When the Maple Leafs began their build in earnest roughly 12 months ago, it was clear that while there was much work to be done, there were pieces in place. On Wednesday morning, the club announced the signing of two of those pieces to six-year contracts -- Nazem Kadri
and Morgan Rielly
Over the past season, Kadri and Rielly have gradually moved up the Leafs depth chart from previous years. By the time the 2015-16 season wrapped up, Kadri had spent the majority of the season on the top line matched up against the NHL's best forward units, while Rielly was logging tough minutes on the club's top defensive pairing, while playing the penalty kill and power play.
The significance of the long-term commitments to the pair extends well beyond their on-ice play. Both players were first round picks of the club, developed through time in junior and with the American League's Marlies and have earned their long-term place in the future of the club.
Given the youth movement set to take place in Toronto with players in the American League, collegiate and junior ranks knocking on the door, the club's front office hopes this story will be a common one moving forward.
"I think it was a message to the commitment of both of them. Timing is everything in life," said Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. "To have it happen at the same time maybe even puts the emphasis that we're going to do things as they come about and continue to reinforce the plan that Brendan has put in place and Mike has certainly put in place."
"This is just another step towards where we want to be as far as developing the foundation of this franchise."
Early returns indicate that both players fit the template for what the team would like its style of play to be: Effective in all three zones, quick and possessing a good work rate. Both Kadri and Rielly were given new opportunity under Mike Babcock's coaching staff in 2015-16 and the strides in their play was obvious. Babcock regularly singled out both players -- along with Jake Gardiner -- as players who were better than he expected them to be upon his arrival in Toronto, citing their skill level and competitiveness as pleasant surprises.
Now the pair have contracts to match the praise. With that, the focus shifts to building on those strides into the future.
Kadri worked his way up the Maple Leafs depth chart as the 2015-16 season progressed and found himself as the team's number one centre for the majority of the season. As a player who was challenged by the team's front office to take a step up one year ago, the early returns have been encouraging.
"I think we've seen a lot of growth from him and some real strides and he's one of the guys I think about when I say -- Mike [Babcock] is not necessarily an easy guy to play for every day, you have to be an extremely competitive person just to play for Mike," said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. "Nazem Kadri did a great job in that sense. He was extremely competitive for us. That being said, we just have to keep growing."
While the emphasis is on getting to work and improving in the future, it's easy to see what has been encouraging about Kadri's on-ice work. In the early going of his career, Kadri's possession numbers have graded out nicely relative to his Leafs teammates.
While some of the disparity between Kadri's underlying numbers and his teammates can be attributed to previous iterations of the Leafs playing a counter-attacking style of hockey, the 25-year-old has consistently performed well under the shot attempt framework when looking at his 5-on-5 play.
This past season, with a Leafs team that fared considerably better under shot attempt measures and started more shifts in the offensive zone than any Leafs team in the past decade, Kadri still came out on the positive side of the ledger.
In 2013-14, the Leafs had 3.7 per cent more shot attempts and 3.1 per cent more scoring chances with Kadri on the ice than without. In 2014-15, those margins increased to 4.5 percent more shot attempts and 5.5 per cent more scoring chances with Kadri on the ice. This past season, under a new head coach and playing the toughest competition he's faced in his career, the Leafs had 1.3 per cent more shot attempts and 3.8 per cent more scoring chances with Kadri on the ice than without.
In sum, the Maple Leafs have always fared better in the possession battle with Kadri on the ice and, even with a higher team baseline and facing tougher competition, he consistently gave the Leafs a better share of the puck and scoring chances relative to his teammates. As the Leafs continue to build the forward unit over the coming years and the skill level continues to increase, it follows that Kadri's production would increase and, in turn, his ability to help the team win games will as well.
The measurable and intangible combination of Kadri's skill, tenacity and ability to get under the skin of opponents makes him a key asset for the club going forward in many different areas.
A growth area to keep an eye on moving forward will be his role on the penalty kill as Coach Babcock has expressed interest in utilizing Kadri's skill in that realm of the game. As a player whose defensive awareness and work ethic has consistently improved over time, there appears to be a fit for his skillset when the team is down a man.
Similarly, a willingness to accept different roles was cited by Lou Lamoriello as a strength of Kadri in conversation with the media about the new six-year deal. Expect to see him wear many different hats as his time in Toronto progresses over the term of this deal.
For Kadri's part, he's excited to take on the upcoming challenges with the team that drafted him.
"There's been some growing pains but, at the same time, for a young player to play in a market like Toronto is definitely a great opportunity. I think this is the only place to play for me. It's where my heart is. It's all I've ever known," said Kadri on Wednesday. "Like I said, there's going to be growing pains in the future but, at the end of the day, if you continue to get better, that's what's important."
