Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brian Burke and the Future of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Patience seems to be wearing thin with Brian Burke these days.

On November 30th, SkinnyFish over at Pension Plan Puppets put up a post on How Cup Winners are Built where he looked at teams that had reached the pinnacle of success in the last 20 years of NHL hockey.  The conclusion he arrives at is that most teams breakdown of forwards among their top six scorers would be 3 drafted, 2 acquired via trade and 1 acquired through free agency.  As an extension of this, he argues that Brian Burke's 'July 1st is our draft' mantra means that he's not the right guy for the job.

Firstly, I think it's difficult to look at any team building that took place prior to the salary cap and use it as a model for how teams should or even can be built within it.  With free agency occurring at a younger age and teams being restricted in the dollars that they can spend, the dynamics of team-building are very different now than they were prior to the lockout.  This makes using stats extremely difficult as sample sizes are necessarily small and smaller still if you consider that very few teams have actually been built without the legacy of the pre-cap era.

Where the PPP article is bang-on (though it is never explicitly stated) is that it is enormously difficult to land a franchise player anywhere other than the draft.  These guys, even in a cap league where spending is restricted and UFA years come sooner than later, simply don't hit the market.  You'll get the occasional Hossa, Gaborik, or Kovalchuk but forget any pipedreams about Stamkos coming to a team near you.

Today's elite teams such as Chicago and Washington are successful precisely because they were able to land franchise talent in the draft by tanking out.  Other GMs have taken notice and first round draft picks have appreciated in value to a point that in my mind is patently absurd.  This means that everyone is trying to build through the draft now.  In some ways it makes perfect sense but in other ways it doesn't.

I'd like to start by saying that if you were hoping for a statistical analysis, you've come to the wrong place.  As I said, I'm skeptical of team-building stats in the post-cap era because I simply don't believe the sample size is large enough.  That said, I'll try to argue my points such that they're as fully developed as possible.

What Works
I spoke earlier of Chicago and Washington as teams that have built through the draft and are succeeding primarily because of this.  While Chicago has Hossa and Campbell, it's fair to say that these teams are both success stories of the draft-to-win model.  While the Stanley Cup is the ultimate objective, there are other successful teams that have done things a little differently.

San Jose is perennially among the league's top teams.  If you list the league's elite you would undoubtedly have to consider the Sharks among them.  Now name the Sharks' top two offensive players and their best defenseman.  Thornton, Heatley and Boyle were all acquired through trade and are all elite NHL talent.  San Jose has significant pieces around them that are 'home-grown' but their best players are not.

Vancouver is a great team that revolves around the Sedins and Ryan Kesler up front.  Of their defense corp, only Edler and Bieksa were Canuck draft picks and neither were taken in the top 2 rounds.  Luongo was acquired via trade and Burrows was an undrafted free agent.

Burke's Stanley Cup Champions from Anaheim are also an interesting case.  Getzlaf (19th overall) and Perry (28th overall) were steals at their draft location.  Niedermayer and Pronger were brought in from the outside and college-find Dustin Penner was playing out of his skin.  I bring this team up primarily because it's a prime example of how Burke's strategy can work.

How Things are Done Now
The mindset among NHL GMs tends to cycle depending on what has been successful recently.  As such, we tend to see enormous pendulum swings in the perceived value of different characteristics.  A puck-moving defenseman is something that can get you a king's ransom one year, or an offer of Joslin and a late first rounder a year later.

The strategy now is to hold on to your first rounders for dear life and this strategy has some merit.  First of all, it is probably the only way to land a Crosby, Ovechkin or Stamkos-type player.  Secondly, entry level contracts are a good way to have players on your roster that outperform their deals which is probably the best way to succeed in the cap world.

The result of the preponderance of this strategy is that high draft picks have become overvalued particularly those in the mid-to-late first round.  If you want a first rounder, you're going to overpay for it.

Co-Operate or Defect?
If everyone else is doing something one way, then maybe there's merit to trying something else.  Acquiring first round draft picks is very nearly impossible now.  GMs covet them and are reluctant to part with their own.

So do you fall in line with your peers and hope that the roulette wheel falls on your number instead of theirs or do you try playing a different game?

If first round picks are overvalued then the trick is to find what is undervalued by comparison.  Burke was on to something when he dealt Ponikarovsky for Caputi.  For some reason, the value of a first round draft pick (or seemingly any draft pick) decreases the second the pick has been made.  He could have Caputi, a known commodity, or a second rounder which may or may not be anything.  This move is a step in the right direction if you're going to defect from the established strategy.

Where 'Burke Model' Has Brought Us
Brian Burke traded away two first round picks and a second rounder for Phil Kessel.  He made a serious mis-read on how talented this team would be coming out of this deal and as such we have surrendered a 2nd overall pick already.  These are the facts of the case and they are undisputed.

Having said this, we now have a 35-40 goal scorer who is just entering his prime years and at $5.4 million has a very reasonable contract (see Vanek as a comparable). 

Burke believes in building from the backend and we have strong goaltending both at the NHL and prospect level. We also have a strong, though overpaid, defense corps and some legitimate defensive prospects (Schenn, Gunnarsson, Aulie, Holzer, Mikus are all in their early 20s or younger). 

Using a blackjack analogy, I'll 'stay' with what we've got in both of those areas both longterm and short term.

Since Kessel is our best player, I'll use his deal as the timeframe for when we'll need this core to truly compete for Burke's tenure to be a success.  Kessel is under contract until 2013-14 as are Phaneuf and Komisarek.  Schenn's next deal will likely take him a year beyond that as Burke likes to stagger when his contracts come off the books. 

