The Toronto Maple Leafs have put together a young, exciting, talented team.
Even though it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs and hyperbole is par for the course (perhaps even because of that) the special nature of what is happening with the team is possibly being overlooked. It’s almost as if we can’t believe it’s really happening so we don’t talk about it.
The Blackhawks are all-right. Everyone wants to compare the Leafs to them, but their three Cups are nothing compared to what the Leafs are set up to potentially accomplish.
For Leafs Fans born in the 70s and 80s, winning a Conference Final or having one of the NHL’s best five or so players is something we’ve never seen.
So being confronted by a best-possible situation is not even something a Leafs fan has in his or her repertoire of reactions to news of the team.
But the Leafs are positioned to be a powerhouse for years to come.
In fact, you could argue that no team in the post 2005 lock-out has ever put together a better template for winning than Brendan Shannahan’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
That includes the Blackhawks. The Leafs won’t be able to circumvent the cap and get a half-price Hossa and I still think they can do better.
Why be apologists who self conscientiously hope our team OK for once? The Leafs have the best set-up anyone’s ever had, so if the Hawks can win three Cups, then the Leafs should win four.
Best Set-Up Ever
1) Rookies and Assets:
The Leafs are blessed with three full years of the three best rookies ever to be on the same team. When teams draft multiple star players, they tend rush them straight to the NHL and stagger when they will be up for new deals.
The Leafs have a crazy advantage because all three of their prized rookies (Matthews, Nylander, Marner) are already first-line worthy players. This gives them money to use in other places.
Assuming the Leafs make the playoffs and that they improve their team over the summer, they’re going to pretty much be a contender starting next season. It’s also not impossible they win the Cup this year if they get a bit lucky, are healthy and go on a run.
As far as assets go, they have all their first-round picks, a few extra later round-picks, Brown, Hyman, Soshnikov, Carrick, Zaitsev, Timashov, Kapanen, Leipsec, Leivo, Bracco, Dermot, Nielson, Rychel, Griffith and more.
2) Current “Core”
All the cheap rookies would be worthless if the team didn’t already have a core of players currently in their primes who are good in their own right.
The Leafs got lucky to finish 30th last year because they have no business picking first-overall with a core of Gardiner, Rielly, Kadri, Komarov, Bozak and van Riemsdyk. A bad goalie and some injuries will do that to you.
This puts the Leafs in a unique position. The Penguins finished last when Crosby was a rookie. And they had Mario. The Leafs seem to have skipped that part. They don’t even have Mario.
Kadri and Gardiner have become two of the best players in the NHL. Kadri is having a 30 goal Selke-worthy season, while Gardiner hovers around top 10-15 in some WAR models for defenseman.
Andersen had a rough start. But now you could call him the team’s MVP.
Of this group, Bozak is the oldest at 31, but no one else is even 28. Which brings us to…
3) The Salary Cap
I would have laughed, if, a couple of years ago, when the I realized the Leafs sucked and had just signed three players they likely were never going to win with to seven-year deals, if you told me that withing two or three years, their strength would be their position against the Salary Cap.
But that does seem to be the case.
The Leafs currently have a three-year window (including this year) in which to win the Cup with team they can stack due to the ELC deals of their youth and the team-friendly contracts of virtually all of their other good players. There is no reason why, for the two seasons after this one, the Leafs can’ spend to the cap and have the NHL’s best roster.
After that window expires, the Leafs will have another much longer window in which to seek the four Cups that will need to out-dynasty the Blackhawks.
Kadri, Andersen and Rielly are signed long-term, to team-friendly contracts. (So are JVR and Gardiner, but those expire with or before the ELCs).
So, even if the Leafs pay a combined $30 million per season for Matthews, Nylander and Marner (which they won’t, but better to over-estimate) and they are going to be at $45 million with four forwards, a defenseman and a goalie all signed.
That is roughly what the Blackhawks and Penguins pay their top-six players. This season. The Cap will be higher. I’ve over estimated what Matthews and friends will cost.
The Toronto Maple Leafs can re-sign all their important players. And have lots of room to spare. Some teams have cap flexibility. Some teams have a good roster. Other teams have a bunch of good players in their prime. A few teams have one of the best players in the world.
The Leafs have it all.
If you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, don’t settle for just being happy that you were right all along about how good Kadri and Gardiner are. Or that the team has Matthews. Or that they will make the Playoffs.
Don’t set your sights on just one Cup.
Let’s get four.
Or five. Why not? The Leafs have two generations of good players at the same time, which combined with their other assets and Salary Cap flexibility give them the best long-term outlook any team has had since the Salary Cap era began.
They can be a dynasty.