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Super 16: Maple Leafs have advantages if they rebuild

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

The Toronto Maple Leafs made a significant trade this week, sending defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli to the Nashville Predators.

There has been plenty of speculation about the direction of the Maple Leafs in the wake of that trade. Although not yet eliminated, Toronto is likely going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons. For the second consecutive season, a collapse has derailed a campaign that began with success in the standings despite analytics suggesting it was unsustainable.

Toronto has a new team president, Brendan Shanahan, and a new, much-publicized analytics department headed by Kyle Dubas. What's unclear is, are the Maple Leafs ready to commence a legitimate, full-scale rebuilding project?

The Maple Leafs do have young talent, and they have been close (again, in the standings) to a playoff spot in recent years. They also have little salary-cap space and a roster that is not a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

James van Riemsdyk could net a large return for Toronto if traded. (Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI)

What the Maple Leafs also have is an opportunity, should they choose to move in that direction, to create and implement a full-scale rebuild that could be unlike any other in recent NHL history.

None of the most recent teams to undertake this path have had the tradable assets the Maple Leafs do. When the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres decided to start again, they did not have a player of forward Phil Kessel's caliber, or the depth of supporting assets who could be moved.

General manager Dave Nonis recently named defenseman Morgan Rielly as a player who would be undesirable to move, and it's possible defenseman Jake Gardiner, 2014 first-round pick forward William Nylander and whoever they select with a high pick in the 2015 NHL Draft are in that category. Goalie Jonathan Bernier and forward Nazem Kadri, each a pending restricted free agent, and James van Riemsdyk, a relatively young forward on a team-friendly contract, could be part of the rebuilding effort but could bring a large return if they are not.

That group of young players is another advantage Toronto has that those other rebuilding teams did not. The Maple Leafs would not be starting from scratch. The players and draft picks they acquire would supplement some talented players already in place.  

There is another big reason a full-fledged rebuild would be fascinating and possibly unlike any other: Toronto has the ability, specifically the financial might, to do things a little differently.

The Maple Leafs took forward Olli Jokinen, a $2.5 million player with six points, back in the trade with the Predators. Toronto can do that in other trades, taking back an undesired contract to help improve the return of picks and prospects.

Peter Horachek is the interim coach, so the future of the staff is to be determined. Shanahan and Nonis could have the ability to offer a larger salary to a potential coach than other teams. They might have the ability to do the same with scouts and analysts.

Shanahan has proven in his short time with the Maple Leafs to be progressive and open-minded as well as patient in the face of tremendous pressure from his marketplace to field a winner.

It is certainly possible the appetite for a full-scale rebuild is not there in Toronto. Not every team that chooses that path comes out the other side like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings. It is taking longer than expected for some teams to matriculate into contenders, either because of mistakes along the way, or because teams like the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings aren't receding from elite status, or a combination of both.

Should the Maple Leafs decide to go in that direction, they appear to be better equipped to rebuild and transform a long-languishing franchise, from front-office personnel to valuable trade assets and young building blocks to some financial advantages.

Maybe trading Franson and Santorelli, two pending unrestricted free agents, was a prudent move given the circumstances, but it might have been the first step in returning the Maple Leafs to a place among teams able to compete for the Stanley Cup.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.

1. Nashville Predators (39-12-6)

If the Predators weren't going to make a huge move for a No. 1/2 center (Kadri? Ryan O'Reilly? Eric Staal?), adding Mike Santorelli to pair with Calle Jarnkrok on the third line and Cody Franson to play on the second defense pairing makes them a deeper team and keeps two guys away from several teams in the Western Conference that could have or should have been interested in acquiring them.

2. Chicago Blackhawks (35-18-5)

The Detroit Red Wings lead the League in suppressing shot attempts (before its game Wednesday night against Chicago, Detroit was yielding 44.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes at even strength and 46.8 per 60 minutes overall). The Blackhawks had 33 shot attempts (also known as Corsi) in the first period, en route to 57 at evens and 74 overall, which were each the most the Red Wings have surrendered this season.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning (36-18-6)

The Lightning just traversed one of the toughest nine-game stretches anyone is going to face this season, and went 4-3-2. Upgrading from Evgeni Nabokov to Andrei Vasilevskiy at backup goaltender might be the difference if Tampa Bay claims a division title.

4. Detroit Red Wings (32-14-10)

Speaking of goalie depth, the Red Wings went 10-3-1 with both of their regular netminders injured. Jimmy Howard, who is one victory from tying Jon Casey for 10th among American-born goaltenders in career wins at 170, has stopped 83 of 90 shots (.922) since returning from injury.

