Crafting a winning vintage

Crafting a winning vintage

Alec conducted a terrific interview with Marlies GM and VP of Hockey Operations, Dave Poulin, earlier this week.  While the article that touched on several great topics, Poulin raised the comment of acquiring ‘like-aged’ players to construct a winning team.  He stressed that to build a perennial winner everything must move like clockwork, from the crease womb out.

This quote from Alec’s interview jumped out at me:

“There’s so many different variables, besides the cap going down nine percent, that go into a final product of a hockey team. The timing has to be incredibly efficient on every single front of what I just described. You have to have a like-aged team; it’s no good for us to have a player who fits in good now but isn’t going to be available in three years from now or two years from now. You’re trying to grow a group of players.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this said about the Leafs roster.  Here’s what Poulin said to me about roster construction from the 2012 Maple Leafs Annual a little over a year ago:

“If you look at the top end of the age of the team, there’s a lot of balance.  You have to grow like-age players to be successful at the NHL level. People are stunned when I tell people that Phil Kessel is still just 24.  And he’s scored 30 goals four straight seasons.  So if you look at him as the median, and that’s probably a fair point to look up and down from, you want players around that age.”

 

It may not sound earthshattering, but basing the composition of the Leafs roster on players of a similar age, much of the team’s recent strategy can be gleaned.

Taking a quick look at the Leafs roster, Poulin’s comment about using Kessel as the franchise cornerstone for player acquisition appears to hold water.  Practically everyone on the team is between the ages of 22 and 30, falling within four years of the soon-to-be 26 year old Kessel.  The only outliers are graybeards John Michael Liles and Colton Orr in their early 30s and are usually maligned much more for their marginal value to the club than their age.

That tidbit becomes important given the Leafs cap crunch.  I can’t say for certain what the future holds for either player, but by the numbers they do appear to be the most expendable. It could mean that Orr, with his cap-friendly if debatable contract, could end up in the minors to make space for Carter Ashton or Jerry D’Amigo.  Both are closer in age to Kessel and should warrant a look on the fourth line this season.  It could also mean that Liles, could be bought out for being a relic from the previous regime with decreasing value.  It could be done to ensure that Cody Franson and Nazem Kadri can get re-signed and this team can retain some of its offensive dynamism.

It’s not without precedent.  Last season, Dave Nonis moved or demoted David Steckel, Mike Komisarek, Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly to make room for younger players closer to Kessel’s age range.  Kadri, Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin, Frazer McLaren, Mark Fraser and Mike Kostka all got to see ice time (for better or worse) in 2013 because of Nonis’ efforts to move old dead weight.  It’s looked at as a youth movement, but it was certainly a ‘like-age’ movement.  And it did help make the Leafs a playoff team last season.

But the age-specific roster also serves to explain some of Dave Nonis’ acquisitions in the past couple of months.  All of David Bolland, Jonathan Bernier and David Clarkson are of an age with Kessel, and have a lot of recent Cup Finals experience to varying degrees.  Bolland is 27 and twice a cup winner, having scored the series clincher for the Hawks just two months back.  In Clarkson, the Leafs are paying a premium in term to get a tough, former 30-goal scorer in the short term.  He’s someone with Cup experience that actually wanted to play here.  Bernier has more dubious honours as a Cup-winning backup, but he provides the Leafs with a highly regarded if contentious tandem in nets.  He also comes with a ceiling as high as any goaltender the Leafs have had… since James Reimer.

What the Leafs gave up to get them? It could be costly – but even if it is – it won’t be immediately costly anywhere outside of the salary cap.  In giving up Frattin, Scrivens, two second round picks and two fourth round picks, the Leafs either gave up on like-aged talent with minimal championship pedigree or distant futures.

Now, there’s nothing to say that Frattin won’t become a 20-goal scorer, or that the picks given up won’t become meaningful NHLers four years down the road.  But they won’t be meaningful contributors to the Leafs in the present, and that’s probably why they were shipped out.

In growing this like-aged team centred on Phil Kessel, the Leafs have indicated that they’re looking to win now.  The Leafs brass are hoping to develop into a Stanley Cup contender.  But MLSE sees their ‘cup window’ as about to open, with Kessel near or at his peak of ability right now.  The team has a mandate to ‘grow’ a winner, and have tried to do just that with an infusion of prime or near-prime talent with a winning pedigree to do it.

We’ll soon learn if an infusion of past success begets success.  But make no mistake: Nonis and Co. are banking on it.

LINKS:

An Inside Look at the Leafs’ Approach to Advanced Stats:
Pension Plan Puppets spoke with Chid Finds, who does all manner of statistical analysis for the Leafs.  Turns out that the team tracks scoring chances, who shows up first to practice AND wins.

Dave Bolland brings Stanley Cup to Mimico
Turned out this was a pretty big deal, because…

Leafs Twitter Says Dumb Thing
Jeffler won’t let the Leafs twitter off the hook, and good on him.

Can the Leafs afford a lame duck Kessel this coming season?
Looks like we’ll find out.

Do these Leafs look better than the old Leafs?
Ryan Fancey asks the million dollar question.

Why you don’t want your team’s goaltender to play in the Olympics
Turns out that that Reimer snub could be a good thing.