Looking Past the Deadline

In all the craziness of the deadline and trying to fix the Leafs in the short term for an inevitably short playoff run I thought I’d switch it back to the potential long term goals of the Leafs front office. I have tried to write a blog post a number of times looking at what a successful long term plan would look like for the Leafs. I thought I would apply some principles from Workforce Planning which seems infinitely relevant as I can’t think of think of any other field that treats people more like commodities than professional sports. The goals I’m attempting to accomplish are to make sure we have a sustainable supply and demand model, proper development of employees, succession planning, and putting people in the place where they can have the highest level of success all while balancing a labor budget.

If I was to look at what a productive sustainable workforce looks like in the NHL, I would say look no further than the Detroit Red Wings. They have a high retention rate of their essential personnel, they utilize their players in a manner that gives them consistent success, there pipeline of developing players are ready to step in to address issues like retirements, and have not lost players to the cap.

Certainly a situation like the looming Lidstrom retirement is still a blow to the team, and you are not going to replace him with another generational defenseman, though his departure gives you $6.2 million dollars to find another top flight player as well as Brendan Smith should be ready to step into the Red Wings lineup and contribute as a reliable defender while Kronwall, Stuart,White, Ericsson, and now Quincy can play roles of increased responsibility.

The Lidstrom Era…
# of Stanley Cups: 3
# of times in Cup Finals: 5
# of times missing playoffs: 0
Worst Finish in Division: 2nd
Best Regular Season Record: 62-13-7*
Worst Regular Season Record: 43-32-7*
*those would be ties not OTL or SOL

The Red Wings this season are in a situation where they are looked at as an employer of choice as well. They will attract the best candidates in Free Agency, players with no trade clauses will waive them to join their club.

Detroit has put together a system that works well for them. They have two high level scoring lines that can score at ease led by Datsyuk and Zetterberg, followed with a third line capable of contributing scoring while being defensively responsible. They have made sure to have a net presence on all of the top three lines divided up Bertuzzi, Holmstrom, Franzen and Cleary as needed. Again this is showing that there is sustainability to their model as each line is still represented with a net presence even after Holmstrom’s pending retirement, and arguably Abdelkader is the man in the pipeline to step into that role more regularly as well.

Defensively Detroit’s model seems to live and breathe by the success of Lidstrom and his departure will be a crushing blow. That said, they have the money to bring in Ryan Suter in 2012 or maybe Robyn Regehr in 2013. Neither one replaces Lidstrom (especially Regehr) but still makes sure there is a respectable top four with Stuart, Kronwall, and White. Then look at Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey, Mike Commodore, Jakub Kindl, and Brendan Smith and the bottom pairing is also well looked after and filled with players capable of stepping into roles of increased responsibility when injuries occur.

Finally before looping this back to the Leafs, and the main point of the post, is goaltending. Detroit goaltending always inspires debate, and I must say I’m in the group that views Jimmy Howard as nothing special and the beneficiary of a great system and a generational defender. That said, he’s an upgrade over Osgood who already proved that championship teams do not need anything more than a consistent competent goaltender. What Detroit has done right is they have brought up a goaltender who has been raised on their systems and knows how the game will be played in front of him.

So back to my original point about how to build a successful model around the Leafs. In a future post I will attempt to quantify this better with supporting numbers and forecasts and fancy charts. For now consider this just assumptions and environmental scanning.

The Leafs don’t need to build Detroit, but they do need to put together an achievable, sustainable model to avoid situations like the past seven years from occurring again. It is worth noting that key components of Detroits success: Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Kronwall, Holmstrom, Zetterberg, etc. all came up their organization.

Burke’s model for forwards has always been six top flight scorers and six more physically inclined defensive forwards, with some blending of physical play into the top six. His defense model focuses seemingly on a puck moving defender paired with a physical player. And of course goaltending has always been left seemingly to Francois Allaire to fix, but arguably Burke has been most successful when having an experienced veteran to do their thing and younger goalie, that Allaire has developed, challenging for playing time.

So what’s lacking from what Burke has had success with in the past? While in comparison to his cup winning team in Anaheim it’s likely that Kessel, Grabovski, and Lupul would make it into his top six, and further to that MacArthur, Bozak and Connolly actually help produce more offense than Burke’s Ducks had in their top six. The bottom six looks a little more stocked as Kulemin, Brown, Steckel, and Lombardi would all have likely had jobs there, and Joey Crabb certainly fits the role filled by Ryan Shannon on the 2006-7 Ducks. The one piece that seems to be missing from the bottom six is a player of Sammy Pahlsson’s ilk. Instead the Leafs have Colby Armstrong who seems to only exist to provide the occasional soundbyte.