5. St. Louis Blues (37-16-4)

Brian Elliott has allowed 14 goals and been pulled twice in his past five starts, while Jake Allen is 5-0-0 in 2015 with five goals allowed in his four starts (and a relief win). Allen has been very protected though. His starts have come against the Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins (32-16-9)

From the start of the 2006-07 season until Dec. 22, 2014, the Penguins have a SPSV% (also known as PDO) of 1009, which is second to the Boston Bruins. That's a span of 651 games. They are one of the examples of the axiom "not every team always returns to 1000."

From the start of the 2006-07 season until Dec. 22, 2014, Sidney Crosby has a SPSV% of 1029 in 495 games. No one who has played at least 250 games in that span is higher. He is one of the examples of the axiom "not every player will always return to 1000."

Since Dec. 23, 2014, the Penguins have a SPSV% of 979. Crosby has a SPSV% of 964. This is a span of 24 games.

Unless the Penguins and Crosby have embarked on a seven-year run of consistently bad luck that will return them to 1000, which trend seems like a good one to continue?

7. New York Islanders (38-19-1)

Since Dec. 1, Jaroslav Halak's save percentage is .900. Chad Johnson is at .896. The Islanders went back to having bad goaltending nearly three months ago and not that many people have noticed, in part because they are scoring and winning so much. They've made great strides in puck possession, but the goaltending still needs some work.

8. Los Angeles Kings (27-18-12)

That collective sound emanating from west of the Ohio River is the groaning of Western Conference general managers. That sound emanating from El Segundo, Calif., is a hockey team collectively whistling "Farmer in the Dell."

9. Washington Capitals (31-17-10)

In a season of "Alex Ovechkin became the X player to accomplish Y," here's another fun milestone he is rapidly approaching: Ovechkin can become the fifth player in NHL history to record at least seven 45-goal seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux and Marcel Dionne. Not only did Luc Robitaille miss being on this list by one goal, he scored 44 twice, in 1991-92 and 1993-94.

10. Anaheim Ducks (35-16-7)

The Ducks have won one game since Jan. 27 that wasn't against the Carolina Hurricanes (and they didn't play well in those two victories, either). They've allowed 39 goals in 10 games, and now their second-best defenseman (Sami Vatanen) is injured. They needed another defenseman before he got hurt.

11. Montreal Canadiens (37-16-4)

The Canadiens should have distanced themselves from Detroit and Tampa Bay this month. Instead, they lost four times to teams in the bottom-eight of the NHL standings, and needed more than 60 minutes to win two other games against bottom-eight sides. They might pay for that in March, which will feature a considerably tougher slate.

12. New York Rangers (34-16-5)

The Rangers have succeeded without Henrik Lundqvist to this point, going 4-2-1. Cam Talbot has a .900 save percentage and the team has allowed 21 goals in seven games. Talbot's even strength save percentage, at .898, is sixth-worst in the League this month for goalies with at least five games played (so starters).

Lundqvist is expected to be back with time to spare before the playoffs. That's a good thing, because playing any of the other three playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division (the Islanders, Penguins and Capitals, all good possession teams) with a goalie stopping less than 90 percent of the shots at even strength would not go very well.

13. Winnipeg Jets (30-19-10)

Winnipeg is a better team with Dustin Byfuglien playing defense, and no amount of health issues up front changes that. It would be like moving an all-star shortstop to left field because there is a league-average guy on the bench who can play short. There was a chance they were going to do it again, but Drew Stafford being healthy enough to play deterred that. The Jets are also a better team with Mathieu Perreault in the lineup, but one of the bargains of the offseason is out for possibly the rest of the regular season so that is a problem.

14. Minnesota Wild (29-21-7)

The Wild keep rolling, and the teams in front of them (besides Los Angeles) are showing signs of leaking oil. The Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames are both facing long East Coast road trips. The Winnipeg Jets have injury and player deployment issues.

Remember how Talbot is sixth-worst in even strength save percentage in February? There are 26 goalies with at least 200 minutes played at evens in February. Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller, Jonathan Quick, Michael Hutchinson and Antti Niemi are all in the bottom 10 in ES save percentage.

Somehow, there are six teams fighting for three spots in the West and the Wild have the most in-form goaltender of the bunch Even better for Minnesota, eight of the next 10 games are against teams outside the top 10 in either conference.

15. Boston Bruins (28-20-9)

The Bruins went to Western Canada and did not win a game. They have lost six of seven, and yielded at least three goals in each of those losses. Maybe Malcolm Subban deserves a start based solely on merit, at this point.

16. San Jose Sharks (29-22-8)

Joe Pavelski acted like The Captain in Arizona on Friday, delivering a passionate first intermission plea (which the EPIX camera crew was in place to film) and then scoring a hat trick to lead the comeback. The Sharks responded to this seemingly season-altering turning point … by getting drilled in the next two games by Tampa Bay and Nashville.

Maybe turning points in an 82-game season are just overrated. Maybe this Sharks team is careening towards the finish line without a playoff berth for the first time since Connor McDavid was six years old, and Jaromir Jagr was 31.

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