It’s Never too Early to Shower the Leafs with Praise

It doesn’t take much to stir the ire of Sabres Twitter on the best of days. Today was no exception as David Alter’s post on The Score managed to work numerous Sabres fans into a froth despite being at peak #FaschingWatch. Speaking of which.

I encourage you to read through Alter’s article as he rolls through an argument that is worth having. The Leafs are one of the few teams in the process of a rebuild with the same financial might that Terry Pegula has to offer while also boasting a number of impressive prospects at the top of their pipeline. Both teams are positioned similarly. While the Sabres are likely a year or two ahead, the Leafs aren’t as far behind as some fans in the 716 would want to think.

The article itself is short on research and long on opinions that likely grew from Saturday’s 4-1 loss at the Air Canada Centre. I’m surprised that he held off on writing this for this week and not for, I don’t know Buffalo’s 4-3, comeback victory from earlier this month. That being considered, I thought I’d try my hand at a FJM of the post as it was simply too empty to stand as a proper evaluation of where each team’s rebuild stands in comparison to one another.

Original portions post will be in bold, my responses will be in normal type.

TORONTO – Back in late May, much fanfare accompanied the Toronto Maple Leafs’ hiring of Mike Babcock as head coach. Not to be forgotten in the sweepstakes were the Buffalo Sabres, who reportedly met with Babcock prior to his decision. At his introductory press conference in Toronto, members of the Buffalo media put Babcock on the spot about the details.

But the end result is what mattered. Toronto won the Babcock sweepstakes, while the Sabres lost.

This is all accurate. The Sabres were leveraged by Babcock who hightailed it up the QEW, leaving the Sabres holding the bag. It was a bad look for the Sabres who, at one point, we both the favorites for Babcock and Connor McDavid. Amazing how things can change so quickly.

On Saturday, the Maple Leafs hosted the Sabres in a game that had zero short-term implications. Both teams won’t compete for the Stanley Cup.

In fact, both teams are going through full-scale rebuilds, but appear headed in different directions.

As of now the only difference in the direction each of these teams are headed is that the Sabres have actually been climbing the standings and down the draft board as the pieces put in place by Tim Murray have come together. But based on a Jack Eichel-less loss to the Leafs, sure, they’re headed in different directions.

There is no quick rebuild

The Sabres have been rebuilding for years now. They’ve been near the bottom of the standings for the past few seasons and have had some summers to double-down on young talent, while adding the odd veteran here and there to complement the roster.

The Maple Leafs are in the first year of their rebuild, a dismantling long overdue. And there are already signs that Toronto has learned how to do it a little bit better.

Shouldn’t this be the first red flag that perhaps these two teams aren’t exactly apples and apples when it comes to where each team stands in their respective rebuilds? “The Sabres have been rebuilding for years now”, just as the Leafs have been rebuilding basically since Y2K was still a viable threat.

Alter goes on to say a bunch of things that are quite straightforward and easy to agree with. He makes points such as Darcy Regier’s work with an open checkbook didn’t exactly work out. He notes that their downward spiral started in 2012. (I’d probably argue 2013 as the starting point for what it’s worth.)

Things really don’t get interesting until a bit later.

Patience a virtue many GMs can’t afford

The Sabres finished last again in 2014-15, though Murray was busy.

Buffalo made some additions, trading for talented forward Evander Kane from the Winnipeg Jets. Kane came with baggage, but Buffalo represented a fresh start. This season, he was disciplined by the team for sleeping in and missing practice after attending the NBA All-Star game in Toronto the night before.

I hadn’t heard about this misstep. Please tell me more.

In late June 2015, the Sabres traded for Ryan O’Reilly, and the forward was immediately signed to a seven-year, $52.5-million extension. He will make $11 million next season, which includes a $10-million signing bonus.

Outside of Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo’s defense is in need of severe help. It starts with a solid structure and some patience.

They drafted Jack Eichel, a heck of a consolation prize to Connor McDavid, but the Sabres have demonstrated a lack of patience.

Where exactly in this bit was there an indication of a lack of patience? Was it the two-year run in 30th place? Was it acquiring a top-six forward who couldn’t even play until this past October? Perhaps it was the measured devevlopment of Rasmus Ristolainen.

