Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Judging the Core: Do the Leafs Stack Up?

While working I’ll inevitably use the water cooler as my semi-random sampling source for polling Leaf fan confidence. It’s an effective method, since a variety of co-workers will invariably stop by throughout the day, and with a bit of eavesdropping I’ve got my free data.

Today one fan commented on the strength of Leafs core players, and noted that with some shrewd depth moves in the offseason the team could easily make the playoffs. While I agree that depth is certainly an area of need, his statement got me thinking about our elite players and how they compare to core pieces of other franchises.

Curt commented yesterday on the importance of proper cap management, and dividing the dollars appropriately between the different tiers of players. He demonstrated that many of the top teams investment in top tier players over indexes when compared to the Leafs at the same positions. I think, picking up where Curt left off, we can agree that it’s important to have a great core of players, upon which to add the veterans and depth (duh?).

The critical question is how the Leafs core players stack up against the other teams in the Eastern Conference. Presumably Brain Burke's on the fly rebuilding process won’t involve losing major assets. What I want to look at is whether our top players are good enough to make the playoffs next season.

Below are the projected Eastern Conference playoff teams for 2011-12, and their core roster players. For simplicity's sake I took the top 3 forwards, 1 defenseman, and 1 goalie as the default “core”. I acknowledge that this is not a completely scientific method, but hey, it’s a Tuesday night and we’re a long way from the pages of Reuters.

NY Rangers Gaborik (61), Richards (50), Callahan (48), Del Zotto (35), Lundqvist (1.88)

Boston Seguin (57), Lucic (53), Bergeron (55), Chara (40), Thomas (2.37)

Florida Fleischmann(49), Weiss (48), Versteeg (49), Campbell (44), Theodore (2.41)

Pittsburgh Crosby (12), Malkin (84), Neal (65), Letang (31), Fluery (2.26)

Philadelphia Giroux (80), Hartnell (60), Briere (36), Pronger (12), Bryzgalov (2.59)

New Jersey Kovalchuk (71), Parise (62), Elias (67), Larsson (17), Brodeur (2.43)

Ottawa Spezza (73), Michalek (51), Alfredsson (49), Karlsson (69), Anderson (2.85)

Washington Ovechkin (51), Backstrom (42), Semin (44), Green (6), Vokoun (2.51)

Toronto Kessel(71), Lupul (67), Grabovski (47), Phaneuf (40), Gustavsson (2.82)
*(_) indicates total points/goals against average

Of the teams listed below it appears that Boston, New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh have core players significantly better than the Leafs. New Jersey and Philadelphia would likely be put above Toronto on the strength of Kovalchuk-Parise and Giroux-Hartnell, as both pairings likely beat out our duo of Kessel-Lupul.

The comparison gets more interesting with Florida and Ottawa; teams that were considered lottery contenders to start the year. The Panthers' top line shouldn’t be in the same class as the Leafs', and moving into next year our goaltending should be on par with theirs. Ottawa has significant value in Spezza and Karlsson, but Michalek still has question marks around his health, and Alfredsson may not have much production left.

All things considered the Leafs should be poised to challenge for a playoff spot in the neighbourhood of 6 to 8 next season. This projection comes with the obvious caveat that the goaltending problem this team is currently facing. I still have some reservations as to whether Kessel-Phaneuf-Lupul is the group we will one day win a Cup with, but there is no doubt they aren't the elements that are keeping us out of the postseason.

Brian Burke seems content with his original plan (now 4 years old) to stave off a full scale rebuild in favour of smaller tweaks and additions. The Leafs certainly have most of the core pieces necessary to contend for the playoffs, but if we’re anticipating anything more than 7th or 8th next season, we may be over valuing the core.

The thought of packaging players like Lupul and Grabovski in trades this offseason is unsettling. However, if we want to break the cycle of mediocrity it may be necessary to improve the core talent. With players like Rick Nash and Zach Parise likely available there are opportunities for improvement.

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