There have been no shortage of sideshow symptoms afflicting the Maple Leafs over the years, but many hockey people will tell you the main ailment that has plagued this franchise for decades is their ineffectiveness on the drafting and development front. Whether it's collective assessments done by panels of scouts and GMs or the fans themselves, few have been impressed with Toronto's record on identifying and cultivating high-impact NHLers. Indeed, the reason management often splurges on unrestricted free agents or gambles on high-risk, high-reward trades is because there hasn't been a steady stream of cost-effective NHL-calibre talent coming through the farm system.
Even Leafs GM Dave Nonis admits the issue of in-house asset development is a real concern.
"We have to get better in all areas, scouting in particular," Nonis told reporters Monday after the introduction of new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. "We're not going to become a contender through free agency if this doesn't happen. It's going to be player acquisition through the draft and development, or via the trade route."
Nonis' new hockey boss feels similarly, but cautioned against any notion of him coming into his position and clearing house, using his time as a player with the Red Wings as an example.
"When I first arrived in Detroit, they were not referred to in hockey as they are now," Shanahan said. "They were the team that disappointed and (people) questioned the team's leadership. I'm just saying sometimes success is around the corner. You make some tweaks, you make some changes, you develop, you build."
The Leafs' scouting staff is among the league's biggest – and while there's no salary cap limits preventing Nonis or Shanahan from going out and adding to that group, there's also a downside to it.
"You can always improve your scouting staff – the problem is, finding scouts that are better than the ones you have," Nonis said. "To say, 'Let's just add seven more pro scouts and four more amateur guys', what happens there if you're not adding people of quality who are better than what you have, you're diluting it and making it even worse."
Toronto finished the season with the NHL's eighth-worst record and consequently has a 3.6 percent chance of winning the draft lottery (which will be held Tuesday night in Toronto). Nonis has no qualms about going into this June's draft with the same staff of prospect evaluators he currently has, but he acknowledged the franchise needs to come away from this year's first round with a player who can contribute meaningful minutes in the relatively near-future.
"I don't think our scouting staff has done a poor job if you look at where they've been picking," Nonis said. "I think they hit it out of the park with Morgan Rielly at No. 5 (last year). We're going to have a fairly high pick this year and we have to get a player with it. That's the bottom line. We have to find a player that's going to play here – I doubt it would be next year, but you never know."