Since he made his debut for the Maple Leafs in 2013, Morgan Rielly has been one of the most exciting players to wear a Maple Leafs uniform over his 236 games. His skating ability ranks among the elite in the NHL, while his hockey sense, vision and ability to shoot the puck have only become more obvious over time.
Despite the clear natural talent Rielly possesses, there have always been questions about his D-zone play. The offensive side of the game is so natural to his skillset that it often glossed over any defensive shortcomings in his game.
In an effort to make him a more complete player, the 2015-16 season saw a challenge issued to Rielly from Mike Babcock and the coaching staff. Rather than the offensive zone starts and power play minutes he had seen in the past, Rielly was leaned on heavily in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill and was partnered primarily Matt Hunwick in an apprenticeship. For much of the season Rielly was left off the power play altogether in an effort to increase the focus on his defensive game.
The choice to focus Rielly's minutes to be defensive zone was a simple rationale -- he doesn't need to work on improving the side of the game that comes naturally to him. While there were early growing pains he consistently improved. As his play improved and opportunities became available, he earned back those offensive minutes. He finished the season averaging roughly 25 minutes a night -- including 2:30 on the penalty kill and 2:40 on the power play -- and starting his shifts primarily in the defensive zone.
Despite consistently playing some of the toughest minutes among Leafs blueliners, Rielly was an even possession player for the Maple Leafs down the stretch. Now a considerably more well-rounded player than he was 12 months ago, the Leafs still believe the sky is the limit for Rielly. His new contract is simply proof they want him in the fold for the long term.
"In Morgan's situation being the defenceman that he is, I think has the potential of being an all-star in this league," said Lamoriello. "He certainly is the key to our defence. He's our leader there and, now, being able to get this type of a contract with him, showing him that he is a core player and one who is going to be counted on to lead that, I'm just excited about it and our organization is too."
Rielly's possession numbers have taken a hit this year, though much of that can be attributed to his usage. The only player who had a higher percentage of shifts start in the defensive zone for the Maple Leafs this season was his most common partner, Hunwick. Rielly played 51 per cent of his minutes alongside Hunwick -- almost exclusively against their opponent's top line -- and the Leafs had 47 per cent of the shot attempts with those two on the ice.
While the apparent drop in the Leafs' share of possession may be cause for concern for some, there is room for encouragement. In 2015-16, Rielly's shot attempts against per 60 decreased for a third consecutive season and consistently declined as the season went along. A player with Rielly's natural skillset -- skating, shooting, playmaking -- will always be a player capable of sending pucks towards the opposition goal. His key will be ensuring he has the puck on his stick enough and is winning enough puck battles to prevent it from heading towards his goaltender.
Through a season of taking on the League's best in the toughest parts of the ice, he is showing signs of improvement from years past.
Moving forward, expect Rielly's responsibility to continually grow. While the 2015-16 season was his first taste of elite competition, the expectation will be that he grows as a shutdown defenceman moving forward. Getting bigger and stronger will certainly give him a better shot of competing against the NHL's biggest and fastest forwards, as will a growing comfort level within Coach Babcock's system and the NHL game as a whole. His personal growth coupled with the improvement of the club as a whole should see Rielly mentioned along the League's best blueliners before long.
A love of the game and hunger to improve -- two qualities that are often taken for granted and shouldn't be -- have always been evident in Rielly around the practice rink or on a game night. As the spotlight continues to shine brighter, expect him to be up to the task.
"I think for me I have a long way to go in my career. I think it's just a matter of trying to get better every day," said Rielly. "I certainly want to be a player in this league that this team can be proud of. This year I took some steps but I realize I have a long way to, a long way to improve. For me, I'm just looking forward to the challenge. I want to get better and move forward with this team."
While the "journey has just begun" for the Maple Leafs in the words of Mike Babcock, the team is beginning to forge the identity they want to own for years to come: A fast group that outworks opponents and rarely cedes control of the puck.
Having that identity is easier said than done, but the club has put two pieces in place for the foreseeable future that are in lockstep with that vision. In Kadri they have a versatile, creative forward who has the ability to vex opponents with his tenacity and perseverance. In Rielly they have a defenceman who appears to be cut from template for the defenceman of the future with his speed and skill.
Both players have been challenged in different ways this past year by the Maple Leafs coaching staff and front office. Thus far, both have risen to them. The challenge now for both players will be trying to bring their game to the next level and, as the Maple Leafs continue to build their club, their challenge will be helping them get Kadri and Rielly where they want to go.
"I don't think they've tapped what they can do, that's my feeling. I think that there is more that they can do, all you have to do is look at the age where they are at and look at what they've experienced. There's no question they have a level that they haven't reached yet," said Lamoriello. "It's going to be up to them to commit to that and do the things that are necessary to get there and it's up to us to help them do that."