Not since Wendel Clark was chosen first overall in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft have the Toronto Maple Leafs been graced with the number one pick. Besides Joe Nieuwendyk (chosen 27th by the Calgary Flames), you would be hard pressed to argue that Wendel wasn’t a great choice that year with the first selection. Regardless, both teams walked away with the two best players of that draft and you would be even harder pressed to find a Leaf fan who would prefer Nieuwendyk’s superior career numbers over number 17 patrolling the ice for the the Blue and White. Wendel was just that memorable, inspiring and fun to watch.
We are now only two weeks away from the 2016 entry draft and again, we have an opportunity to select a player that is potentially franchise impacting, so what does it all mean?
Since the draft lottery took place and we saw the Toronto Maple Leafs logo revealed as the lottery winner, I have been hesitant to open my big mouth about the opportunity to select first overall (after I ran around my house screaming and ultimately jumping on my bed). After all, why would I interrupt the delirious masses? I see die hards enthusiastically pencilling in Auston Matthews on potential line up cards for the 2016/17 season, sharing and debating line combinations on Twitter, vigorously arguing whether Marner goes alongside Nylander to shore up our second scoring line. They have a look in their eye we haven’t seen around these parts in a while. It’s optimism…
I would like to add some caution to the conversation, the proverbial bucket of cold water if you will. What the Toronto Maple Leafs need to do at this critical juncture is ask for seconds of last years generous serving of humble pie with an adamant “Yes, I’ll have another please” because we are famished. After almost 15 years of watching from the sidelines come spring, we will likely be bad again next season and that’s ok. Our first overall draft position is a harbinger, the two minute warning if you prefer, of the rapidly diminishing time before our futures mature and usher in a new era of playoff hockey on Bay Street. Although the Maple Leafs already have an enviable cast of young talent, an outright embarrassment of riches should be the objective and for that reason, accelerating this rebuild would be a mistake.
I understand that long suffering fans are excited to hear the hoofbeats of elite teenaged reinforcements but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Through some sort of cognitive dissonance, every time we excitedly write down what our 2016/17 lineup may look like come October with Steven Stamkos and Auston Matthews down the middle, we all do the same thing. No, not giggle, the other thing. We ignore the gaping holes on defence and in net. It’s worth noting that this team finished with the worst record of 30 NHL teams last season. For those not nuanced in mathematics and advanced stats, that’s um…carry the two… Bad.
Although our first pick in this year’s entry draft is very likely to be an elite, impact player for the next 15 plus years, even though last years 4th overall pick, Mitch Marner managed to score 318 points in his last 149 games of junior hockey (is that good?), and William Nylander, chosen 8th overall in 2014 appeared very well suited for regular NHL duty in his first 22 games with the Maple Leafs, we are still quite a long way from having the kind of multiple championship caliber team that is the sole purpose of any rebuild.
On the blue line, with the exception of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, our defence corps is largely unproven. The signing of KHL defensemen Nikita Zaitsev is an interesting development for the 2016/17 squad but he rounds out what is simply an underwhelming platoon of Frank Corrado, Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin. Enough said.
Which brings me to one of the most vital needs for the Maple Leafs rebuild at the moment: Goaltending.
By trading James Reimer for what is now a 3rd round pick, we are left with Jonathan Bernier to hold down the fort. His inconsistency is a major red flag, even for a struggling team. He is known to let in a soft goal, early in games and it’s anyone’s guess which Jonathan Bernier is going to show up on any given night. At age 27, he’s not exactly the goalie of the future and at 4.15M in the second year of his two year contract, the writing is on the wall. Perhaps Mr. Bernier will prove me wrong and have a stellar 2016/17 season, but it seems like a long shot at this point. Who do we have coming down the pipe to step into one of the most critical positions for any perennial contender? Garret Sparks…
This years draft is not only about picking first. We will have 11 other picks after choosing Aust.. Ahem uh after our first selection. This is the time to begin addressing what is a very severe deficiency of goaltending depth in this organization. The thing is, drafting goalies is a difficult thing to do, just ask the New York Islanders. Young goaltenders are still honing their craft well into their mid twenties and beyond so how do we approach this?
We can use one of the only cards we have to play: Numbers. By using 3-4 of our 12 picks to draft goaltenders, we can boldly address the need. I don’t think many are expecting to see 3+ goaltenders drafted this year but I will be paying close attention to what we do as round 2 commences. If there was such thing as a “can’t miss” goalie prospect, you would see them go earlier, more often in the draft and those picks would pan out more frequently. It stands to reason that since goalies are almost impossible to predict in their development, that we should leverage our quantity of picks, later in the draft to negate the risk and hedge our bets. Think of these picks as scratch tickets, because that’s all they are.
Drafting a handful of goalies this year won’t be enough, goaltending will remain an important commodity to accumulate over the next few years also. The best thing for this Maple Leafs rebuild in the upcoming campaign is to rinse and repeat the 2015/16 strategy, start our top young players with the Marlies (with the exception of Marner who is not eligible), allow them to grow physically and learn Babcock’s system, pick up a few discarded veterans on short term, cap friendly contracts that we can trade for more draft picks at the deadline. Then we can bring up our prospects to fill the holes left by trades and begin to see what we have.
Oh ya, and suck. We need to suck again. A top 10 pick in next year’s draft would go a long way towards our defensive needs so we can continue the pursuit of icing a bonafide top 4 and unless we do, debating line combinations is akin to asking how many angels we can fit on the head of a pin as the saying goes. It’s a fruitless endeavour.
When Brendan Shanahan shocked the hockey world with the signing of coach Mike Babcock, our prized bench boss stressed one thing at his first presser, “there’s going to be pain”. Despite his best efforts, he has delivered on this mantra and it is the right one. This is not “tanking”. This is a team that still lacks the pieces to compete right now and unless we get realistic about the current stage of our rebuild, that humble pie will be served a la mode whether we’re hungry or not. The first selection in the 2016 entry draft is a great main course, but I would like dessert.
PS: The 52nd pick in that 1985 draft tells me it pays to take goalies a little later and often, you never know who you might get.