipelines, does that change the Leafs’ outlook?

“Absolutely. The Sabres, Panthers, and Lightning will all be drafting high, and all already have some worthwhile youth to start with. I was beginning to the think Boston might suffer after dealing with the cap coming down, but their AHL pipeline looks like it has the depth they need to sustain success. Montreal is tapped out prospect wise, but Ottawa’s development program seems to be the envy of the league and could create problems for the Leafs in the future. Detroit also has a sound philosophy of not rushing their prospects, and has a strong base of serviceable players in Grand Rapids along with a few interesting prospects. Comparatively the Leafs have Rielly to add as a high end prospect before becoming very vanilla through the rest of the prospect list. Most AHL call ups are serviceable thanks to Dallas Eakins, but the number of difference makers is lower than almost any team in the division.” -Jon

“No. Prospect pipelines are just that – a potential resource. That’s the one thing other teams can’t affect – it’s entirely up to you, and it’s an entirely controllable commodity. Some luck is involved, but ultimately, diligent scouting and thorough draft prep can provide a decided advantage. The Leafs control their own fate when it comes to prospect development, and so long as the Canucks don’t steal our beloved Eakins, we can continue to mine that area for strength. Trending up.” -Matt

“In the short term (the next 2-3 seasons), the Buds should have a significant competitive advantage.  After years of ineptitude the Leafs have an abundance of near-ready talent in Joe Colborne, Jerry D’Amigo, Jesse Blacker and crown-jewel Morgan Rielly.  Add in 2011 first rounder, Stuart Percy, and the Leafs have an outright embarrassment of defensive talent in the system.  Eventually, the Leafs will have to trade some of the defenders I mentioned, and will probably be able to leverage great forward prospects or second-round picks (the currency of NHL trades) to keep the pipeline stocked and ordered for the foreseeable future.  However with the Panthers and Lightning drafting second and third overall (respectively), and both possessing a solid forward corps, this won’t be the case long-term.  The thought of Nathan MacKinnon setting up Jonathan Huberdeau, or Jonathan Drouin featuring on a line with Steven Stamkos will be downright terrifying 3+ years down the road.” -Michael

“Not really. The Leafs have a collection of some of the best scouts in the league.  The amateur scouting department has done an admirable job of locating and isolating their needs and targets.  David Morrison is one of the best in the business and will continue to unravel gems.  I recently did a check on Morrison’s work since becoming the Leafs’ Director of Amateur scouting and found that since 2006 15 players are suiting up for their first or second playoff run with the Marlies and 11 have already taken regular shifts with the pro club.  Those numbers are encouraging.” -(@mORRganRielly)

Consider each team’s cap flexibility and ability to spend, what is your verdict?

“At the outset, cash/cap concerns would make you believe the Billion-Dollar Leafs have the best footing of the eight teams in the division, but I question how much of an advantage it will breed past the next season.  First off, with the inclusion of the Wings, Division C will have four of the wealthiest six teams in the league, and stands to be the biggest source of hockey related revenue.  All three of the Wings, Panthers and Lightning stand to benefit most from this aspect of realignment, as revenues are bound to increase drastically with increased exposure to some of the top media and hockey markets in the Eastern Conference.  This was an incredibly prudent move on the part of the NHL to keep the sport of hockey alive in the American south. But with financial stability (not to mention a criminally advantageous tax bracket for athletes), the Florida-based clubs will be better able to retain and attract talented players.  And my how Leaf fans will hate that in three years.  The Leafs will also have to contend with the decreasing cap while signing young talents like Kadri and Franson to longer term, bigger money deals while trying to add additional pieces.  That will come as no easy feat, no matter MLSE’s account balance.” -Michael

“In the very short term Boston, Tampa and Montreal look to be screwed which is nice. Buffalo isn’t a concern since they are likely looking to “be bad for Ekblad” or “shart for Reinhart”, Florida has no interest in spending money so the cap doesn’t matter. Detroit is certainly interesting since they have a few dollars and aren’t shy about spending money, it’s just a matter of if players still think it’s worth their while to sign long term with an aging Red Wings team. The team that could really make a mark this summer is Ottawa. More money to burn than the Leafs, fewer roster spots to fill. The fact that Bryan Murray is a very good GM also bodes well for them in this situation, and this could be the year Ottawa takes the steps necessary to become perennial contenders.” -Jon

“The Leafs are the beneficiaries of the lockout.  Not only did they do a terrific job in avoiding cap-circumventing deals, they have minimized their overpayments to short-term deals.  Grabovski’s contract notwithstanding, the Leafs should be able to clear roughly $18,000,000 of space in the off-season, not including potential buyouts of Michael Komisarek and John-Michaels Liles.  In short, with Kessel, Kadri, Phaneuf, Reimer, and potential Gardiner to re-sign, the Leafs are in a very good position to protect their assets.   Coincidentally, Anthony Petriello and I were discussing this very question recently.  He was convinced that the conditional pick acquired in the Beauchemin for Lupul and Gardiner trade was, in fact, a fourth round pick.  After some digging, I found that had Lupul busted, the Leafs would have been on the hook for $5.61M over four years to buy out Lupul’s last two years.  In other words, the Leafs risked $5.61 of their cap-dollars to purchase Gardiner’s rights.  In hindsight, it was a great deal for both teams, but a creative way of the Leafs exercising their financial muscles to take chances and to rebuild their pipeline.  I think it’s best to view the Leafs’ cap flexibility individual from other teams because they have so much financial clout, they could probably buy out 28 of the league’s 30 teams.  Take that, NHL.” -(@mORRganRielly)

