The Toronto Maple Leafs are building something special.
Four seasons after drafting Steven Stamkos #1 overall, the Lightning finished 21st in the NHL standings. Four seasons after the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Auston Matthews #1 overall, they finished 12th in the NHL standings.
Had the Leafs won the Cup this year, they’d have been the youngest team to ever do so. Right now, they’re one of the top five youngest teams in the NHL. The negativity I see surrounding this team is not based in reality, and honestly it’s frustrating at times. Winning takes time, and losing builds character and experience.
It might not seem like it now, but eventually when the Toronto Maple Leafs do win the Stanley Cup, it will be partially because of the experienced they gained in losing in the first round four years in a row.
But I actually came here today to write about another ridiculous narrative. The one that says the Lightning won the Cup because they finally decided to add some grit to their roster. It’s one of the most flat-out wrong narratives I’ve ever seen, in a sport famous for its dumb narratives.
Tampa Bay, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Roster Building
First, let’s get a common misconception out of the way: Kyle Dubas and the Leafs are not interested in building a skill only hockey team. Under Kyle Dubas the Leafs have traded for Zach Hyman, Kyle Clifford and Jake Muzzin.
The fact is, NHL teams have created a market inefficiency by focusing on size too much, and by giving jobs and bad contracts to bad players who play a certain way. This gives smart teams a shot at talented players lower in the draft, and it makes players like Nick Shore, Kenny Agostino, Jason Spezza (the fourth line version) available constantly for free.
The Leafs aren’t avoiding “gritty” players, they just constantly get a lot of chances to add better players with underrated skillsets at lower costs.
Ironically, given recent narratives, the Toronto Maple Leafs bottom-six is extremely deep and that has been a hallmark of the team under Dubas and Shanahan. (The Leafs sat Nick Robertson and Rasmus Sandin in the final game of the playoffs. They had Andreas Johnsson on their third line, their fourth line of Spezza-Engvall-Clifford was probably the best fourth line in the NHL).
They didn’t trade Connor Brown, Matt Martin and Leo Komarov away because they hate grit, they did it because its not worth the money those players cost. It’s hard to find players who are both physically difficult to play against and good at hockey. (It’s lost on all the complainers that the money you save from replacing Martin and Komarov with cheap players is less than the total “overpayment” to Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews at no cost to the quality of the team).
For every Kyle Clifford or Zach Aston Reese, there are 20 fourth liners who actually hurt the team, despite being physical. Additionally, the math tells us that at the end of the day, as long as the top of your lineup is good, it’s largely irrelevant who is on the bottom half of it anyways. The important thing is just to make sure they’re cheap.
Tampa and Grit
Last year Tampa lost in a sweep to the Blue Jackets, prompting calls that they didn’t know how to “play the right way.” Considering they were the best NHL team in 30 years, and considering they’d also recently made a Cup Final and an Eastern Conference Final, the criticism was absurd, and, frankly, stupid.
Hockey is a game with a ton of variance due to the goalie position being both vitally important and almost completely random. In any given series of seven games, the #8 seed will win vs the #1 seed three out of ten times.
If had Tampa come back this season with the exact same roster as last season, they probably still would have won.
But because they added some grinders, people are crediting that for their win, because it conveniently lines up with what they said last season after Tampa lost. Tamp won in part because they were already great and due to win, and they won because the experience they gained last year made them hungry. To simply suggest that they won because they added some depth pieces to the bottom of their lineup that play a style that is more in line with what traditionalists consider “playoff hockey.”
The reality is that to add four grinders to their lineup, they removed……. four grinders last years lineup. They were dressing Ryan Callahan and Dan Giradri, not Nic Petan and Jason Spezza. Luke Schenn played only 11 games and only 9 minutes per night, for three straight years he has made his team worse than they would be if they replaced him with any random AHL player. He has negative value. They won in spite of Schenn, not because replacing Dan Girardi with him made the team tougher to play against.
Zach Bogosian was their sixth most used defenseman, and he’s also not really a factor either way. It just doesn’t really matter who you dress when you have two elite defensemen, and three very good ones.
The Lightning from last year replaced Jan Rutta with Kevin Shattenkirk then they swapped out Dan Giradri and Braydon Colbourn with Luck Schenn and Zach Bogosian. That’s pretty much a wash in terms of grittiness. It might even be a bit of a downgrade actually.
On forward they lost J.T Miller and Ryan Callahan. Those guys are textbook playoff warriors. Replacing them with Barclay Goodrow and Pat Maroon doesn’t really change the hard-to-play-against equation a single bit. Given how good Miller is, this probably makes the team worse.
In fact, the Lightning swapped four gritty bottom of the lineup vets for four other ones. Goodrow is a good player, but as far as the makeup of their team and the overall level of grittiness from year to year, it’s completely unchanged.
The only significant difference is that Tampa added Blake Coleman. A player it should be noted that the Leafs also wanted to add. But while people are conveniently lumping Coleman into the grittiness narrative, the fact is that he is a first line player. (stats naturalstattrick.com).
Over the last three years, from an overall impact standpoint, Coleman is better than 80% of NHL players. He was worth 2.4 WAR this year, making him an elite player. This is what allowed Tampa to overcome the loss of Stamkos. They had an elite player to replace him with. (WAR stats from @jfresh and Evolving-hockey.com).
But with Stamkos out of the lineup for all but one game, the Lightning were actually slightly worse this year than last year, which ends up being ironic, since they won the Stanley Cup.
The lesson should be that most hockey narratives are dumb. Tampa is only being credited with changing their style and roster make-up because its convenient for people who love old-school hockey and are afraid of the change people like Kyle Dubas (and also ironically) the Tampa Bay Lightning are bringing to the NHL.
As the evidence clearly shows, Tampa was pretty much the same team this year as they were last year. Goodrow, Maroon, Schenn and Bogosian are no grittier or harder to play against than Callahan, Miller, Girardi and Colbourn. Blake Coleman makes a big different, but that is because he is a skilled, first line worthy player.
Saying Tampa changed their style and make-up in order to finally win in the playoffs is basically like saying that replacing Steve Stamkos with Blake Coleman makes you a better team because of Coleman’s “playoff style” game. But literally no one thinks that Blake Coleman is better, or helps the team more, than first-ballot sure-fire Hall of Fame player Steve Stamkos, who is elite when compared to other elite players.
The Lightning, prior to this season, had gone to the Cup Final, and the Eastern Final in two of the last four years. In the other two, they missed the playoffs and lost in a first round sweep. That is just the kind of variance that happens when you play in a professional league with a salary cap.
The Lightning could have won the Cup in any of the previous four years. They happened to win it this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this year their team was better, harder to play against, or more balanced. It means they finally avoided the bad luck that cost them the last four Stanley Cups.
The lesson the Toronto Maple Leafs should take from Tampa is that a skilled team built around offense can win, and that patience for a decade is necessary to build a winner.
The less we as fans can learn is that mainstream hockey narrative are inevitably wrong, and often dumb.