Buffalo’s blueline is porous at the moment but there’s plenty to like as well. Buffalo needs to find a top-four left handed defenseman this offseason but there is still plenty to like. Mark Pysyk is a Corsi darling who seems to be shaping a bright future while Jake McCabe has begun to flourish as a second-year pro alongside Zach Bogosian (who was part of that Evander Kane deal, by the way).

Patience off the ice, too

In June 2015, the Maple Leafs’ overhaul included the hiring of a new doctor, Jeremy Bettle, as director of sports science. In late July, Toronto shocked everyone, hiring Lou Lamoriello as its general manager.

So we’re off the Sabres now? I thought we were talking about Buffalo lacking patience.

Before the Sabres and Maple Leafs played Saturday, Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma was answering questions about a tense parting of ways with the club’s director of performance, Oliver Finlay. He didn’t survive his first season on the job, thanks to some resistance to his methods.

Oh okay. So the Leafs lead 1-0 on the rebuild scoreboard in the doctor category. How are they doing in the crease where In Goal Magazine recently gave their pipeline a D?

Something that wasn’t mentioned regarding the kerfuffle regarding Finlay was that he not only clashed with Sabres personnel and managed to bungle the rehab of key players such as Robin Lehner. That’s sort of a big deal. If I found out I hired a guy who couldn’t actually, you know, do his job, I’d be peeved too. But yes, it definitely shows that the Sabres are miles behind the Leafs.

Many of the Maple Leafs’ prospects have been dominating the AHL. The Toronto Marlies have the league’s best record, and were the first team to clinch a playoff spot. Buffalo’s farm team, the Rochester Americans, is occupying the last playoff spot in the North Division, with two teams threatening to bump it out of postseason contention.

Rochester’s success since the Sabres took back the affiliation has been fleeting. Meanwhile the Leafs have had a great deal of success with the Marlies, almost as if their prime focus is finding success at the AHL level. The Marlies have been a 90-plus point team for four-straight seasons, so this isn’t exactly new. The thing about AHL success is that it doesn’t always reflect directly upon the NHL club. Sometimes it’s because the prospects driving the train in the minors simply don’t translate to the NHL game. Sometimes it’s because an AHL team features strong AHL vets.

So, while comparing the respective pipelines is an absolutely fair assessment – Hockey’s Future places Buffalo just ahead of Toronto on their rankings – simply casting an eye at the AHL standings is hardly an accurate evaluation technique.

A rebuilding rivalry

The Buffalo-Toronto rivalry is not about what has been happening on the ice, but about the foundation both organizations are trying to build. Both have taken very different approaches, but it appears Toronto is winning the battle at the moment.

Winning the battle because, reasons. The only arguments made for Toronto’s success as compared to the Sabres is that the Marlies are good and they didn’t fire their team doctor. Oh, and the Sabres have been impatient.

Riddle me this, if the Maple Leafs go splash the cash on Steven Stamkos this summer would it mean they were being impatient in trying to speed up their rebuild? After all, exchanging assets for young, NHL talent like Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly was a hell of a way to compliment the impressive additions to the pipeline the Sabres picked up through the draft.

My issue with this post is that the only arguments made are flimsy one without any actual backing. In fact, the Leafs are probably closer to replicating the work of the Sabres over the past two seasons than following a different path altogether. They’re diving to the bottom this season and it isn’t unreasonable to think they’ll linger near the bottom again next year. They’ll boast a young roster led by the likes of William Nylander, Morgan Reilly, Nikita Shoshnikov, Mitch Marner and the player they add at the draft, but it’s unproven, much like Buffalo’s roster entering this season.

It’s still early, and some of the challenges both markets go through are very different. But it’s hard to fault Toronto’s approach, one season in.

And the coup de grace. Toronto entered the year with a young roster dotted with veterans ripe for selling at the deadline. Lou Lamoriello sold those pieces along with cap heavy contracts of current stars (see Phaneuf, Dion) to inject even more youth into his roster while likely sliding down the standings. They’re in line to pick at the top of the draft, potentially landing either Auston Matthews or one of the supremely talented Finns. When you lay it out they’re following in almost the exact footprints that the Sabres strode in just one year ago.

So maybe we can’t fault either approach.

One thought on “It’s Never too Early to Shower the Leafs with Praise

  1. Aedan Hunt March 22, 2016 / 2:31 pm

    The Alter article was the most jaded article I can honestly say I have ever read. No mention of Sabres young up-and-comers like Baptiste, or the potential steals just last year in Guhle and Estephan. Leafs fans are a delusional bunch


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