Tonight the Carolina Hurricanes will play the Toronto Maple Leafs for the first time in the 2015-16 season. The 2 teams are similar in that they both missed the playoffs by a wide margin last season and are very much in the process of rebuilding their franchises with the aim to win and so so consistently in the future.
I will put up a game preview at my new Canes and Coffee site
this afternoon but wanted to also use this as a chance to compare and contrast each team's approach to building for the future.
Toronto started by adding the best it could get in Mike Babcock. Babcock has a big profile and a history of winning. Interestingly, the Canes last year selected former Babcock assistant Bill Peters to sit at the coaching helm of their turnaround effort. So while the Leafs went for a much higher profile coach whereas the Canes picked up a lesser known name, it is interesting that both come from the same lineage and winning tradition in Detroit.
Strategy for player development
The Hurricanes approach for developing players since Ron Francis became the GM last summer has been to hold roster spots for youth at the NHL level. If Jaccob Slavin makes his NHL debut as expected on Friday against Toronto, the Canes will have 3 defensemen (Hanifin, Pesce, Slavin) in the lineup who average 20 years old had exactly 0 games of NHL experience combined entering this season. Francis also opted to leave a spot or 2 open at forward to be won in camp instead of signing free agents.
The Maple Leafs approach has been a different. While there is some youth in the lineup, the Leafs filled a number of slots with short-term free agent signings of veterans and seems to have a preference to let the prospects develop below the NHL level.
Draft pick management
Both teams have been in the mode of acquiring extra draft picks and not spending them on short-term band aid fixes for their current lineup. The Carolina Hurricanes have 2 extra picks in the first 3 rounds of next year's draft. The Leafs also have 2 extra picks in the first 3 rounds of the 2016 draft.
Maybe more significantly for the Leafs, the expectation is that they will be able to parlay the short-term free agent signings from this summer into additional draft picks at the trade deadline in February. Mike Augello profiled the Toronto players likely to be dealt before the trade deadline in this recent article.
The role of veterans
Both teams still have a number of veteran players on the NHL roster. The biggest item in this regard for the Hurricanes is still to be resolved when Ron Francis makes a decision on what to do with longtime team cornerstones Eric Staal and Cam Ward who are both scheduled to become free agents this summer. Behind those to key decisions, the Hurricanes do have a decent mix of experienced but fairly young players in Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk and also a couple older veterans in Jay McClement, Ron Hainsey, John-Michael Liles and James Wisniewski (on IR). In terms of players signed past the short-timers from this summer, the Leafs still have captain Dion Phaneuf signed long-term and also Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and James Gardiner signed for 2 years past the the 2015-16 season. The big question in both cases is which of these players are considered part of the core and which are likely to be dealt if possible.
Most striking difference
When you net it out, the 2 teams rebuilding processes are similar in terms of stockpiling and using draft picks to build organization depth and also in terms of having some veterans as part of the mix at least short-term at the NHL level.
I think the most striking difference is the ‘where players develop.’ Toronto is largely using its AHL team as the training grounds for its prospects (except the ones in Canadian juniors obviously). Mike Babcock’s direct involvement with the AHL team is also telling about using the AHL as not just a place to gain experience, but a place to learn what Maple Leafs hockey is in terms of systems and strategies.
The Hurricanes have players developing in the AHL too, but also a much higher mix of young players learning on the job at the NHL level. As noted above, Hanifin, Murphy and Pesce have all been playing at the NHL level on defense, and Slavin will be added to that mix on Friday. If Slavin sticks after Murphy’s return from injury, the Canes would suddenly have 4 of their 7 young guns (other 2 are Fleury who is in juniors and Carrick who is in the AHL) of the future on defense playing in the NHL. Brock McGinn has also seen a stint at the NHL level at forward already this year.
Time will tell which of these approaches works best fastest. In the meantime, the ‘work in process’ version of these teams face-off against each other in Raleigh on Friday night.