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Even with Auston Matthews, don't expect overnight success for Maple Leafs

Improving is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, not even when you have the top pick in the draft.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Members of Leafs Nation are going ga ga over the fact their beloved Toronto Maple Leafs have the first pick in the 2016 NHL draft.

And why not?

The opportunity to choose Auston Matthews and give the organization its first legitimate No. 1 center since Mats Sundin is nothing to balk at.

The Arizona native, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 212 pounds, is a blue-chipper who finished fourth in the Swiss league with Zurich, scoring 24 goals and 46 points and was second in voting for the league’s most valuable player award. Then, just for kicks, the 18-year-old led the United States in scoring with nine points in 10 games at the World Championship.

Toronto has not had the first overall pick since 1985 when it chose Wendel Clark.

The question is, will the addition of Matthews be the Maple Leafs instant ticket into the playoffs?

The answer, in a nutshell, is no. Not on his own.

In the past 10 seasons, the team that had the No. 1 overall pick made the playoffs the next season just once. That was in 2013-14 when Nathan MacKinnon helped the Colorado Avalanche go from 29th to third. Even then the Avalanche was eliminated in the first round and has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Of the past 10 players chosen No. 1, three went on to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Connor McDavid should make it four unless voters hold the fact he missed half of the season with a shoulder injury against him.

Matthews will be a huge piece of the puzzle for the rebuilding Maple Leafs, but he can’t do it alone. The Maple Leafs have plenty of other areas of concern, starting with goaltending.

Jonathan Bernier, 27, has yet to make an impact in his three seasons with the organization and neither Garret Sparks nor Antoine Bibeau are likely to push for the starter’s job in 2016-17. That means GM Lou Lamoriello will need to be proactive in the off-season in trying to acquire an experience and reliable stopper; someone who can help the team make a push toward the playoffs.

The Maple Leafs boldly stated they would be patient in their approach to building a team that, when it gets good will be good for a long time. It is unlikely that philosophy will change, even with the addition of Matthews. Also, it was encouraging to see how well youngsters such as William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Viktor Loov, Connor Carrick, Rinat Valiev and Frederik Gauthier played during short-term NHL auditions this past season. However, the Toronto Marlies failure to make it to the AHL final after a dominant regular season suggests the kids might not be ready for prime time just yet. When it came time to play big boys’ hockey in the post-season, some of the youngsters looked a little intimidated.

Mitch Marner, the Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year and Memorial Cup MVP, will also be in the mix for next season.

Some of the Maple Leafs young prospects probably feel their performance at the NHL level in 2015-16 will be enough to get them full-time employment in the show next season, but they might be disappointed to find out they need more seasoning at the AHL level.

I am a firm believer in the notion that a good coach can have a huge impact on a team. We saw that this season when Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench of the Pittsburgh Penguins and brought the team back to life. Under previous coach Mike Johnson Sidney Crosby looked flat and unhappy. Johnson’s defense-first style did little to bring out the best in the world’s best player. Under Sullivan, Crosby flourished and led the Penguins to the team’s fourth Stanley Cup championship and second in his reign as team captain.

I bring this up because when it comes to coaching, Mike Babcock of the Maple Leafs is the best in the business. The fact Babcock is continually asked to coach Canada’s Olympic and World Cup teams backs that up.

Even a great coach needs players to work with, though. There is no denying Babcock made a major impact on the way the Maple Leafs played the game this past season, but his wonderful and impactful work was not enough to keep the Maple Leafs from finishing 30th.

Improving is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, not even when you have the top pick in the draft.



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