“The Leafs are uniquely positioned, for now, in terms of cap management. They’re staring down the barrel at a wealth of flexibility, but with big re-signs in Kessel and Phaneuf plus high profile secondary contracts about to be awarded to Franson, Kadri, etc, that space will disappear quicker than we might be ready for. Will be interesting to see how Nonis manages those numbers in the next few years.” -Matt

Will increased quality of competition, namely Detroit, breed greater efficiency of specialization in the Leafs?

“It will certainly be interesting to see how the Leafs respond to a possession team like the Red Wings.  I suspect that players like Jay McClement, Nikolai Kulemin, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson will see their ice time increase.  Their ability to play away from the puck will become downright crucial to keeping pace with the high flying Wings.” -Michael

“Yes. There might be an initial step backwards next year, but playing against Detroit regularly offers a different philosophy into the division which seems to be based around out slugging the Bruins. I think the Leafs will quickly adapt to the fact that Tampa, Detroit, Ottawa and to a lesser extent Montreal are all utilizing more of skating, skill game and that it’s time to divorce ourselves from a goon fourth line and instead infuse some level of skilled toughness into each line.” -Jon

“The Leafs just need what all rebuilding teams need – to improve in all areas. Specializing may be the key to beating certain teams, but a true contender needs to be the entire package. Toronto needs to solidify their defense with reliability in key roles, legitimize their front-line-centre situation with a legitimate stud, and continue to add valuable secondary pieces that can handle the grunt work. Rebuilds are thorough, and this one is ongoing.” -Matt

“Detroit is a much tougher and more battle hardened opponent.  Their core is still effective and reliable.  However, their core forwards are ageing and may start to fade.  Datsyuk is 34, Zetterberg is 33.  Their defensive stalwart in Kronwall is 32.  They may have some productive years left, but having to face fresher legs and up-and-comers in their division may prove to be a daunting task over 82 games.” -(@mORRganRielly)

What do the Leafs need to do differently under this new landscape to improve their playoff chances?

“I might be a broken record about this, but getting horribly out shot is not a good thing, and that’s probably something they need to fix in order to improve their playoff chances. Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Stamkos, and St. Louis are some of the players who are going to get their opportunity to fire off a dozen or so shots a night on Reimer next season, that’s basically gifting them each a goal a night. It’s probably a good time to find someone capable of lightening the load for Phaneuf so he doesn’t have to go it alone against top offensive players. ” -Jon

“Address the key areas I mentioned above, and continue to take advantage of one often-overlooked factor: parity in this league is at an all-time high, which means there’s a night-in, night-out premium placed on effort. After this year, they’ve proven – even as an objectively inferior team – that they can stand toe-to-toe with the Pittsburghs and the Bostons. They should be proud of that, but it should also teach them that that kind of consistent effort is what’s required. If they want to improve their playoff chances, they’ll continue building to a point where they can sustain that competitive success.” -Matt

“Close out games, especially against the Bolts and Cats.  With the wild card for the seventh and eighth seeds based off of total number of points, the Leafs can ill-afford to leave any points on the table.  The biggest area for improvement would be to find shoot out aces (Jussi Joikinen comes to mind), as Tyler Bozak was the only Leaf to tally a goal in the skills competition this season.  This becomes particularly concerning, as Reimer – despite his divine abilities – is far too human in the shootout.” -Michael

“I would take a harder look at advanced statistics to understand the shift towards micro-data analysis.  As many of you know, I’m not a proponent of the current state of advanced statistics.  Not only do advanced stats ignore systems, experience, and concepts, they blatantly ignore team weaknesses, talent level, and strengths.  A good example of the issues faced in advanced stats would be the Leafs’ so-called remarkable run of ‘luck’ defying the concepts of PDO (on-ice save percentage + shooting percentage) and CORSI.  A lot of the issues were due to the coaching staff’s system protecting the defense’s weaknesses – which would be acceleration, mobility, low-end skills.  Shots were going to be given up – frequently.  What worked is how they used the goaltender to block the shots they willingly gave up, while limiting the high percentage shots against.  In other words, they gave up lanes, but also tried to shut down the lanes they were directed to – had the Leafs played a full 82 game season, they would have reduced even-strength shots against within 20 feet of the net by almost 100.  In today’s game, that’s a monumental reduction.  The above should change over time as the Leafs acquire more experience, more talent, more familiarity, more battle-readiness.” -(@mORRganRielly)

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A graduate student at Columbia University, Aaron is defined by a love of nature, an intense interest in finance, and a passion for the Blue & White. Toronto born and raised, earliest Leaf memories include emulating Joe Bowen calls and carpet mini-stick during HNIC. Former D1 NCAA Tennis player. Aaron can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mapleleafmuse.

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