Finishing 30th in a thirty-team league should not, it would seem, create a level of undue optimism about the future. Yet I sense many Maple Leaf fans are indeed hopeful and of the view that this organization is in fact headed in the right direction—despite finishing in the cellar in the NHL this season.
Do we know for sure that the team is headed in the right direction? No, we don’t.
But hey, maybe our expectations have been hammered for so long, we simply want to believe that better days are ahead. But I believe it’s also more than that.
Leaf supporters see a steady hand in Shanahan, who provides more than simply being a former player. They believe Shanahan has established a clear direction for the franchise.
There is Lou Lamoriello, who has the pedigree Leaf fans covet as a Hall-of-Fame General Manager in New Jersey. Mark Hunter knows the junior hockey world like few others and Kyle Dubas is the youthful, the number-crunching GM-in-waiting who rounds out an impressive brain trust.
Those supporters also now look at this year’s decision to essentially let this season go (though Mike Babcock, to his credit, had the players working right to the bitter end) as having worked out perfectly. We weren’t going to make the playoffs anyway, so now we are looking—lottery willing—at possibly having the very first pick in this coming June’s draft. That will only help.
Beyond that, we have more second round picks than probably anyone else in the league over the next three years because of deals the Leafs have made for players that are largely not missed on the roster.
Just this season, upwards of fifteen players made their way onto the big club’s roster for at least one NHL game. So whether Leaf fans are pondering the future of Nylander, Brown, Marner or any one of a number of other impressive youngsters in the system, there is also belief that the Leafs now finally have some legitimate star potential among the group of players they have drafted in recent years.
Then late Wednesday, we hear Lamouriello has signed two pending restricted free-agents, Rielly and Kadri, to lengthy six-year deals. While I will never be fond of long- term deals in sports, they are what they are. And though I have mixed feelings about how much I believe the Leafs had to keep Kadri, I’m shocked at the deal he signed. After earlier contract battles, this all occurred quietly, without fanfare. And if what I’m seeing is accurate, Kadri has signed for what is (in modern day terms) a reasonable amount for a “second-line” center in today’s NHL.
Rielly, for me, is more of a necessary cornerstone piece. And he too, signed away some of his future UFA years to ink a long-term deal right now. In theory, both players may be leaving potential future money on the table, so perhaps it speaks to their belief that what Shanahan and Lamoriello have created is worth being part of.
I’ve said here before that, for me, this past season just didn’t generate any real enthusiasm. But I “get” what management felt they had to do: build a modest roster with plug and play veterans and downplay expectations. They could (and it worked out) hope for a top pick in the draft, and at the same time turn around and trade some of the older players for future draft picks to further replenish the cupboard.
Acquire assets—lots and lots of assets. And accept short term pain for long-term gain.
So far so good.
Again, there are no guarantees, and still a lot of work to do. There is still no elite netminder under contract, still no front-line center. As much as I like Rielly, it’s hard to suggest we have a strong blueline corps. The Leafs will still need to add individuals with playoff experience, leadership and toughness to support the young, emerging skill guys. All these things are needed before we can really talk about a team that will scare anyone when it comes to the playoffs.
Yet there is optimism in Leafland.
Should there be?