When Shanahan told us this time would be different, we believed him. Babcock said there would be pain, we believed him too. When the front office rehashed the season that was, there was a resounding chorus of “this year went better than we anticipated” and “we’re farther along than we thought we would be”. Why wouldn’t that be the case? Any time your farm team chalk full of youngsters dominates the AHL to the tune of “one of the best ever” regular seasons – you’re in good shape. When this same farm team loses in the conference finals and everyone is disappointed – you’re in good shape. When you win the draft lottery in a year where two exceptional young men who carried a heavy load for their respective countries at the World Hockey Championships playing against NHLers and men are yours for the picking – you’re in good shape.
Unfortunately, Toronto has already been waiting – most would argue for more than a decade – to contend. To feed the beast that is undoubtedly the largest NHL fanbase. We may say we are prepared for the pain, but I’m fairly certain everyone has a different interpretation of what this means going forward. The number of people who think the bulk of the Marlies should graduate and fill in around Kadri, JVR, Matthews, and our new captain – Steven Stamkos – leads me to believe that they underestimate this management group’s patience. Maybe they think given the current clime they shouldn’t be patient, but I think they’re in for a rude awakening.
The “Detroit” model is predicated on ensuring your prospects are “over” ready before getting called up full time. Recently, there were reports that the Leafs had engaged in preliminary discussions with Parenteau, and with the likes of Michalek, Greening, Lupul, Bozak, etc. I believe this is the direction the team is headed. Right back to the same well that has restocked the cupboards the last two years. By signing vets to short, cheap, team-friendly deals the Leafs are able to ensure optimal asset management.
How does that work if the young guys don’t get an opportunity to break through – you ask? Mike Babcock rarely calls out his youngsters. Instead he tends to comment on how the team didn’t insulate them enough if they had a bad game, and there’s something to that. When we look at Edmonton, how well do you think they insulated their youngster’s, and what impact do you think it has had on their rebuild? I would argue that before the final ball showed lucky number “13” at the draft lottery Edmonton had a better chance at drafting first overall than the Leafs did. Losing takes a mental toll on young players. An 82-game NHL season will take a physical toll on young players – just ask Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Babcock always said the prospects can’t just be “as good” – they have to be better than the guy they are supplanting. So if the Nylander’s and Kapanen’s decide next year is their year, then the Leafs have three options: 1) keep the vet for insurance (injury, shelter prospects through rough patches, etc.); 2) trade him for picks, prospects, and/or cap space; or, 3) waive the vet. If he gets claimed – voila, free cap space; if he doesn’t, you bury him in the AHL and recoup $995,000 in cap space, which not-so-coincidentally is less than the salary of the prospect that replaced him (before bonuses).
I think the moral of the story here is to not expect 2016-17 to be a 100-point season. It might be, but I think the more likely result is another bottom-8 finish. Another year of pain. Another year of accumulating futures. The turnaround will come, and it’s not much farther off, but it’s also not now. Remember, this is what we signed up for – this is what we begged for. I know we got a taste of winning with the Marlies, but let’s not let our passion get the best of us.
Our patience will be rewarded.