The Toronto Maple Leafs Need to Avoid Making the Same Mistake for the 100th Time

May 21, 2024; Toronto, Ontario, CANADA;  Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving speaks during a media conference to introduce new head coach Craig Berube (not shown)  at Ford Performance Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
May 21, 2024; Toronto, Ontario, CANADA; Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving speaks during a media conference to introduce new head coach Craig Berube (not shown) at Ford Performance Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports / Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs really hurt themselves with their garbage-level drafting during the years in which they landed slam-dunk superstars William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

During those years, the Toronto Maple Leafs failed to surround their young core with simlarly young players they could grow with.

This led to the habit of constantly importing talent from outside the organization. I'm not talking about star-level additions, like Jake Muzzin, Michael Bunting, or T.J Brodie - I'm referring to players who play much smaller roles and whose ice time takes away from the team's ability to develop players.

The Leafs, over the course of the last three General Managers, have constantly limited the contributions of borderline NHL players and young prospects at the expense of giving minutes to non-star players with more name-brand recognition.

The purpose of this article is to show how they did that, what it cost them, and why they should stop doing it.

Toronto Maple Leafs Need to Avoid Making the Same Mistake, Again

Over the years, blocking a prospect with a mid-range player that likely wasn't much better became something of a habit, and they constantly blocked out young players from getting the minutes needed to grow.

Developing players at the NHL level is admittedly hard to do when you constantly under pressure to win now, but the Leafs were especialy bad at this over the last several seasons.

Now, possibly a lot of that was necessary - the Leafs didn't always have a Matthew Knies ready to take the minutes of a Tyler Bertuzzi as they do for next season - but the less glaring options hurt them just as much.

It became a bad habit and often they blocked young players from getting minutes by importing a veteran where the only thing better about them was their recognizable name. Take for example Alex Steeves, who could easily have played on the team last year and could have saved them from spending draft picks on Connor Dewar.

To understand how bad of thing this actually is, it's necessary to understand that in the NHL, the MVP is probably worth about 6 wins over the course of a season (doesn't matter the exact number, these numbers are close and it's just an example). There are about 100 star players in the league worth between 1 and 5.9 wins, but the other 900 or so players are worth between 0 and 1.

That means that the difference between say Nick Abruzzese and Sam Lafferty (to take two random players from the lists below) is - at best - microscopic. The Leafs have constantly taken the safe route and gone with the vet over the rook, but this has had the cost of preventing them from finding any hidden gems, on top of wasting draft picks and salary cap space.

Jarnkrok, Kampf, Domi, Dewar, Spezza, Thornton, Marleau, Lafferty, Aston-Reese, Gregor, Acciari, Reaves, Simmonds, Clifford, Mikheyev, Ritchie, Blackwell, Foligno, Gustafsson, Edmundson, Lyubushkin, Benn, Giordano,

That is 23 players from the last three season that are a) brought in from another organization b) played ahead of players the Leafs were already developing and c) players who provide somewhere between negative value and 1 win over a full season.

To various degrees, the guys above have blocked out and prevented the likes of Knies, Robertson, McMann, Holmberg, Liljegren, Sandin, Dermott, Dahlstrom, Steeves, Abruzzese, Hirvonen, Kokkonen, Niemela, Anderson, Hollowell, Mete, Der-Arguchintsev and Kral from getting minutes in the NHL.

Now, not all of these decisions were bad, but it's the practice of always doing it that is bad.

If the Leafs hadn't played it so safe, and had of been more willing to sub in their rookies, they might have had more success when one of them inevitably went off unexpectadly. They could have save draft picks spent on guys like Lyubushkin and Edmundson, and they could have had more cap space.

We will never know what this practice cost them, but we do know that they can put a stop to it right now.

They can forgo brining back Bertuzzi, Domi, Edmundson and Lyubushkin. They can trade David Kampf and Calle Jarnkrok and replace them with young players.

Then they can spend the savings on defense and goalies without having to trade Mitch Marner, which, if you aren't wearing a tinfoil hat, does seem like a terrible idea.

Next year, Treliving must avoid the pitfalls that Shanahan, Dubas and Lamoriello have constantly fallen prey to and trust in and play his the young players.

Knies and Robertson need to be in the top-six when October rolls around. Holmberg and Liljegren need key roles. Joseph Woll could very well be the starting goalie (injuries make this one more complicated).

But more than that, Cowan, Moldenhaur, Minten, Knies and Kokkonen deserve a fair chance to make the team. The way to do this is by not trying to build your team in the summer. Sure, add a big fish or two, but the key to success is to leave yourself a lot of flexibility so that you can try out rookies and young players in the fall and add later when necessary.

This isn't about just gifting young players NHL roster spots. It's about giving them actual opportunities to succeed. It's also about timing. Matthew Knies is ready, and he makes Tyler Bertuzzi irrelevant. Robertson does the same thing with Domi, and Woll with Samsonov.


It's time for the Leafs to stop making the same mistake.