How desirable are the Maple Leafs from a recruitment perspective (2024)

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Video games are not real life. I’ll start with that because I want to save the TLN Facebook comment section sometime in their busy days.

Video games are not real life, but I admit to at least having an appreciation for EA’s new NCAA Football game having a detailed grading system for recruiting players. While I can’t speak to the execution of it in the game, I wanted to consider their 14-point criteria from an NHL perspective and attempt to grade the Maple Leafs on it.

How desirable are the Maple Leafs from a recruitment perspective (1)

Since I felt the need to say that life is not video games, I should also say that professional ice hockey is not college football. Some categories like Academic prestige don’t factor in at all. Campus lifestyle can easily be swapped out for City lifestyle. Pro potential might easily be switched to development potential, and for the sake of making this a bit more thorough we’ll add a couple more. The money (call me crazy but I think this matters) and Teammates.

It’s summer. This is what summer content looks like. Deal with it.

Let’s get started.

Academic Prestige The Money

With the Coyotes gone I don’t there is any team in the league that is at risk for stiffing players on payday, but that isn’t always the full money picture and Toronto’s is complicated.

The pros of the money situation in Toronto is that they are very comfortable paying out contracts in signing bonus lump sums rather than evenly throughout the season. The Maple Leafs have also built a reputation for paying premium prices for premium players and you know that every cent available to the team for salary cap space is going to be used and then potentially a little more.

Now the downside, the Maple Leafs are still in the spend on the core and then there isn’t much to go around. The rising salary cap and the 2025 free agents may help some of that, but it is very possible that most players are given a take it or leave it, best they can do offer and a lot will leave it.

On top of that, while income tax doesn’t matter nearly as much as it is assumed to matter, it matters a little, and Canadian teams are at a disadvantage. The cost of living in Toronto is also very high and when careers don’t last that long, what you net during your playing days matters.

If I’m grading Toronto on their money situation, I probably give them a C.

Athletic Facilities

There is no cap on what teams can spend their money on with the exception of the roster, so the Maple Leafs have built some incredible facilities that not only appeal to the players but appeal to the people who train the players. While the buildings might no longer be the newest in the NHL, the Maple Leafs have the resources for upkeep and if Toronto doesn’t have the best of the best, they are likely near the top of the league.

The thing here is how much this factors into a professional athlete’s decision making process and while I’d say it can be a selling point and is likely considered a nice bonus to other factors, I can’t imagine players are coming to Toronto for the gym and practice rink.

Still, I’d give them an A, but recognizing that Cash is still king when it comes to recruitment factors so far.

Brand Exposure

During the 2023 trade deadline Ryan O’Reilly was barely off the plane from Nashville and he was finding himself in ads for businesses around Toronto. The Leafs are easily the biggest fanbase in hockey and draw the most eyes in the country on a weekly basis. The centre of the hockey universe is not an understatement and if you want to be seen, Toronto is the place to play.

If it doesn’t go well, I guess that’s the drawback and the media exposure is certainly not for everyone so there is such a thing as too much and brand exposure in Toronto might crossover from being a selling point to alienating players who would prefer a quiet life away from the rink.

For those who seek the limelight, Toronto’s an easy A. For those who don’t, I’d say it’s a C. I’ll split the difference here and say Toronto is a B.

City lifestyle

There really isn’t any shortage of things to do in Toronto especially if you have the money to do them. Nightlife, concerts, top tier restaurants, etc. all fit the young with money profile. The only thing it lacks is the beach/golf/boating options of southern coastal teams, and while Toronto’s lifestyle options are top tier, the Kings, Rangers, Golden Knights, and possibly the Predators still might have the monopoly on the extracurriculars.

Some of what was said in the money section about cost of living will apply here too, there’s also the traffic to deal with, and as Mitch Marner so eloquently put it, “they are treated like Gods here” which is a double-edged sword as well.

The Maple Leafs might not be in the top tier and for American players anything that isn’t the USA might not cut it, but I still would grade Toronto a B+ here.

Championship Contender

This one feels like a loaded question that is a post unto itself. I’m going to go brief with this and say the Leafs are unquestionably a playoff team for now and the foreseeable future. A division title, Presidents Trophy or Conference Final would make the Leafs an A, so we’ll give them a B instead.