Points Per Game ppg Points Per Game ppg
Selanne 1.15 Kessel 1.07
McDonald 0.95 Lupul 1.03
Kunitz 0.74 Grabovski 0.74
Getzlaf 0.71 Bozak 0.71
Penner 0.55 MacArthur 0.62
Perry 0.54 Connolly 0.56
Total Top Six Forwards 0.77 Total Top Six Forwards 0.80
Neidermayer 0.87 Phaneuf 0.57
Pronger 0.89 Liles 0.50
Total Top Pairing Defense 0.88 Top ppg Defensemen 0.54

On paper, and over time it certainly looks like the Leafs are a downgrade over the stacked top six on the Ducks, but that isn’t the case. And in comparing the two rosters it looks more as if Connolly, Lombardi, and MacArthur are stop gaps until he can replace them with the size and physical play he enjoyed with Getzlaf, Perry, Kunitz, and Penner. Presently though it does not seem like the top six of the Leafs should be the priority for the Leafs, but with Grabovski’s contract expiring this summer, and Connolly, MacArthur, Lupul, and Lombardi all scheduled for Unrestricted Free Agency after the 2012-13 season.

Now that’s not to say that the other pieces of the current Leafs roster are bad, but they certainly seem like a downgrade on a Ducks roster that was stacked with Selanne, McDonald, Kunitz, Penner, Getzlaf, and Perry in the top six. The Leafs bottom six could use someone of Sammy Pahlsson’s ilk.

Comparing the current Leafs to the Ducks does a good job of showing why Burke believes that top six forwards are such a priority, but honestly stop gaps like MacArthur and Connolly seem a lot more reasonable than the holes the Leafs have in other areas.

The bigger differences seem to be on defense. There is clearly no Pronger/Niedermayer pairing (not just looking at offensive production, obviously), though the Ducks defense certainly dropped off after that top pairing to a serviceable second unit followed by two guys you would be terrified to send out together:

O’Brien/DiPentia or Huskins

So assuming that Phaneuf is meant to be part of that Pronger/Niedermayer pairing it points to the need for another top flight defenseman (this means Ryan Suter) if the Leafs are serious about having an intimidating top pair, though offensive production from the point still will not come close to what Burke had in Anaheim, nor is it likely that he’ll ever find that again.

Gunnarsson is well on his way into his development into a Beauchemin clone and Jake Gardiner certainly seems to be an upgrade over Sean O’Donnell at any age but doesn’t really model the stay at home play that O’Donnell brings, but can kick in some of the missing offense. I get the feeling Burke wants this role to fall on Schenn, but he’s fallen back as the best option to replace the O’Brien role. That leaves Liles, Komisarek, Franson and Aulie rotating into that 6th spot. Again, with the addition of a guy like Suter the Leafs are again putting up a good defensive unit on paper. Ahhh paper defense, how I love thee.

Goaltending for the Leafs remains a mess and compared to the Stanley Cup winning Ducks it’s even more noticeable. Reimer and Gustavsson certainly don’t match up with a goaltending system that had three players who would be All-Stars at varying points in their careers. It amazes me that Burke overlooks this depth and seems more intent to recreate his Vancouver days goaltending situation in Toronto by giving mediocre goaltenders a shot for far longer than he should. Now that doesn’t mean a guy like Reimer should be tossed aside. He’s younger and capable of fighting for a start in the same fashion as Hiller or Bryzgalov, and with Scrivens and Owuya having promising moments in the AHL the pipeline isn’t too bad.

Much like every other position, what is lacking is the top flight option. While options like Jonathan Bernier, Jhonas Enroth, and Cory Schneider seem appealing, perhaps it’s time to look at more established options like the potential availability of guys like Cam Ward, Roberto Luongo, Jaroslav Halak or Jonas Hiller. At the very least signing UFA Tomas Vokoun this summer could add some stability to the position.

So the Burke model obviously has some holes in it, but at the same time the sustainability of the model is already well underway:

Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, and Greg McKegg all have the potential to fill vacancies in the top six nicely as they continue to develop. And when you look at the successful Detroit model it’s worth noting that there is no reason to rush these guys along. If they can step in at 24 and make a difference that’s a huge advantage of soft years played at 21. None are likely to be challenging for the Art Ross in their careers, but at least Colborne and Kadri look like sure fire NHLers.

Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs, Marcel Mueller ,and Matt Frattin all seem to be long term answers for giving the Leafs a bottom six that teams will hate playing against, and Frattin and Mueller don’t seem like they will be too far off. All four of these players could potentially kick in some point production as well, something that seems to have become more necessary since the Anaheim cup winning season.

Defensively Aulie and Holzer seem to be the defensive depth that teams require for cup runs, but neither likely climb into the top four, but that’s not to say they don’t add value. In a physical playoff series we might experience the true value a player like Aulie can bring to a team.

Longer term Stuart Percy is the jack of all trades defender along the lines of Beauchemin or Gunnarsson, Blacker seems to fit that bill as well with potentially more of an offensive upside. Both could be effective after becoming dominant the AHL level.

Finally in goal, at least there is competition. While Scrivens and Rynnas haven’t been bad, the real promise lies with Garrett Sparks and Mark Owuya who will have a longer development term in the Maple Leafs system than Scrivens or Rynnas. I’d argue that it should maybe taken one step further, and the Leafs should consider drafting Malcolm Subban, and attempt to draft a highly regarded goaltending prospect that could potentially be a long term answer after an assumed five year development window.

Ultimately the current state of the Leafs isn’t horrible. The team has a lot of the pieces it needs, succession planning seems to be in place as there are plenty of capable prospects in the system. They seem to be simultaneously in the model of the Ducks and the Red Wings. The Ducks for the roles they are looking to establish, and the Red Wings for making sure the team doesn’t fall apart after one deep playoff run.

The Detroit system of roster building has been in place and working since the 90s and have been the model of sustainability (perhaps coincidentally overlapping Nik Lidstrom’s career) and Burke’s model with the Ducks was much more reliant on a number of players all reaching their peaks at the same time.

While Getzlaf and Perry would continue their upswing, all of the other core forwards saw their production decline. On defense there was no suitable replacement for Scott Niedermayer when he retired, and the level of goaltending depth was unsustainable giving Giguere’s age and Bryzgalov’s desire for more playing time.
Presently the biggest challenges to the Leafs immediate success in building an immediately successful team seem to be led by labor cost. Via trade anything the Leafs need to add will likely deplete other resources. Any hope for a trade to improve the team seems to be led by the need for the other team to take on three lesser components in order for the Leafs to add one useful one. Of course these deals do come up from time to time, but it’s a fairly limited market.

Via Free Agency the Leafs could be in an equally tight position as they are already in deep $51 million dollars on the estimated cap of $68 million for next season. Re-signing Grabovski, Kulemin, and Franson will eat into that substantially with Gustavsson or another goaltender still required as well. This is not likely to leave much space to take a run at players like Ryan Suter or more frivolous purchases like Zach Parise, Ales Hemsky or Alexander Semin.

My suggestion at this point: Purge.

Defensemen like Franson, Liles, Schenn, and Komisarek on defense aren’t going to all fit long term on the blueline, though some depth should obviously be maintained. Liles is likely sticking around for now, after a surprisingly generous contract from Burke, but Schenn and Franson could bring in a pleasant return at the deadline or the draft. As well could create enough wiggle room to get serious about a player like Ryan Suter (or Plan B: Barrett Jackman) on July 1st. Of course Komisarek doesn’t hold too much value, but there is always hope for a buyout amnesty in the off season or a team looking for a defenseman with lower salary than his cap hit.

The forward situation is grim in comparison as Grabovski the most moveable player should be retained and other players like Connolly, Lombardi, and Armstrong will be challenging to move and may not fetch much in return. Perhaps Clarke MacArthur might fetch the best price, and if any of these players can be moved for picks or prospects it gives the Leafs a few more moveable assets in future deals and the cap space needed to consider a couple of smart upgrades. The downside to moving any offensively capable forward is the premium that would be put on any replacement found in free agency.

When looking at the key variables of the planning philosophy the Leafs are having varying levels of success.

The Supply/Demand Model: Resources are limited as more teams are resigning their key free agents, and those that do make it to market are looking for a term that Brian Burke is often unwilling to consider. Via trade the Leafs still lack the ability to make a move without draining their internal supply in another area. The best hope seems be moving young defensemen that there is clearly a market for and Toronto has plenty in stock at various development levels.

Development/Succession Planning: Certainly Dallas Eakins and a strong scouting department have given some hope that when the Leafs are successful they can maintain their success. NHL talent of various skill sets are coming up through the ranks. I’d certainly hope the Leafs more closely emulate the Red Wings approach here and keep the young talent in the AHL rather than leave holes in the roster for rookies to fill.

