The more we see how Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoniello and company have gone about their work, it seems clear that they are genuinely committed to a kind of “build” that will actually be sustainable over time.
In short, once this team becomes competitive they want it to remain so, in the way that, say, the Red Wings and the Devils (organizations that Shanahan and Lamoriello know well) have been for the past twenty plus seasons.
They seem to be achieving this by being patient and taking the small steps required to create a winning environment. Their work this summer is yet another example of their thought process.
The Auston Matthews selection last weekend was obvious. Any NHL team would likely have made that decision, given the opportunity to draft first overall. After that, they seemed to go off the board a bit in some of their entry draft selections. But they had built up enough draft picks that they could feel the freedom to think long-term.
When it comes to free agency, I’m sure they were indeed interested in Stamkos. Who wouldn’t want a game-changer still in the prime of his career? But you get the sense that whether they got him or not, they knew they had a ton of work ahead.
They have quietly chipped away at shoring up their weak areas. Frederik Andersen (hopefully) provides stability and quality in goal for the next few years. Matthews becomes the clubhouse leader among the rising crop of kids (Nylander, Marner, etc.) that the Leafs and their fans are hanging their hats on for the future. A Matt Martin (more in a moment) becomes a bit of a glue piece for the club, bringing experience and character, having been part of a successful rebuild on Long Island over the past few seasons.
As we would expect for a franchise that finished at the bottom of a thirty-team league, there are still holes aplenty. If you look at their blueline compared with most good NHL teams, I’m not sure we can say with any real conviction that the Leafs are competitive. Rielly and Gardiner provide offensive upside, but the club needs a lot more on the back end.
Up front we have the kids and a lot of replaceable guys, but again, I don’t know see a lot of big-time difference-makers among our forwards. We have individuals who have flashed at times like Kadri and van Riemsdyk, sure, but the club will need a lot more than a couple of promising kids and one or two guys who can be effective at times.
Martin is certainly a nice signing. He’s the kind of player that would be an especially welcome addition on a team that is already very competitive. But as the Leafs strive to get to that level, he should be a very valuable third/fourth-line player with grit and experience. Quite likely he will fill part of a still gaping leadership void. He’s young enough at 27 for fans to feel comfortable that he can still be a contributor down the road when the club is a legitimate playoff team. I like the fact that he has spent his entire career with the Islanders and has helped them grow into a very competitive squad. While he didn’t play a lot of minutes as a fourth-line player on the Island, he was widely seen as a solid winger for them.
Reality suggests there is still a long road ahead for the Leafs. But the very patience that many observers have called for—and that the Leafs hadn’t demonstrated over the past decade—seems to be in evidence with this management group. There are still a lot of boxes to checked off, for sure. But the canvas is not completely blank anymore.