Coach stability

It seems funny to say that coach stability is good in Toronto when the coach they have is yet to coach a game for the team, but Sheldon Keefe got a long run. He was one of the most tenured coaches in the league and despite people calling for his head, Brad Treliving did give him another go before bringing in his guy.

Treliving’s history with coaches is bit wonkier and might bring the grade down a little. Take the Bill Peters fiasco out of the equation and you still have four coaches in a decade. Even the Geoff Ward/Bill Peters combo works out to over two years behind the bench, so I guess he’s not too reactionary and the results of the Flames are very different than the current state of the Leafs.

Still, if Jon Cooper were made available tomorrow I’m not sure how long Craig Berube would have job security for, so I’ll grade the Leafs a B- in this category.

Coach prestige

Oddly enough the last Leafs coach with prestige attached to them was Mike Babco*ck, so in a general sense I’m not sure how much it matters.

I don’t think anyone is outright seeking the opportunity to play under Craig Berube but I don’t think there are guys actively dodging him either. He’s got a ring from his time with the Blues and that carries some weight but that included a run of hockey from Jordan Binnington that he’ll likely never produce again.

I will say that I’d put money on more players being interested in playing under Berube than Keefe and that’s something and Berube not having a reputation as someone to avoid probably gets him some points too.

I’ll grade the Leafs in the B category noting that this grade is possibly based in an optimistic outlook.

Conference prestige

This is another one that applies much more to the NCAA than any pro sports situation. The league is the prestige.

That said, I’ll take this fairly literally and acknowledge that players do want to play in the East more than they want to play in the West. One time zone vs. four is a selling point. Shorter travel is a selling point. The real difference comes down to which is better, the ultra condensed travel of the Metropolitan Division or the somewhat condensed travel of the Atlantic Division with the winter road trips to Florida as a bonus? I think most players would still choose the Metropolitan Division, but the Atlantic Division is still in the right conference and that earns the Leafs a B grade.

Playing time

This is one that you can see biting the Leafs on the ass when it comes to NCAA free agency for sure. Landing Quillan last spring was a good get and having Webber willing to sign was a positive too, but it’s hard to imagine that either was told they have a straightforward path to the NHL.

The NHL roster is just as tricky and shows up now that the high profile part of free agency is over. There are “come to camp and compete” options available to depth players but signing in Toronto isn’t a guarantee they’ll play in Toronto. There is a strong possibility that waivers could be part of their future, or they might be stepping into a platoon role that doesn’t see them playing every night. The fact that the Leafs have so many top forward incumbents makes it especially hard to attract talent there and Nick Robertson looking for a trade doesn’t help sell the team.

The situation for Chris Tanev illustrates the opposite can be true. Tanev probably had a few similar offers moneywise, but Toronto was offering him a top pairing spot. He’s openly talked about playing with Rielly next season so playing time and role was absolutely part of the pitch.

Stolarz is another guy who benefited from there being a clear path forward. He knows that Woll is a young guy the Leafs believe in, but he also knows he’ll get more time in net than he’s ever seen in his NHL career and has a better situation in Toronto than elsewhere.

Playing time is absolutely a factor but the grade will vary a lot based on the player in the recruitment process. The fact that Craig Berube will be coming at things with a new perspective also means the status quo could be disrupted.

For incoming veteran players I’d grade Toronto a B, and for younger players a C-, but it is very situational.

Development Potential

One of the things the Leafs do very well is player development and there have been a number of players who have improved during their time in Toronto. At the same time Toronto is growing their own better than they have in a long time.

The resources that Toronto has at its disposal are well known and likely appreciated around the league and as much as he’s an example of things not working out, John Klingberg was likely attracted to the Maple Leafs as a place where he could get his game back on track.

I’d grade the Leafs an A- in this area as they still can’t work miracles.

Playing style

If there is one area that needs some attention under Craig Berube it’s this. Maybe I’m lumping identity in with playing style but the Leafs lack of an identity is has become a tired trope. It gets flung around as code for not caring enough, sticking up for each, or playing tough enough at times, but also dips into the core four forwards mentality and lines just going through the motions until it’s time to put Auston back on the ice again.

Hopefully no one is expecting Berube to work miracles as the Maple Leafs have been hard to describe under a number of coaches not just Keefe. The Quinn era had a feel. The Babco*ck era (good or bad) felt structured. But Keefe, Caryle, Wilson, and Maurice all had chaos and a lot of that is the partnership they had with their GM.

