Don't look now, but the long and painful transition for the Toronto Maple Leafs from perennial underachievers to hopeful contenders may be beginning to hit rare high notes. For the first time in, well, too long to remember, the Maple Leafs could start to resemble a skilled and entertaining hockey team. A long, hard pause was required when examining that last sentence. This doesn't necessarily mean the rebuild is over. Quite the opposite, actually.
For a while, a skilled Leafs team hasn't seemed imaginable. But with the trade deadline in the Leafs' rear-view mirror and their hordes of UFAs turned largely into future draft picks, it is now time for the rebuilding team to give its vaunted young prospects like William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen a look with the big club.
Perhaps it was inevitable. Once the Leafs shipped out bona fide NHLers there was more than enough roster space for Nylander and Co. Many of them had earned it on the dominant 43-10-4 Toronto Marlies, the Leafs' AHL club. If compiling a great Marlies squad and waiting until no more trades were possible to give Nylander and Kapanen a chance with the Leafs was part of the plan, it has worked out well so far.
But even still, the Leafs have succeeded only in the easiest part of their assignment.
Let's be clear: the Leafs have instilled a lot of promise for the future of the club but have not set the team up for any short-term success. If you think this season was bad, the next may be even worse.
Tearing down the club has produced just one bona fide piece—the 19-year-old Kapanen whom the Leafs received in the Phil Kessel trade—that Toronto can count on for the future. The purposeful move to sign free agents then trade them away at the deadline and shed bad contracts signed by the previous regime has resulted in 12 picks in the 2016 draft. In all, the Leafs' five trades between Feb. 9–28 resulted in four (four!) new second-round picks in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 drafts.
Now, loading up on draft picks is exactly what the Leafs should have done in the past few seasons instead of believing they were one piece away from contending and overspending to land that piece as they did with David Clarkson and Kessel. These picks now give the organization the opportunity to build the type of team it wants. For the first time in ages, the president, general manager and coach all share the same vision of the product they want on the ice. So it's relatively easy to ditch players that don't fit with this vision by selling other teams on the present for the sake of the future. Executing in the draft is far from automatic, though.
Consider the Edmonton Oilers, whose rebuilding efforts have provided them with an unprecedented four (again, four!) first overall picks in the last six drafts. We're at a point in today's NHL where second-round picks have grown in value. But as today's tirefire of an Oilers team proves, getting a surplus of picks is useless unless you draft wisely. Accumulating high-end talent may raise interest in your team but building a cohesive lineup is what will get a team in the playoffs. The Oilers have failed to do this and have the longest playoff drought in the NHL.
Given the way the NHL trade market played out on one of the dreariest deadline days, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello should be applauded for somehow swindling two second-round picks out of the San Jose Sharks for Roman Polak and Nick Spaling. Years from now, that deal might be judged as the most impressive part of the teardown. The two picks are from the 2017 and 2018 entry drafts so it will take many years before the build up after the teardown takes shape. Even then, you're banking on the always fluctuating maturation process of young players.
But it's almost been fun to watch the swift swing of the wrecking ball. Now that out-and-out tanking has become acceptable in the NHL (after the Buffalo Sabres nearly perfected the art of the tank last season) you have to imagine management doesn't feel bad about gutting out a loss-filled final quarter of the regular season if it means increasing the team's chances at landing Auston Matthews in this summer's draft.
I saw Matthews at the world juniors in Finland and for all the smallish skill the Leafs have loaded up on, from Nylander to fourth overall pick in 2015 Mitch Marner, Matthews' frame would fit obscenely well into their lineup. (Which is to say that every team would love Matthews in its lineup.) He was a man against boys in the tournament and while he hasn't generated the hype that Connor McDavid did last year, he soon will.
When he does, and if that's in Toronto, the Leafs' futile on-ice efforts and rush to dump players with any semblance of proven NHL talent will seem worth it. Still, it's a risk. The Leafs have traded their dollars for chips at the casino and it'll be much longer than originally anticipated before they can cash out again.
Monday night provided a look at what kind of hand the Leafs are going to play in the future. And it may not end there: the way Marner has been lighting up the OHL with the London Knights, is it that unfathomable that the Leafs could bring him up for a game or two late in the season?
The infusion of youth seemed to also benefit Morgan Rielly, the young blueliner who should anchor the Leafs' backend for years to come. The fifth overall pick from the 2012 draft has remained one of the lone unmovable holdovers from the previous regime. With more skill up front, Rielly's speed and ability to create offensive chances could flourish.
But let's be cautious before building statues in Lamoriello's honour. While the young Leafs will likely provide entertainment late in the season, they may very well turn out to be a rare blip on the radar: a firework exploding, unsustainable in its momentum. The grind of a full 82-game season is another story. Any success the young Leafs have over the remaining quarter of the year pales in comparison to how challenging the coming seasons will be.
As difficult as the next steps and ultimate pressure to deliver a winning team in Toronto may be, this is exactly what the organization had to do. The ruthless teardown the Leafs have undergone provides some reassurance that their blueprint for success may actually result in a well-built team sometime down the road.