Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Which Leafs GM builds the best lineup of players they acquired?

The Leafs have a weird history of GMs. When it comes to handing over the keys to the franchise, some teams out there definitely have a type. But Toronto has always been all over the map. They’ve hired crusty old guys with decades of experience, but also fresh-faced kids with new ideas. They’ve pilfered other teams for recent Cup winners, but also promoted from within. They’ve had GMs who were really smart and successful, and others who… well, let’s just say some of these guys tried their best and had fun.

It’s an eclectic mix, to say the least. So today, let’s have some fun with that list, as we answer a question: Which Maple Leafs GM from the modern era can make the best six-man starting lineup out of players he acquired while in Toronto?

This won’t be a ranking of the best and worst GMs, at least directly. (If you’re interested, I took a run at that a few years ago.) Instead, we’re interested in who can offer up the best starting six of three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. Acquiring a variety of good players isn’t quite the same thing as being a good GM, but there’s some obvious overlap, so we’ll get a sense for who did the best job while maybe uncovering a few surprises along the way.

But first, a few ground rules:

– GMs are getting credit for any player they acquired in any way. Not just trading, but free agency signings, waivers, and anything else. That includes the entry draft, and we’re giving GMs credit for any players the team picked while they were in charge. That’s admittedly a little dicey, since some GMs are more involved in draft table decisions than others, especially when they may have just taken the job and were probably just green-lighting the scouting staff’s picks. But the buck stops at the top, and this feels like the only fair way to do it.

– This is important: The GM is only getting credit for what the player did while they were a Maple Leaf. That can include production that came after the GM had left the job, but they don’t get credit for acquiring players who went on to make their names somewhere else. Call this the Tuukka Rask rule.

– For this post, we only care about who the GM acquired. We’re not worried about what they gave up, or whether they paid a fair price to do it. If you overpay to land a star player, that’s bad in real life, but for our purposes today, it works.

We’ll be covering the modern era, which is to say we’re going back to 1967, which marked the first big expansion and the end of the Original Six era. Something else may have happened in 1967 too but I’m sure it wasn’t important. We won’t be including Gord Stellick (who was only on the job for one season and would have trouble icing a full squad), Bill Watters (who was interim GM for just a few months in 1997), or the Mark Hunter/Kyle Dubas interim duo in 2015 (since we don’t know which one was calling the shots on individual moves). That leaves us with an even dozen GMs to consider, which is a nice number to work with.

Normally I’d do this chronologically, but I feel like we should just go ahead and start with the elephant in the room: Can anyone come close to beating Cliff Fletcher?

Team Cliff Fletcher (1991 – 1997, 2008)

Forwards: Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin, Dave Andreychuk

Defense: Tomas Kaberle, Dmitry Yushkevich

Goalie: Grant Fuhr

Yeah, I’d say Team Cliff is pretty good.

Probably not surprisingly, it’s built almost entirely through trades. There was a reason they called him Trader Cliff, and I can remember a time growing up in Toronto where if you somebody ripped you off on something, you’d be told “Dude, you got Fletcher’d”. The man knew how to swing a blockbuster, back in an era where that was still a key skill for a GM to have.

There’s four Hall-of-Famers here, and you could make a reasonable argument that three of them did their best work in Toronto. Gilmour had the best short-term peak of any Toronto forward of the modern era, and Sundin is in the conversation for the best Leaf ever. It’s telling that Andreychuk’s back-to-back 50-goal seasons still leave him a distant third.

If there’s a weakness, it’s on the blueline, where I went with two long-term Leafs over Larry Murphy, who was better in Toronto than he gets credit for but isn’t fondly remembered. Jamie Macoun was an option here too. Still, Kaberle may be the best Leaf defenseman of the 2000s, so we’re in decent shape here.

Fun fact: Yushkevich was also the trade that spawned the infamous “draft schmaft” comment that’s a big part of Fletcher’s legacy in Toronto. And sure enough, there’s only one draft pick in this bunch, as Fletcher and the Leafs lucked into Kaberle in the eighth round in 1996 but otherwise didn’t find much.

Other candidates: Larry Murphy, Jamie Macoun, Sergei Berezin, Luke Schenn, Frederik Modin, Glenn Anderson, Mike Gartner, Kirk Muller, Jason Smith, Mikael Grabovski, Tie Domi, Alyn McCauley, Sylvain Lefebvre, Wendel Clark v2.0.

So yeah, this team is stacked. Are they unbeatable? Maybe, but let’s find out.

Team Brian Burke (2008 – 2013)

Forwards: Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk

Defense: Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner

Goalie: Jean-Sebastien Giguere

Burke might be the second most memorable Leafs GM of the modern era, and if we were giving bonus points for sound bites he’d leave Fletcher in the dust.

As it stands, he still offers up a solid lineup. And maybe a little surprisingly, it’s one that’s strengthened by two excellent draft picks, as Kadri and Rielly were both legitimately strong choices. Combine that with Burke’s well-established reputation an as an aggressive and (usually) successful trader, and you’ve got the core of a strong entry.

Unfortunately, this team is very on-brand for Burke in two other ways: There’s no sign of a useful UFA signing, and the goaltending is weak. Giguere only lasted parts of two seasons, but our only other option is Jonas Gustavsson, and I think I’d take the Olaf Kolzig era over that.

Other candidates: Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak

Team Burkie isn’t bad, but not quite at Team Cliff’s level. Let’s reach a little further back.

Team Gerry McNamara (1981 – 1988)

Forwards: Wendel Clark, Ed Olczyk, Gary Leeeman

Defense: Todd Gill, Al Iafrate

Goalie: Allan Bester

One of the most-maligned GMs in Toronto history puts together a surprisingly solid squad, one that’s built almost entirely through the draft. McNamara had his hands tied in free agency by the rules of the day and a cheapskate owner, and his trading record was pretty abysmal beyond the excellent deal to get Olczyk out of Chicago. But he hit on more than a few picks, even if he could never overcome Harold Ballard’s meddling long enough to build an actual winner.

Other candidates: Russ Courtnall, Vincent Damphousse, Stumpy Thomas, Luke Richardson, Ken Wregget, Motor City Smitty

Speaking of much-maligned GMs, let’s get this one out of the way…

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