Leafs might have enough in the tank
More high draft picks not always the way to take next step
It’s the worst-case scenario for some Maple Leaf zealots. Winning hockey games, that is. At 6-2-2 in their last 10 games after a shootout win in Carolina Friday night, the surprisingly competent Leafs were playing well enough for head coach Mike Babcock to utter the word “playoffs” this week.
Arghhh! This isn’t at all, some would say, what the Leafs need. They need to lose, and lose big, in order to snatch another marvellously talented teen out of the annual batch of hockey prodigies available in the June draft. That’s surely the path out of this wilderness. Maybe wins could come after that. But not now! It’s otherwise known as the “Edmonton Approach” — sounds like a Ludlum novel — and if you peek at the standings, sure enough, there are the Oilers again lurking in the shadows, possibly set to snap up another first overall pick.
Consistently horrible is what the Leafs must strive to be, right? Anything else is a miscalculation.
Well, two things to consider if you’re of this mindset.
First, even with that improved play, the Leafs were still on a 69-point pace going in to face the Hurricanes. So let’s not panic and print the playoff tickets quite yet.
Second, what if what the Leafs really need isn’t more top-10 draft picks? What if they already have enough?
It’d be nice to draft Auston Matthews or Jakob Chychrun or Jesse Puljujarvi in June, naturally. All 30 teams in the league would like those players.
But in terms of putting together all the elements necessary to produce a Cup contending team, perhaps another high pick isn’t critical to the process for the Leafs.
Let’s work this through. Assume, for the sake of this argument, that London Knights centre Mitch Marner (fourth overall last June) is all that most GMs and veteran scouts believe he is and can crack the Maple Leaf lineup next fall. Maybe he’ll need more seasoning. But let’s assume he can make the jump.
William Nylander (eighth in ’14) will probably make it with him, and Morgan Rielly (fifth, ’12), Nazem Kadri (seventh, ’09) and James van Riemsdyk (second, ’07) would probably all be there, as well.
That would be five top-10 NHL draft picks in the Leaf lineup. Only Edmonton (of course) would have more. Carolina, Colorado and Buffalo might have the same. Florida and Columbus could have four. (The fact this suggests the NHL draft is unnecessary and not the great evener many believe it to be is another argument for another day.) And what about the really good teams?
Interestingly, teams like Chicago, Montreal, the New York Rangers, St. Louis and Los Angeles didn’t benefit from that many top-10 picks, either their own or those acquired from others, to get where they are now.
Chicago has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The Rangers have Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, both drafted high by Columbus. The Habs have Carey Price and Alexander Galchenyuk. The Blues have just one top-10 pick, Alex Pietrangelo, and traded away a first overall pick, Erik Johnson.
The Kings have only Drew Doughty.
Clearly, not having nearly as many top-10 picks as other clubs didn’t stop these teams from becoming very good. Which means the five the Leafs already have could be enough.
Let’s not get carried away. Toronto desperately needs more good young players over the next five years from the draft to ever dream championship dreams. They’ll have two first-rounders in June, their own and Pittsburgh’s (unless the Penguins miss the playoffs), which will help.
Moreover, we might not have had this argument to make just two months ago. But here we are in mid-November and both Rielly and Kadri have stepped forward emphatically under Babcock and look like good to very good NHL players. Van Riemsdyk is generally acknowledged to be a solid top-six forward, Nylander is lighting the AHL on fire and Marner was brilliant at the Canada-Russia challenge for the OHL and is likely to joust with Erie’s Dylan Strome for the league’s scoring title again.
This has the potential to be a very strong core group, all 26 or younger.
It will have to play out, of course. Noah Hanifin and Nick Ritchie are already in the league ahead of Marner and Nylander, who the Leafs chose ahead of those other players. It’s still possible Toronto erred at the draft table.
That said, Chicago whiffed on Cam Barker and Jack Skille with high picks and still succeeded because they did incredibly well with Toews and Kane and just about everything else a franchise needs to do well to win championships. Montreal got Price fifth overall in 2005, and he’s the league’s MVP.
Given the chance, the Hawks and Habs drafted superstars. Did Toronto hit it big with Marner? We don’t know yet, and that will determine a great deal.
Good teams also strike gold later in the draft. Anaheim got Ryan Getzlaf at 19th, Montreal took Max Pacioretty 22nd and Vladimir Tarasenko was drafted 16th. Duncan Keith (54th) has helped make the Hawks what they are. Henrik Lundqvist was drafted 205th by the Rangers. Dallas got John Klingberg at No. 131.
In the same way, the Leafs need to get massively fortunate with one of their later picks, somebody unlikely like Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, Viktor Loov, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Garret Sparks or Antoine Bibeau.
Obviously, there’s also a great deal more that goes into building a champion than accumulating top-10 picks and drafting well, critical elements like steadfast ownership, coaching, budget, player development, management, player acquisition through trades, free agency and waivers and sometimes plain, dumb luck.
The Leafs haven’t been lucky or terribly smart for some time now. But they’re showing improvement in those areas, notably coaching and — check out the Marlies — development.
If — huge IF here — that’s the case, it’s entirely conceivable that the Leafs have already harvested sufficient talent from the part of the draft that yields the most talent, the top 10 selections.
So don’t fret. Maybe winning a few games now won’t actually kill their chances in the future.
It might actually help. Damien Cox is a broadcaster with Rogers Sportsnet and a regular contributor to Hockey Night in Canada. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for the Star, and his column appears here Saturdays. Follow him @DamoSpin.