A first overall pick for the first time since 1985? The Leafs are about to land their first generational superstar talent – in their entire 99 year history.
Somewhere, somehow, some quack-job Toronto Maple Leafs fan found a magic lamp. Or wand. Or puck. Or Punch Imlach’s fedora. Or anything to wish a mystical transformation upon hockey’s most sad-sack franchise.
And all the far-fetched theories or ideas typically reserved for irate late-night radio show callers began to come true.
“Yo, the Leafs should make Brendan Shanahan their president.”
“Yo, the Leafs should hire Mike Babcock as head coach.”
“Yo, the Leafs should trade Phil Kessel.”
“Yo, the Leafs should hire Lou Lamoriello as GM.”
“Yo, the Leafs should trade Dion Phaneuf.”
They all would’ve seemed like typical Toronto-media-constructed fantasies even a few years ago. Instead, they’ve happened. The Shanahan regime continues to slide pieces into place, transforming the Leafs team culture. Assistant GM Kyle Dubas is the franchise’s analytics driver and oversees the powerhouse AHL affiliate Marlies. Lamoriello has instilled the same tight-lipped mentality he used in New Jersey for close to three decades. Director of player personnel Mark Hunter holds the keys to the draft. And Babcock has changed the way this team plays. It spent year after year as one of the worst possession drivers in hockey and jumped to the middle of the pack in his first year as bench boss.
The Leafs still finished with the NHL’s worst record, largely because they ranked dead last in shooting percentage and second-last in power play efficiency, a.k.a. two things driven largely by skill. And it’s on the way in spades to help No. 1 defenseman Morgan Rielly, top left winger James van Riemsdyk and top-two center Nazem Kadri. William Nylander will be a full-time NHL center next season. Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic and Zach Hyman all have chances to stick, too. Mega-prospect Mitch Marner should at least get a nine-game look to start the regular season after setting major junior on fire again in 2015-16.
The Leafs will never admit it, but they wisely kept many of their NHL-ready youngsters in the AHL for most of the season. It helped the roster tank without tanking. The Leafs still gave a strong effort most nights but simply didn’t have the talent to win. That helped fuel the quack-job fan’s newest idea.
“Yo, the Leafs should tank, win the lottery and pick Auston Matthews first overall.”
And…boom. The magic continues. The Leafs may have just landed their first generational superstar – ever. Matthews may not quite be Connor McDavid but deserves mention alongside Jack Eichel and perhaps John Tavares as the best prospects of the past decade. Matthews is a big, strong, confident pivot blessed with an endless motor and electric scoring ability. He missed about a quarter of the Swiss League’s season and still finished among the leaders in goals and points. All that from a teenager playing on a men’s pro circuit.
Not to say Matthews is better than Darryl Sittler or Doug Gilmour or Mats Sundin. That would be a ridiculous statement in the moment. But Matthews’ ceiling on draft day may be higher. Fact of the matter is, none of those Leaf stalwarts mentioned won a scoring title or Hart Trophy or Stanley Cup with Toronto. Gilmour’s 1993 Selke Trophy is the lone major individual award won by a Toronto Maple Leaf player since the Original Six era, unless you count Alexander Mogilny’s 2003 Lady Byng. The Leafs’ last MVP was Ted Kennedy in 1955. Their last scoring champion was Gordie Drillon in 1938. But Matthews has the potential to change all that.
With the No. 1 overall pick, their first since they tabbed Wendel Clark in 1985, the Leafs are constructing a franchise in ways we’ve rarely if ever seen throughout their history. These aren’t Cliff Fletcher’s ‘Draft Schmaft’ Leafs, swinging blockbuster deals to make over the roster, nor are they the Pat Quinn era Leafs who relied on big-money free agent signings, or the Brian Burke Leafs who thought they could hyper-rebuild with some fast-track trades.
It’s a real rebuild, and it isn’t overnight. Toronto will pick in the top eight for the fourth time in five years this June. It will build around Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Rielly. Never has it boasted a prospect quartet like that at one time in terms of ceiling.
Could everything go pear-shaped? Sure. None of the moves Toronto has made guarantees glory. The Leafs did pick in the top half of the first round often in the 1980s, from Clark to Al Iafrate to Vincent Damphousse, and couldn’t win anything significant with that core.
But we’re already seeing a massive transformation in the way the franchise conducts itself top to bottom. It’s thus not unreasonable to expect something drastically different on the ice once all the skill arrives for good.
The Auston Matthews era is about to begin. The Marner one might be, too. And the Nylander one already has. Enjoy this, Leaf fans. Savor what you haven’t experienced in 99 years of hockey.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin