When did the Leafs’ rebuild begin?

“The Leafs’ rebuild is ahead of schedule.”

How many times have you heard that over the last little while? Most of us would agree that the Leafs are in the middle of a rebuild but when did it all start?

Nobody seems to agree on an exact moment when this big shift started so let’s try to figure out exactly when the Leafs’ rebuild began.

“THIS IS YEAR FOUR OF THE REBUILD”

The argument for: On June 22, 2012, the Leafs selected Morgan Rielly fifth overall. Then-Leafs GM Brian Burke claimed that Toronto had Rielly rated first overall. At the time it was just thought of as posturing but looking back nearly five years later, he might have been telling the truth. The four players selected before Rielly in order were Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk, and Griffin Reinhart.

Garret Sparks is a ’11 pick. Leo Komarov finally came to the Leafs in ’12 after being drafted by John Ferguson Jr. in ’06. Nazem Kadri was Burke’s first ever Leafs pick in ’09. Connor Brown was a ’12 pick like Rielly. Frederik Gauthier, Antoine Bibeau, and forward prospect Andreas Johnsson are all ’13 picks. William Nylander was chosen eighth overall in ’14. Rome wasn’t built in a day and apparently the Leafs weren’t built the day they drafted Auston Matthews, either.

Admittedly, I hadn’t considered this until speaking to Jeff Veillette. It’s a unique theory.

The Argument Against: The Leafs acquired Jonathan Bernier, Dave Bolland, and David Clarkson in the summer of ’13 after the team lost to the Boston Bruins in the first round. The Leafs extended Phil Kessel the very next October. The Leafs extended Dion Phaneuf at the end of December. Randy Carlyle was given an extension of his own the following May and that was after Brendan Shanahan got hired.

You can definitely call 2012-2014 a Leafs rebuild of sorts but it definitely seems more like a team that thought it was better than it was, gearing up for presumed success ahead. The Leafs have turfed the three key players they acquired that summer, both of the core players they extended, their head coach, and later their GM, his assistants, and nearly 20 scouts. A few pieces remain from the regimes of old but if you’re rebuilding a team and assess that you already have some pieces worth keeping, shouldn’t you keep them?

APRIL 11, 2014 – BRENDAN SHANAHAN NAMED LEAFS PRESIDENT AND ALTERNATE GOVERNOR

The Argument For: It’s literally called “The Shanaplan”.

Neither Mike Babcock nor Lou Lamoriello are with the Leafs without Shanahan. None of the trio of management under Lamoriello – Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas, and Brandon Pridham – were with the Leafs before Shanahan. All the Centennial celebrations, including an effort to mend the wound between the Leafs and Dave Keon is because of Shanahan. When the Leafs won the draft lottery in 2016 so they could select Matthews, who was there holding the card?

That guy!

As the team’s president, everything goes through Shanahan. If the Leafs experience any success it is to the credit of Shanahan.

The Argument Against: Dude, the guy wanted to re-sign Bolland.

Multiple outlets had the Leafs offering Bolland five years at $5 million per season, or just shy of that, in the summer of ’14.

The Panthers outbid the Leafs for Bolland at $5.5 million for five seasons. Were it not for that, he might still be a Leaf; or at least that’s how he would appear on the cap. Not to mention, one of Shanahan’s first acts as president, less than a month after getting hired, was to extend Carlyle. There are decent arguments to defend this, namely that Shanahan had just gotten the job and felt the need to evaluate before acting. At the time though, it was a worrying start to his Toronto tenure.

Shanahan has been a catalyst for so many good things in Toronto but he needed help along the way.

JULY 22, 2014: LEAFS HIRE KYLE DUBAS, FIRE DAVE POULIN & CLAUDE LOISELLE

The Argument For: After the above-mentioned early reasons for pessimism in Shanahan’s reign in Toronto, the Leafs fired two key cogs of the old regime in Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle. Poulin was the Leafs’ VP of hockey operations and Loiselle was an assistant GM in charge of monitoring the team’s cap situation.

On the same day, the Leafs hired then 28-year-old Kyle Dubas to become one of the team’s new assistant general managers.

This, to me, is where the rebuild truly began. It is the first clear sign of a different direction. Everyone knew two things about Dubas: He thought about hockey differently than the old boys and an NHL team was eventually going to hire him. That team ended up being the Leafs.

