It seems like, before this past Christmas, we were talking here at least fleetingly about the possibility of the Maple Leafs making the NHL playoffs this season. That dream flashed before us despite a roster that was clearly built to lose. The very thought that the Leafs could hang in long enough to make a playoff run seemed to demonstrate the impact head coach Mike Babcock was having on his talent-thin roster.
But as the season winds down and the real-world NHL reality strikes, we find the Leafs in last place in the overall NHL standings. There will be no playoff action in these parts yet again this spring.
Now I realize that for many Leaf fans, this is actually the situation they have been dreaming about for years. The idea of being in a position to (lottery permitting) actually draft the best draft-eligible player available in the world is enticing.
I stand to be corrected but off the top of my head, the last time we “earned” such a luxury was in the mid-1980s (for those too young to remember, we finished last that season in the midst of the never-ending Ballard years...) The Leafs selected Wendel Clark from Saskatoon in the Western Canadian junior loop. That turned out pretty well overall. Clark was often hamstrung by injuries in his Leaf years, and he returned to the Leafs throughout his career almost as often as Billy Martin managed George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. But at his best (such as the playoff series against the L.A. Kings in the spring of ’93…wonderful memory), he was a hockey force, a rugged power forward who could change the tempo of the game with his shot, big hits—or fists.
If you make the right pick at number one in the draft (Denis Potvin, Gilbert Perreault are first overall picks that come to mind from my younger years...Crosby, Ovechkin, Kane, Tavares and Stamkos in more recent times), it can make in a difference to the future of your franchise, no question.
So yes, the Leafs are in the driver’s seat, in a sense, heading to the draft. But is that, along with believing that Shanahan and Lamoriello will be able to give Babcock what he needs to build a consistent winner, enough to make you care again?
I’ll share some questions and reflections as we all look ahead to the 2016-‘1 NHL season and beyond:
- Going back over the last few years, we often spoke here at VLM about the things many of us thought the Leafs needed: leadership, team toughness, top line centers, an actual team “identity”, etc. We have a new coach, and entirely new management team, and a ton of new players. But are we actually significantly further ahead than we were three years ago when it comes to those needs?
- Setting aside who the Leafs may be able to draft in June, when you look at the current prospects the Leafs have—and many have already spent at least a bit of time with the big club—do you believe this is a group filled with difference-makers?
- In watching Nylander, and as good as he appears to be, I wonder if he is a future first-line player in the making, a true star, or just a really nice player.
- After all these years following Kadri’s career, I remain ambivalent with regard to whether I see him as a player the Leafs absolutely have to keep as they look to become a legitimate contender.
- I have no clue where we are going with our netminding. Bernier is sort of the guy now, and they are giving some of the youngsters a shot as well, with Reimer now long gone. But I don’t know what the organization is really thinking when it comes to our goaltending.
- Are you convinced Morgan Rielly will be the superstar defenseman most of us thought he would become? He’s still very young, at 22 and presumably will continue to develop before he hits his prime years. But will he be the guy who leads this team out of the hockey wilderness?
- While on the subject of defense, I don’t think we really have a stable of defensemen (here now or in the system) who can lead the Leafs to a much higher spot in the standings next season. It’s clear there is a lot of building still to do in terms of what the roster needs.
- Maybe the thing that I’ve found most noteworthy this year is that the roster was clearly built to lose this season, perhaps even achieve what the club has “achieved”—ensuring a top draft pick. But as importantly, a few of of the low-cost free agent veterans they signed last summer/early fall have turned into some pretty good draft picks. We have a number of second-round picks coming our way starting with this year’s draft, and for the next couple of years. If the Leafs hit on some of those picks, that part of the plan will have been well executed and will indeed help us for the future.
- As I often have written here over the years, we all tend to look at the same picture a bit differently. Some Leafers are heartened by what they see as a bright future for the team under current management. Others are less hopeful. From my perspective, I think it is unfortunate that this franchise has once again had to take so many steps back and to continually rely on this notion of “building for the future”. That may eventually work, and if it does, hey, the wait will have been worth it, I suppose. But I much preferred the early-mid 1990s and especially the early 2000s, when we were a tough, competitive team every year and we could identify with a number of the players over a period of years (Sundin, Cujo, Kaberle, McCabe, etc.). Now? Forget talking about a Stanley Cup—heck, we haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. That’s an awfully long time to talk about the future.
- Unfortunately, this season has seen me lose a lot of my interest when it comes to following the Leafs. I just haven’t mustered up much interest in watching the team. Back in the days when the Leafs were truly competitive, this time of year was special—Leaf flags everywhere, fans in cars honking their horns, people who weren’t even big hockey fans talking about the next Leaf playoff game. No longer.
As much as it’s nice to believe that this management group will get it right (after the last few administrations, post-Pat Quinn, saw a lot of starting and stopping on their watch), despite the presence of Babcock, Lamoriello and new players, for me, the Leafs have lost a lot of their like-ability in recent times.
It’s fine to take pride in the fact that the Leafs have worked hard this season, but I’ve always believed that is the very least we, as fans, should expect of the players who wear the Leaf crest. That’s a pretty low bar.
As much as blue and white supporters want to believe that the Leafs are poised to be good soon, it’s hard not to not wonder if Leaf fans will still be looking hopefully to the future three years from now…