The Toronto Maple Leafs have wandered hockey’s wilderness for way too long. But they now have the opportunity to draft the most important piece of any Stanley Cup puzzle: a franchise center.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been attempting to rebuild the right way under the Brendan Shanahan/Lou Lamoriello/Mike Babcock regime and in winning Saturday night’s draft lottery, the most important piece has become available to them.
In Auston Matthews, Toronto can draft the No. 1 center they so desperately need. The same could have been said for Columbus (who will pick third), but the Leafs won the prize this time.
The NHL and the Stanley Cup is won down the middle. Look at the past three franchises to win the ultimate prize and you will see the proof: Chicago had Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles had Anze Kopitar and Boston had Patrice Bergeron (backed by 1B David Krejci).
Look at the teams left in the playoffs and you’ll find players such as the Islanders’ John Tavares, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (and Evgeni Malkin) and San Jose’s Joe Thornton. There’s a reason Edmonton was so stoked to take Connor McDavid last year, just as Buffalo was equally hyped to land Jack Eichel.
Without a dominant center, things just don’t come together. Is that the only element? Of course not. A top defenseman is also a necessity, as Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara can attest. Toronto has that category already covered off in Morgan Rielly, recently signed long-term and in possession of the mobile, skilled game from the blueline that is so crucial today.
In Matthews, the Maple Leafs get a center who has been watching video of Toews and Kopitar all year. Marc Crawford, his coach with the Zurich Lions, hammered home to the youngster how Toews and Kopitar are always on the right side of the puck in their own end, how they always have their heads on a swivel. Offense comes from defense.
Matthews was more than happy to lap up these lessons because that’s the kind of player he wants to be. We know he can score – he was one of the most dangerous scorers in the entire Swiss League this season – but it’s that drive that separates him from the pack.
While Finnish terrors Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi are excellent in their own rights, they are wingers; much easier to find. Teams rarely trade top-flight centers, which is why there has been such insane focus on Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos this year: centers of his caliber never reach free agency at this stage in their careers. Either you draft them, or pray a team goes sour on one (such as Tyler Seguin or Ryan Johansen).
But the Maple Leafs, who have waited decades for that next Cup, cannot simply hope for a trade. The draft is where these players are more easily found and Matthews is the type of player who can make an immediate impact. Does Toronto instantly become a playoff team with him as a rookie? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But with Rielly and skilled forwards such as William Nylander and Mitch Marner coming up too, Matthews will have a nice cast to grow along with him.
And if he develops the way he is projected to, he will be that dominating NHL center that can lead a team to the promised land in the future. So yeah, Toronto won the lottery.