One week later, the Leafs signed Jake Gardiner, darling defender of the analytics world, to a five year extension at $4.05 million per season. On Aug. 19, less than a month after Dubas’ hiring, the Leafs hired Brandon Pridham as “assistant to the general manager” to go along with a new analytics department. On Oct. 21, Mark Hunter was hired to be assistant GM as well.

All three of Dubas, Pridham, and Hunter oversaw the 2015 NHL Draft where the Leafs picked Mitch Marner fourth overall and had nine picks total; most of which were received with optimism.

What started this new wave for the Leafs? July 22, 2014.

The Argument Against: It’s not as if the Leafs hired Dubas and in his first week the Leafs were like “What do you think, Kyle?” and he’s said, “Offer Jake Gardiner $20 million!” and that was the end of it. The Gardiner negotiations with Toronto had been ongoing.

No team has gotten better overnight by hiring or firing anybody in management. Coaching maybe (the reigning Stanley Cup champions, for example), but not a front-office move.

Clarkson wasn’t dealt until over seven months after Dubas’ hiring. The Kessel trade was nearly a year later. The Phaneuf deal took almost a year-and-a-half.

It’s hard to call Dubas’ hiring the beginning of the rebuild when the de-build hadn’t even begun.

JANUARY 6, 2015 – LEAFS FIRE RANDY CARLYLE

The Argument For: I actually made a video about this less than a month ago, saying I thought Carlyle’s firing was when the Leafs’ rebuild began. I’ve changed my mind a bit since then but let’s try this anyway.

The Carlyle firing was surprising at the time. The Leafs had hit a bit of a skid, which was pretty much an annual thing, but the team was still in a playoff position. It seemed that the team had seen the writing on the wall and were proactive about fixing the problem. That began with firing a coach whose team got outshot almost every game.

The Argument Against: After Carlyle was fired, interim head coach Peter Horachek’s Leafs went 9-28-5 in the final 42 games. How many teams could muster more than nine wins in 42 games if they simply had no coach at all?

Firing Carlyle didn’t magically make the Leafs better overnight. In fact, it seemed to make them worse. It’s one thing if you’re a rebuilding team trading your players for draft picks and prospects to make you better down the line. When you fire your coach and it doesn’t make you a better team, how can you justify it as a beneficial move?

FEBRUARY 26, 2015 – LEAFS TRADE DAVID CLARKSON TO COLUMBUS

The Argument For: You know the saying “Wayne Gretzky got traded so anybody can get traded?” The cap-world equivalent has to be “David Clarkson got traded so anybody could get traded.” Clarkson’s contract was buyout-proof and actually-being-decent-value-proof. How could the Leafs pull off their grand plans with this boat anchor on the cap? Nathan Horton goes on LTIR and there’s your surprisingly simple solution that was hiding in plain sight the whole time.

The Argument Against: You managed to trade a guy you should have never signed in the first place for a guy who will never play a single game for your team. Congrats.

APRIL 12, 2015 – THE LEAFS FIRE *takes a deep breath* GM DAVE NONIS, HEAD COACH PETER HORACHEK, ASSISTANT COACHES STEVE SPOTT AND CHRIS DENNIS, GOALIE COACH RICK ST. CROIX, CHIEF PRO SCOUT STEVE KASPER, DIRECTOR OF PLAYER DEVELOPMENT JIM HUGHES, AND 18 SCOUTS

The Argument For: If you’re looking for a day where the Leafs changed, how about the day they fired almost literally everybody? A list of people the Leafs didn’t fire that day is probably shorter.

You can’t rebuild until you de-build and that day was as “scorched earth” as it gets.

The Argument Against: Shouldn’t you have to add something to your team in order to get credit for its success? This is like lighting your car on fire and giving yourself credit for buying a new car. Of course you had to buy a new one! You burnt your last one to the ground!

There are a few other moments you could definitely look at:

  • MAY 20, 2015 – LEAFS HIRE MIKE BABCOCK AS HEAD COACH
  • JULY 1, 2015 – LEAFS TRADE LEADING SCORER PHIL KESSEL
  • JULY 23, 2015 – LEAFS HIRE LOU LAMORIELLO AS GM
  • FEBRUARY 9, 2016 – LEAFS TRADE CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF

The thing is, I don’t think there is one definitive date that the rebuild started. If you’re looking purely at when the team’s ideology seemed to shift, it would be hiring Kyle Dubas and firing two long-tenured members of the previous Leafs regime in the same day. None of that happens without Shanahan being hired before it however, and we don’t view that move as a success without the many different circumstances that followed, so the debate rages on.

When do you think this Leafs’ rebuild began?