This feels like a to be determined category but given that it is TBD after what felt like half a decade of TBD, the grade should probably be a D and this is one of the things working against Toronto the most right now.

Proximity to home

With the Leafs love of bringing back Greater Toronto Area players and the number of GTA players in the league, this one could score fairly high. Throw in that Conference Prestige impact of players never really being that far away from their families and making it easy to visit is a plus.

For European players proximity might not be a factor but Pearson Airport being Canada’s hub airport is a plus. Direct flights rule. In fact, for Canadian players and their families Toronto has to be the easiest place in the league to get to as well.

For American players, there really is no substitute for ‘merica. This will always make recruitment more challenging although Toronto isn’t lacking for American talent at the moment and compared to every other Canadian city Toronto is at an advantage for a lot of the same convenience reasons.

Given that more players call Ontario home than any other area it’s hard not to give Toronto an A here.

Program Tradition

This one depends on if you are history fan or an ancient history fan. If you are an ancient history fan the Maple Leafs are the club for you. Original Six, Stanley Cups, Conn Smythe, Johnny Bower, Maple Leaf Gardens, and all those good things.

This might also shock you that there’s been a whole lot of nothing since 1967. There were some fun Conference Finals, Sittler’s 10-point night, and some nice moments from Matthews and Sundin, but considering that the 1967-present history is longer than most franchise histories and Toronto has little to show for it.

The Maple Leafs have history the way the New York Knicks, Cleveland Browns, and New York Jets have history. There seems to be an acknowledgement that these were once great franchises it’s just very people can remember seeing them be great.

That’s not really fair and the reality is that Maple Leafs fandom does seem to be handed down from generation to generation and representing the largest city in the country is impactful. Whether things have gone well lately doesn’t change that there is something special about putting on a blue and white sweater with a maple leaf on it.

Cynicism aside, the grade should be at least a B+.

Stadium Atmosphere

Is there a grade below F?

I kid and as someone who isn’t in Toronto I have limited firsthand experience of the Scotiabank Arena. I don’t think anyone should make a case for it being lively or having a particularly engaging in-game experience, but it does come to life for the big moments.

This is another category that can be a post unto itself but given how fanatical the fanbase is at large the Scotiabank Arena experience doesn’t come close to living up to what interacting with 20,000 Leafs fans should feel like.

This category feels like about as low a priority you could get in the recruitment process for a pro athlete although I can see it having merit in the NCAA and if anything, maybe it fits in with a retention aspect more as the lack of an intense stadium atmosphere might take away from the playing in Toronto experience.

Anyways, I’d give the Scotiabank Arena a D+ but with the acknowledgement of the minimal impact.

Teammates

This is one that EA didn’t include and I’d have to imagine that upperclassmen is something that recruits look at heavily in their decision making process. A lot of that can be lumped into Championship contender, but with pro careers working different, coming to a new city the assumption is that your social and work lives are going to be entirely made up of the people in that locker room.

Age splits, nationality, whether there are former teammates there, and if there are leaders/stars that you are excited to line up behind or if you are a leader/star is that a group you think you can take charge of, are all factors that going to matter.

Despite the fact that I added this, I don’t see it as one that easily gets a single grade. A Swedish player might be attracted to the Leafs because of the number of fellow countrymen. There is absolutely a group of London Knights present, and despite constantly seeing leadership called into question around the Leafs, there are strong positive voices in that room.

That’s not to say that there aren’t questions to be raised about the Maple Leafs team dynamic as well.

Overall: B-

I’d give the Leafs a B- with the belief that I don’t think many teams in the NHL can score an outright A.

The things that seem to set the Maple Leafs apart from the rest of the league the most in a positive way is their non-roster spending, desire to play specifically in Toronto, and that they are a safe bet to be competitive.

The biggest drawbacks would have to be the undefined playing style of the team and lack of role clarity for anyone coming in. Not knowing if you are a fit, if you’ll get playing time, and potential backlash if things don’t work out could impact decisions.

And of course there is the money. Doesn’t really factor into the NCAA but it certainly matters here. It will always feel like a little more is required in Toronto.

While this was a lengthy exercise of somewhat questionable value it has taught me two things. EA needs to step up their dynasty mode in the NHL series and I should probably get my hands on NCAA Football whether I’m a fan of the sport or not.

Thanks to Nick Richard for sending me down this rabbit hole.

How desirable are the Maple Leafs from a recruitment perspective (2024)
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