Putting People in the right place: when Keith Aulie guest stars on your top defensive pairing the best allocation of players certainly isn’t happening, and it seems like the blue line and penalty kill seem to be the most disorganized when it comes to personnel. Peppering the lineup with physical players seems like something that Wilson and Burke would like to accomplish, but there isn’t a physical option (other than Steckel) to put between Lupul and Kessel, though Kulemin continues to justify his role alongside Grabovski.

Keeping on Budget: At the moment it doesn’t look like the Leafs have much wiggle room to the cap down the line although they can find a temporary fix at the deadline without giving up a roster player. With new contracts pending for Grabovski, Franson, Kulemin, and an NHL caliber goaltender they would be presumably right to the current cap of 64.3 million dollars. Dropping players like Connolly, MacArthur, Komisarek, Armstrong, and Lombardi would free up some money, but first you have to find teams willing to take them. A rumored cap increase to the 68-69 million dollar range helps, but still doesn’t give the chance to chase impact players in free agency (which could also be a good thing.)

The obvious thing that has been overlooked in this the Leafs need to address their penalty killing issues in the very short, and longer term. Personally I have an admiration for the Detroit model that focuses on skilled players leading the charge, but Kessel and Lupul are not Datsyuk and Zetterberg, nor are Phaneuf and Gunnarsson comparable to Lidstrom and Kronwall. There is Burke’s bottom six approach, but Pahlsson, Moen, Marchant, and Rob Neidermayer and by comparision Kulemin, Lombardi, Steckel, and Brown could all fill those roles. Defensively there seem to be gaps at present as there isn’t that true penalty killing defenseman (a la Pronger, Kronwall, Stuart) on the Leafs. At a time it was to be Mike Komisarek, then Luke Schenn, but in fact Keith Aulie might be the best the Leafs have.

Penalty Killing On Ice Save %
Aulie 96.3%
Phaneuf 88.4%
Gardiner 85.9%
Gunnarsson 85.8%
Komisarek 84.6%
Schenn 80.6%
Liles 73.1%
Franson 50.0%
Numbers from BehindTheNet.ca

Penalty Killing is one of the many situational requirements that the team will need to examine over the spent building a successful team, but focusing on it can derail you from building the best team. In the past looking at a specialist player like Mike Komisarek who was brought in to help the Penalty Kill ended up giving the Leafs an unusable player during 5 on 5 with an inflated cap hit. His shot blocking abilities, and physical play in the corners did not help the team defensively and instead highlighted the bigger concern of getting to the puck first, clearing the zone safely, and applying pressure on the puck holder while not being pulled out of position.

short handed time on the ice that was to belong to Colby Armstrong seems to be have been reallocated to Joey Crabb, and like Komisarek begs the question why would you pay a premium for roles that can be filled by players with a modest skill set and a solid understanding of the system you want them to play?
In contrast, Tim Connolly was brought in to be the number one center and help the struggling powerplay and in comparison Tyler Bozak has shown much more impressive numbers filling both of those specific roles leaving Connolly to the third line where his abilities are not required. At the time despite injury concerns Connolly was a worthwhile asset to bring into the Leafs organization, but beyond depth (which already exists with Matthew Lombardi, and then Colborne and Kadri waiting on the Marlies) he does not provide value to the Leafs lineup.

Points Per Min of Powerplay Time
Clarke MacArthur 0.0881
Nikolai Kulemin 0.0865
Joffrey Lupul 0.0845
David Steckel 0.0816
Tyler Bozak 0.0706
Phil Kessel 0.0679
Mikhail Grabovski 0.0643
Tim Connolly 0.0513
Nazem Kadri 0.0310
Numbers from NHL.com

Looking at the Leafs at this point the safest assumption is that this is still not the team that Burke considers complete. There are still temporary fixes, large issues that need to be addressed (ahem, goals against.) There is nothing to say Burke thinks rebuilding the team that gave him the most success or building a model that has given Detroit sustained success is the best idea. If you look at the current roster of the Leafs it supports the assumption that the plan is an offensively aggressive team that acts the oppositions zone from every position, and goals against don’t matter as long as there are more goals for. Given that the last team to win a cup with that model was the ’92 Penguins I hope this not the case. 

1 comment:

alex c said...

well written! great discussion of the leafs head-to-head against the best managed team in the league. too bad the city of detroit isn't managed the same way as its hockey team!