When Tobias Lindberg steps on the ice with the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Buffalo Sabres tonight, he’ll be part of a team record that hasn’t been matched in almost 100 years.
Lindberg, one of the prospects acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the Dion Phaneuf trade, will become the 12th player to make his NHL debut for the Leafs this season, joining William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Byron Froese, Nikita Soshnikov, Brendan Leipsic, Kasperi Kapanen, Rinat Valiev, Frederik Gauthier, Garret Sparks and Viktor Loov. It’s actually 13 if you include goalie Antoine Bibeau, who dressed as a backup for 11 games this season, but didn’t see any action.
To put that into perspective, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Leafs had that many players make their NHL debuts in the same season was 1917-18. And there’s a couple of things you need to know about that. First, the team wasn’t even called the Maple Leafs, they were known as the Arenas. Second, the reason why that many players made their NHL debuts that season was it was the first year of existence for the NHL and every player on the team was making his debut in the league.
But here’s the thing. Of the 12 guys on that team, 10 of them had actually played pro in the National Hockey Association, which was the precursor to the NHL, so they weren’t rookies at all. So that makes your 2015-16 Maple Leafs the greenest bunch in franchise history.
Some of this could be expected, since the Leafs have followed through with their stated intention of embarking on a massive rebuild. (Although you can have had to have had a ‘build’ at some point in order to have a ‘rebuild,’ no? But that’s not the point.) For the first time in a number of years, the Leafs have an impressive stable of young prospects who have merited at least a look at the NHL. That has been exacerbated by a run of injuries and a dumping of a number of veterans at the trade deadline.
It’s rare, but not unheard of, to have that many raw rookies in a season. The Atlanta Thrashers had 12 debuts in 2001-02, as did the Chicago Blackhawks in ’03-04, the New York Islanders in 2005-06 and ’08-09 and the Calgary Flames in 2013-14. The last team to have more rookies was the 1991-92 San Jose Sharks, who were in their first year in the league. None of those teams really amounted to much and some of them were downright terrible. None of the 12 players who made debuts with the Blackhawks was with the team when it won the Stanley Cup six years later.
The Leafs are obviously hoping to write a different script with the core of this group.
CANADIAN IDLE: Got a call from a producer with the radio arm of Canada’s national broadcaster. She wanted to know what I thought about the fact there would be no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season and what that said about the state of the game north of the 49th parallel.
I responded by saying it meant nothing, zip, nada, zilch – that the two things are mutually exclusive and one of them had nothing to do with the other. I’m assuming it was not the answer she wanted to hear. I never got a call back with an invitation to take part in the panel that was talking about that subject the next morning.
There will be no Canadian teams for the Stanley Cup for a variety of reasons and we could all sit here and hash them out one by one, but none of them has anything to with the state of the game in Canada. If Carey Price hadn’t gotten hurt, if the Calgary Flames had any semblance of decent goaltending this season, if the Ottawa Senators hadn’t run into a crippling string of injuries, if the Winnipeg Jets had been able to occasionally find a goal late in close games the way they were able to last season and we’re probably not having this conversation.
The bottom line for every one of those teams, though, is they were poorly constructed. And that’s on the management of those organizations and has nothing to do with Canadian markets, a sagging dollar, how this country produces players or any external factor. It means that some of these teams, Vancouver and Toronto, are in the infancy of long, painful rebuilds. It means the Edmonton Oilers can’t seem to get it right. It means the Calgary Flames whistled in the dark about their deep-seated deficiencies and just kind of hoped everything would be OK this season and that a team that pulled out so many dramatic victories in one season, against hockey analytic logic, would do it again this season.
But it has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the state of the game in Canada. There will be some residual effects, of course. The lack of hockey and the excitement surrounding any of the Canadian teams will have an adverse, but not crippling, effect on their fan bases. They won’t create the playoff revenues that can improve their bottom lines.
Aside from at the NHL level, the state of the game in Canada remains unchanged. Yes, Hockey Canada is concerned with lower birth rates and declining enrollment, but Canada still has by far the most players, arenas, resources and volunteers in the world. Go to a minor hockey game sometime and see how special some of these kids really are. They are doing some amazing things.
These same kids are playing hockey 11 or 12 months a year (not that I advocate that), as well as getting 1-on-1 training on ice and in the gym and advice from nutritional experts. Their parents are paying thousands of dollars a year to give them the best of everything, including sports schools that have kids on the ice for a couple of hours a day, outside of their club hockey programs.
Canada does not, and will not, have a problem stocking elite players for the NHL or for its national and Olympic teams. Now if you want to talk about the effect that things such as high costs, massive commitments, the fear of injury and player burnout are having on hockey in Canada and its effect on the state of the game, that’s where the concern should be, not with the fact that seven teams of millionaires owned by billionaires weren’t good enough to make it to the playoff this season.
On the bright side, if some of these teams can get it right and actually rebuild the right way, that means in a couple of years there should be a handful of Canadian teams primed to become contenders at precisely the same time. And when that happens, the television numbers will be robust and Canadians will pound their chests even harder than they do now.