Everyone in Leafworld was no doubt hoping against hope that the blue and white would "win" the NHL draft lottery on Saturday night. Had they won the sweepstakes (and with it, the rights to the first overall pick in the June draft), they would not be any better an organization than they are right now. They would simply have been more fortunate.
The Leafs will still be in a position to select an awfully good hockey player with the fourth overall selection, and they do have another pick later in the first round. If their scouts have done a good job, and with a bit of luck, they should be able to move forward with an infusion of skill to add to other talents in the system, including Gauthier, Brown and of course Nylander.
Even if the Leafs had managed to be able to pick first overall, I can’t say I would be a whole lot more interested in their activities than I am now. As I outlined in my previous post, I believe they are still adrift. I don’t doubt Shanahan has a vision, but so does every other team in the league. And most of those shrewd organizations are way ahead of where Toronto is in terms of management acumen—even if a Mike Babcock arrives to coach the squad.
The Leafs haven’t suddenly cornered the market on smarts, or knowing how to build or rebuild a roster. Lots of other franchises have done it with greater success and much more quickly than the Leafs have over the past decade.
So the Leafs pick where the standings basically told them they would, and maybe that’s as it should be. This is not an organization that deserves short cuts. Ownership has been able to attract, if they chose, the best hockey minds, management types and coaches with which to build a winning culture here and it hasn’t happened in over a decade. So it seems only fair that Shanahan will have to do it the old fashioned way—without jumping the queue.
That means wise drafting, better player development than we have seen here in a long time, and bringing on board a coach that players will believe in. The approach will require coachable players, too. We need some leaders, and players who will follow inspiring leadership.
I don’t even know what to say about the roster at this point. It seems like it’s a foregone conclusion that Kessel and Phaneuf may not be back (though things can always change, eh?). Every summer we dream of how good the “kids in the system” will be, but I’m still waiting to see someone who is really out of the ordinary, other than Rielly (maybe Nylander?), who is a fine young player indeed—but he’s not “in the system”. He’s already been here for two seasons.
How can we really measure where the Leafs are at, or how quickly they may become a serious contender? Some clubs turn things around quickly. Others, like the Oilers, have built patiently through the draft yet have seemed to go nowhere.
Here’s the reality: as I mentioned, many teams are ahead of the rebuilding curve compared with the Leafs; lots of teams have really good net minding; plenty of other teams have a solid defense corps. Every strong playoff team seems to have strength up the middle, and play with some combination of speed and toughness—and “will”.
At times over the past few years I thought the Leafs were getting there, and now it feels as though that level of consistent play is a ways off.
As I’ve said before, I don’t have much to say at this point, until we have hired a GM (I sense it will be someone internally, but who knows) and a new head coach. Then there’s the draft, trades, free agency.
Bottom line: there is no apparent instant savior. McDavid is not coming to Toronto. And no, no package of players to the Oilers or the Sabres will wrestle one of the two top picks away from those teams. People have been waiting on McDavid for years—the Oilers won’t let him get away. Eichel will go to the Sabres.
The first round of the playoffs remain, for me, the best hockey of the year. Sixteen teams battling their guts out to stay alive. Teams with skill, speed, character, leadership, and toughness.
Those teams are already there, and a few others not far behind them.
When we watch good teams in action, playing when it matters most, we recognize that the Leafs can talk about a vision, but it means nothing until they can field a roster some day that, like real playoff teams, plays like they hate to lose.