Sunday, April 10, 2016


Last night's season-ending loss to the New Jersey Devils ended another season of frustration and failure for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This is the latest example of the Leafs' lack of success: they have qualified for the playoffs only once since the lock-out year of 2005-6.

Yet, last night's loss seemed to merely close the chapter on a long process of rebuilding. The Leafs have somehow managed to create a feeling of optimism among their fans and media, based on a stated project of turning the entire franchise around and moving in a new, professional and ultimately successful way. Consider the following:

Last night's loss secured thirtieth place in the NHL's standings for the Leafs: absolute rock bottom. How can this be a measure of success? By securing last place, the Leafs have given themselves the best odds in the NHL's entry draft lottery. The last time the Leafs had the first pick over-all was the year they selected Wendel Clarke. He went on to have a solid, if not spectacular, NHL career and served as the Leafs' captain for many years of good success. A first over-all pick is by no means certain for the Leafs, but the worst they can do is select fourth over-all. Their odds of gaining a top level young player are excellent and this player will become another keystone in the rebuilding programme.

The drive to last place was highlighted by the play of several young players who were called up from the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. At one time, there were a dozen Marlie call-ups in the Leafs' roster. Their play was encouraging, and many of the players showed that they are now NHL ready. In particular, William Nylander, the Leafs' top pick two drafts ago, seems ready to take on a permanent role in the NHL.  The core of young players, many still teenagers, will become the core of the Maple Leafs in the next two or three years.

In addition, consider that the young Marlie players will now return to the AHL team to join them in that team's playoff run. The Marlies have dominated the AHL the entire season, including the period when so many of their good players had been called up to the Leafs. Now that Nylander and company are back with the Marlies, the AHL team figures to have a long run in the playoffs, perhaps even a championship run. Nothing is certain in sports, of course, but a championship run for the Marlies would be a tonic for the entire organization, which has not tasted championship champagne for decades. The young returnees bring with them some valuable NHL experience with them. While the AHL is a good league, it is not the NHL. So, logic dictates that the NHL experience will put these players in a good position to do well in the lesser AHL.

Should the Marlies win the Calder Trophy as AHL champions, it makes the path the Leafs need to take that much clearer. Winning begets winning. Thus, a solid core of Marlies players will be promoted to the Leafs, forming the new core of the NHL team, bringing with them the swagger gained from victory in the AHL and necessary for the confidence needed to take the Leafs to a higher level.

Some good luck in the draft lottery could mean the Leafs will select first over-all and pick up a potential star player. Austin Matthews is the name most often used in this context, although it must be said that he has had very little experience at high-level hockey, either junior or professional. Nevertheless, the possibility of acquiring a good future star is there for the Leafs. Add to that the fact that the Leafs have 12 selections throughout this year's draft and the opportunity to re-stock the Marlies with eager, young players when the Marlies' core is promoted will ensure a continuous stream of young players to the Leafs over the next several years.

There is also the option of picking up players via free agency, and this has been discussed often regarding Tampa Bay Lightning star player Steven Stamkos, the team's captain and best player, who will be an unrestricted free agent next year. Stamkos is only 26 years old and could become the Leafs' captain and anchor for many years to come. But prudence should be exercised here. Stamkos will command a huge salary and this will take up much of the money the Leafs will need to develop the many young players they currently have and will acquire over the next several years. Money becomes the problem for the franchise in this case. The Leafs may be advised to follow their strategy of the last two seasons, and sign veteran journeyman players to one-year contracts, asking them to fill in gaps in the line-up and becoming mentors to the young players who will be in the organization for longer periods of time. The cost of the journeymen will be light, and the obligation to keep them will not exist. It is a solid strategy and in some cases a good player emerges, such as Leo Komorov or P.A. Parenteau.

So, for a thirtieth-place team, the Leafs have done quite well for themselves. During the last quarter of the season, they played entertaining and sometimes winning hockey. It is quite feasible to imagine the management toasting the end of the season with some nice sparkling wine for a job well done: they should save the champagne, however, for the ultimate prize. If they wait long enough, the bubbly will taste very, very fine.

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