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Today’s post was written by C.J. TURTORO. You can find him on Twitter @CJTDevil.
A running joke in Hockey Twitter is that, no matter what a given story is about -- a Canadian team, an American team, a minor league team, a badminton team, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis -- a certain contigent of Leafs fans will respond with “How does this affect the Leafs?”
Today, we’ll flip that on its head and take a story the whole hockey world was talking about -- the Leafs losing in game 7 again -- and ask how it affects the Devils.
Specifically, I want to talk about the wide array of takes people made trying to explain why Toronto lost. The reason it matters is because many of them, if correct, contain very important information about how you should build a team to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Misconceptions about the Leafs “Failures”
First of all, I want to clarify a couple things about the Maple Leafs in the “Dubas Era” (2018-2021) that will be important for context.
The Maple Leafs have been very good
According to Evolving-Hockey, the Maple Leafs have outscored opponents by 0.43 goals per game (6th in the NHL) and have out-xGed opponents by 0.42 (3rd). Only the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Leafs in both categories.
While they haven’t finished above 5th, or escaped the first round (more on that in a second) in any of those years, they have been among the most consistently good teams in the NHL under Dubas. They are right there with the old guard (Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston) and the modern elite (Tampa, Carolina, Vegas, Colorado) in the top tier of franchises.
The Maple Leafs have actually been fine in the postseason
I’m sure this is where I’ll lose some people because the Leafs have lost 7 close-out playoff games in a row, but it’s also important to realize that a lot of teams haven’t even had the opportunity to close out a playoff series in that time. The Leafs have come within a single game of winning every one of their playoff series during Dubas’ reign.
During that time, the Maple Leafs have scored 45 goals and allowed 49, which means they’re getting outscored by only 0.2 goals a game. That puts them in the dead center of the 25 teams to play a playoff game in that time and over many teams that “know how to win” like Pittsburgh, Washington, St. Louis, and Chicago.
The simple fact is that if Toronto played exactly this well and replayed all 3 series, they’d probably have won one of the series even if the only variable we changed was “luck”. They were 1 goal away from advancing twice this year. If you know anything about hockey, you know that for some teams randomness just happens to be a b****.
You’ll read a lot that the Leafs lacked a “killer instinct” to advance. The Lightning got swept by the 8-seed, and then won the Cup the next year. The Blues were just like the Sharks -- great regular seasons always met with playoff disappointment -- until they won the cup 2 years ago. Ovechkin “couldn’t take his team the whole way like Crosby” until he did 3 years ago. The last 3 cup winners were all doubted at times. A “killer instinct” and “knowing how to win” are just things people say when they can’t explain why good teams lose because they are unfamiliar with the existence of randomness.
Toronto did not lose “because analytics”
Kyle Dubas has a reputation as being a modern, analytics-oriented GM and so the assumption is that whatever his moves he makes were analytically motivated. Do a straw poll of the public analytics community and ask them if they would have endorsed adding 41-year-old whose offense has completely evaporated (Thornton) and two forwards who have been below replacement-level since 2016 (Galchenyuk and Simmonds). Those guys were added because they provided veteran depth to a young core. If anything, these moves were more likely made to appease those who said the Leafs had been too talent-focused and not gritty enough.
It’s almost hard to imagine why the whole team’s scoring dried up when their stars got cold...almost.
How can the Devils avoid the Leafs fate?
I don’t have much to say about this, but it’s the most important thing so let this serve as a disclaimer. Sometimes we confuse things like goaltending or shooting talent with luck in hockey, but this isn’t one of those times. Their goaltending has been above average and it’s only their shooting that’s been bad. But for a team that has the 3rd highest Sh% in the regular season during that time, and the best goal scorer in the league, it’s disingenuous to say they need shooters too. They’ve simply been unlucky. So if the Devils want to avoid that fate … Idk pick up some shamrocks or something.
Don’t build core through free agency
John Tavares was a good player this year. He was worth about 3 standings points above a replacement-level player, which is just outside the 90th percentile. It puts him in the company of guys like Jakub Voracek and Jordan Eberle. The problem is that production’s worth about $5.5M and he is costing the Leafs literally double that much. Sometimes it can feel like, if you’re getting $5.5M out of a player, they’re not a bust because that means they’ve been “good”. But overspending is overspending everywhere. Giving John Tavares $5.5M more than he’s worth (and a LOT more than he will be worth in a few years) is just as harmful as giving $5.5M to an AHLer.
Add to your core through two avenues: Drafting and Trading. When warranted, you can extend guys that have been added that way.
But there’s something else to note about the Tavares signing that made life on the Leafs harder…
Timing is EVERYTHING
The Avalanche are the gold standard for rebuilding right now. If you look at their payroll, you’ll see the remnants of a boon not often discussed when we consider the virtues of “tanking”. When people think of the benefits of being bad for a while, they normally only have the high draft picks in mind. But something else happens when your team sucks -- your good players lose value. Now, if you're trading them, that’s bad. But if you’re re-signing them long-term, that’s amazing.
Entering 2016-17,(a historically bad season for the Colorado) -- the Avs were coming off 2 playoff-less seasons (5 in 6 years) and Mackinnon was coming off his 3rd consecutive good-not-great season. He was rewarded with a 7-year extension at $6.3M AAV. Two years later he was the MVP runner-up, a feat he’d replicate another two years after that. He’s now a drastically underpaid superstar -- the single best thing a team can have.
The Maple Leafs problem is that when Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were entering their contract season, Kyle Dubas went out and added John Tavares. Mitch Marner was already pretty good, (69 points in 82 games the previous year), but adding Tavares shot him into star territory. Marner assisted on 26 of Tavares goals (Tavares assisted on 12 of his). It also had a trickle-down impact to Matthews whose quality of competition decreased with Tavares taking 1C duties.
So, heading into the season in which their two most important core pieces were going to need lucrative extensions, management made a move that 1) elevated their value, and 2) gave them a target price in contract negotiations -- you think it’s a coincidence that they both got almost exactly what Tavares did?
An argument could be made that Dubas was aiming to capitalize on the ELCs of these two players by adding a stud like Tavares while they still had the room, but that’s not what happened. And now they’re suffering the ramifications.
The Leafs are a good team. They have run into an unfortunate string of postseason luck that is not at all replicable. They will very likely break through eventually and, while the narratives at that time will probably be something like “they finally learned how to win,” all that will really have happened is that the law of large numbers will have kicked in.
They weren’t as fortunate as the Avalanche to have a superstar bloom 1-year after signing a long-term contract. That said, they made matters worse by overpaying one core player which ramped up the prices of two younger (more important) core players.
If the Devils want to avoid this, they will be patient. Nico Hischier is already locked in to a Mackinnon-esque contract; but Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Pavel Zacha are all RFAs this season. Sharangovich and Kuokkanen should be extended for 4+ years each. Bratt and Hughes are excellent players who can and should be extended as long as possible as soon as possible. And, then, once we have a reasonably-priced core locked in, we can add complementary pieces through free agency, and possibly add to the core through trades. It’s impossible to replicate the Leafs bad luck. But if you want to replicate their cap struggles, the best way to do so is by being trigger-happy with free agents.
… Yes, that includes Dougie Hamilton.
*Ducks flying fruit*