There has been some interesting discussions on the direction of the Toronto Maple Leafs after winning the draft lottery and setting themselves up to select a potential elite number one centre in Auston Matthews.
There are many in Leafs Nation very interested in signing Steven Stamkos, who is an unrestricted free agent July 1st. However that interest may be tempered a bit by the blood clots Stamkos is currently suffering from.
There are also many in Leafs Nation who have interest in bringing in John Tavares. Why wouldnt they, he is a great talent. However, to get him now would require a trade. You don’t get one of the leagues best players for free. He also has 2 years left on his very affordable and attractive contract with the Islanders.
The reality is, the Leafs probably shouldn’t bother with either one of them. At least not right away. Unless Stamkos accepts a deeply discounted contract, or Tavares is acquired for limited assets, it may be best for the Leafs to wait before bringing in a big name player.
With the 1st overall selection, there may be a sense of urgency to get good right away, considering they are getting a high-end player right off the hop. Adding this to the other talents the Leafs have accumulated the last little while, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, to name a few. A solid foundation boasting these young studs, I can see why the organization may be tempted to buy to win sooner than later. With it being the Centennial year for the Maple Leafs, a season of celebration, this may prove to be a catalyst for feeling the urgency to actually start winning and having success. After finishing dead last and being on a run of missing the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons, they may be simply tired of losing.
Lest we forget the giant conglomerate owners of the Leafs, Bell and Rogers, assumedly chomping at the bit to taste some lucrative playoff revenue.
The thing is, this is a marathon. It takes an extreme amount of time and patience to get to where you want to be these days in the NHL. Its not a sprint. Success, as in sustained success, just doesn’t happen overnight.
Ask the Tampa Bay Lightning how hard it is to sustain success. The 2004 team which won the last cup before the “New” post lockout NHL came about, couldn’t adapt well enough at the beginning of the cap era and failed to really be contenders over the next 5 seasons. They went back to being basement dwellers and as a result, were able to add Stamkos, Hedman and others. After a long rebuild, only in the last 2 years have they shown themselves to be strong contenders.
Ask the Carolina Hurricanes, as they won the 1st post lockout Cup. Since then they have won just 2 playoff rounds, all in one season, 2009. Being a perennial contender is not easy.
It is this the Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to accomplish. Trying to be consistently among the contenders or even Stanley Cup favorites. Then one day to, of course, win it all. To get there though, it undoubtedly will be a long, difficult process.
The Chicago Blackhawks are everyone’s favorite template on how to build a perennial contender. However, at one time, they were really bad as well. While they missed the playoffs quite a bit and accumulated draft picks in the process, they didn’t make the most of their futility at the beginning as they were badly mismanaged and it led to even worse results. Check out the picks they more or less wasted from 1998 to 2002:
1998 – Mark Bell 8th overall
1999 – Steve McCarthy 23rd overall (the Hawks had 4th overall pick that year but traded it in the complicated Sedin transaction)
2000 – Mikhail Yakubov 10th overall
2000 – Pavel Vorobiev 11th overall
2001 – Adam Munro 29th overall
The only two picks in those 4 years that were worth anything were Tuomo Ruutu and Craig Anderson in 2001.
Their rebuild didn’t really start taking shape until 2002 when they selected Duncan Keith in the 2nd round. A draft that also included James Wiesnewski and Adam Burish. (Anton Babchuk was their 1st rounder that year).
Follow that with selecting Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Dustin Byfuglien in 2003; David Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Troy Brouwer and Cam Barker in 2004; and Nic Hjalmarsson in 2005. This set them up to have great support players to surround future marquee talent.
Those marquee talents were Jonathan Toews who they got 3rd overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane, being picked 1st overall in 2007. At one point these two were rookies and green to the NHL. Team success was a work in progress. Not until 2009, 2 years after drafting Kane, they added a veteran player in Marian Hossa. It was with this UFA signing that they really felt that they were on the cusp of great success.
Three years after the Kane pick, the Hawks won their first cup since 1964. We all know what they’ve done since. In an era where the salary cap restricts teams from staying together, to win 3 times in 6 years, it’s quite the feat.
Not convinced? How about the Los Angeles Kings who’ve won 2 cups since 2012.
Between finals appearances from 1993 and 2012, the Kings missed the playoffs 11 times and won one playoff round in that time.
From 2003 to 2009 they went 6 straight years without a playoff appearance. It was during that time that pieces were drafted, signed and traded for; forming their core group and enviable deep roster.
Captain Dustin Brown was picked in 2003. Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick followed in 2005 and Drew Doughty in 2008. Throw in the other players they selected, like Alec Martinez, Jordan Nolan, Dwight King, Kyle Clifford, Slava Voynov, Trevor Lewis as well as Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds whom they used in trade, and you have a blueprint of building slowly, patiently, yet when the time comes, turning prospects into premier talents.
Toronto will get to that point eventually. But is the time now? It might not be.
The Leafs have a good foundation with aforementioned Marner, Nylander, Reilly and likely soon to be Leaf, Auston Matthews.
How long these four players take to develop and turn from young up-and-comers/prospects into elite NHLers will dictate the Leafs path and how quickly they move through it.
The team has added a slew of those necessary support pieces too that will be valuable as Leafs or as future assets.
Nazem Kadri, whom the team re-signed to a 6 year deal, James Van Riemsdyk and Jake Gardiner are still young enough to be a big part of the team long term.
Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman showed a bit of something in their mini showcase this year.
Trades that landed Hyman, Tobias Lindberg, Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Connor Carrick and Brendan Leipsic offer organizational depth the Leafs have lacked for years.
And they have a whopping 12 picks in the upcoming draft, including first overall and 6 picks overall in the first 3 rounds.
But all this coming together will take time. Even when the Hawks had both Kane and Toews as big name rookies, they struggled as a group and missed the playoffs. Keith and Seabrook weren’t stars on D right away and Crawford played 5 full AHL seasons before making it. Kopitar and Doughty together still needed 4 years to win the ultimate prize and even missed the playoffs the first 2 years together.
Sustaining success is no small feat but the Hawks and Kings have managed by adding talents such as Tuevo Teravainen, Artemi Panarin, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Adrian Kempe to the mix.
The Leafs are going in the right direction. They’re filling in some big holes like a top centre, but still have a few big problem areas, such as defence and goaltending.
They are allowing their prospects time and the opportunity to taste some success as their AHL affiliate the Marlies are in deep contention for the Calder Cup. Unlike some previously successful AHL squads who leaned heavily on a slew of minor pro veterans, the Marlies core is mostly the Leafs key prospect making it all that more important.
And they also have one of the premier coaches around, signed long term, with Mike Babcock, who is a great judge of talent and character. Leaf Nation probably can’t wait to see how he can shape future Leafs, especially Matthews and Marner, and develop them into the players many expect them to be.
Toronto is the land of opportunity and there will be plenty of opportunities for the young group to show what they have.
But too, as they grow, help is needed along the way. Thus, the opportunity for veterans to be short term, stop gap mentors on the team is also very available. The Hawks and Kings took this route as they grew with the Hawks adding Robert Lang, Martin Lapointe and Brent Sopel and LA adding Rob Blake, Ryan Smyth and Michal Handzus to bridge the gap.
So expect to see more Matt Hunwicks and PA Parenteaus and less Stamkos or Tavares in these parts, at least in the short term.
At some point the time will come where the Leafs will look to add a premium talent that can put the team over the top. The time though isn’t now.
But seeing the organizational growth the last 2 years, that time may not be very far away.