This means our defense will likely include Schenn, Phaneuf, Komisarek, some combination of Gunnarsson, Holzer, Aulie, Mikus, and low-end free agents.  I'm fine with this.

Our goaltending will likely also be some combination of what we already have in Gustavsson, Rynnas, Reimer or Scrivens.

Our forwards will include Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel and the rest is anyone's guess.  Is this a weakness?  Yes, you'd better believe it.  But it also means that in the next three offseasons, the only area where Burke needs to worry about bringing in talent is to the forward group.  Existing assets on defense and in goal are sufficient to make us a competitive team but the forward group will need to improve dramatically, through development or the acquisition of new personnel.

What Needs To Happen For the Leafs to be Successful
Nobody in hockey believes that the Leafs' current crop of forwards are good enough to succeed as things stand today.  Burke has made two serious miscalculations when it came to assembling this team; firstly, in believing that they were not a lottery team when they traded for Phil Kessel, and secondly, in believing that high-end free agents would hit the UFA market.

2010's only true game-changing talent was Ilya Kovalchuk who got way too much money and way too much term.  2009 saw Hossa and Gaborik sign monster deals that I wouldn't have wanted Toronto to match leaving Mike Cammalleri as the only real prize in that free agency period.  One player in two offseasons.

Why hasn't free agency been as fruitful?  My feeling is that the cap having climbed steadily from $39 million to $56 million has meant that teams have been able to retain nearly all of their top-tier talent.  What hits the free agent market are players that want too much money. 

With the cap apparently having reached an equilibrium, teams should now be forced to make some tough decisions on who they can afford to keep and who will become a cap casualty.  Alex Semin will be one of the first players who can truly be considered a casualty of the salary cap.  In the absence of a salary cap, Washington would keep him in a heartbeat but there simply aren't enough dollars to go around.  This looks as though it will happen more and more in the next three seasons as teams like Boston, New Jersey, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Calgary have significant dollars committed to players longterm.

The Leafs will also need to make the most of the draft picks that they do have.  Expect the Leafs to take a lot of 'projects' in the late rounds of coming drafts.  Guys with enormous size or speed - things that can't be taught.  Most late rounders never see the NHL so taking a gamble on a guy that's raw makes a lot of sense here.

Second rounders will be guys like Ross or McKegg that are expected to be solid bottom six guys by the time the 2013 season rolls around.  This will keep the money spent in our bottom six low so that we can spend with wreckless abandon on whatever high-end free agents do become available.

In free agency, we need to identify the Mike Cammalleri's, circa 2009.  As most people in the anti-Burke camp will tell you, UFAs are almost always overpaid and I agree wholeheartedly.  You have to either have enough low-dollar players on your team that you can afford to do this (as it appears we will in our bottom six and with our defensive and goaltending prospects) or you have to find the mid-ranged guys that play to their peak potential.  This was the case with Cammalleri and as much as I loathe giving Montreal credit for anything, they found the right guy here.

If I could make a realistic wish for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it would be that we can find another guy that puts up Kessel-like numbers for Kessel-like dollars during free agency in the next couple of years.  The $7-$10 million dollar players in free agency never earn what you pay them and the term will often hamstring your team for what can feel like forever.  You had better hope that you have a lot of ELCs and will be able to replace them as your team gets older if you want to sign the Ilya Kovalchuks of this world.

Wrapping Up
We're two years into Burke's tenure as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and he undoubtedly set expectations very high by saying that this isn't a rebuild.  I can assure you this is a rebuild and we as Leaf fans should have known it from the start.  Burke had to rebuild a depleted asset base and change the culture of the team and these things can't happen simultaneously in the short-term.

What we have now is what we didn't have when Burke took over.  We have young talent in Nazem Kadri and Luke Schenn.  We have a legitimate top 30 goal-scorer in Phil Kessel.  We have goaltending prospects who are expected to provide NHL calibre goaltending.  We have a prospect pool of defensemen.  Perhaps most importantly, we have cap space in a league where more and more teams are spending to the cap. 

What we don't have is Tyler Seguin and our first rounder this season.

Things are better than they were when Burke took this team over and I can see a clear direction.  Ignore the posturing and the quotes.  Think of what this team was when he took over, and what it would be if we had continued down that path.

Brian Burke is a proactive GM who will make enough deals that there will be some smears on his resume but I can tell you this with certainty - I wouldn't trade Tyler Seguin for the foundation the Leafs have put together.


Leafschatter said...

This has to be the post of the season. Complete in thought and analysis with full understanding of the constraints faced for past decisions and foresight to ramifications expected from future decisions.

Leaf.Fan.Gordo said...

Wow. This is definitly your best work. I've always liked Burke but maybe couldnt quite put it into words why I thought he was better then most people give him credit for. This is why.

Jeremy said...

Nice summary.

I disagree on one point, that Burke misread the talent of this team.

When Burke made the trade he knew 3 things:

1. Players of Kessel's age/talent/speed are RARELY/NEVER available for trade.

2. That he is one of (if not the) hardest working GM in the league.

3. There was an equal chance that his team would be selecting anywhere between 1-20 in the following draft.

So from a risk/reward standpoint, what makes more sense to a hockey team? Hoping to lose enough games to "win the lottery" -OR- trading for a young star asset and removing any excuses for losing?

Anonymous said...

This is easily the analysis of the Leafs' situation that I have read this season.

Anonymous said...

Should have read "best" analysis.