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Plan the parade? With youthful star power in place, the Leafs are gunning for Stanley Cup glory

The Toronto Maple Leafs reign supreme in THN’s 2018 Future Watch – and their all-star cast of young guns has them closer to the Stanley Cup than they’ve been in 50 years.

(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News' 2018 Future Watch issue with a cover date of April 2, 2018. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)

It's hard to believe that John Ferguson Jr. is already four GMs ago for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Time flies when you’re floundering. But we don’t bring up the ghost of JFJ to make Leafs fans break into a cold sweat. We do it to remind them Ferguson was the first Toronto GM in, well, almost forever, to try to get it right.

Early in his tenure, Ferguson had a managerial mantra. “Winning and developing players are not mutually exclusive,” he would often say. (It must’ve slipped his mind when he dealt Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Andrew Raycroft, but you get the idea.) Even though he failed on both counts, Ferguson actually introduced a concept that was foreign to the Blue & White. The notion of a dual track of winning games and cultivating a pipeline of good young players was never one that ever seemed to be pursued. Operating under the misguided notion that the fan base would never stand for a rebuild, the people who ran the organization did so with a long-term vision that never extended beyond the present. What made it even worse was that quite often, the present looked even bleaker than the future.

Fast-forward to a full decade after Ferguson’s firing and the vision the GM had of turning the Maple Leafs into a modern-day Detroit Red Wings or New Jersey Devils has finally come to fruition, in part because they have the guy who used to run the Devils. In the present, the Leafs are young and dynamic, a high-risk, high-reward bunch of swashbucklers on the precipice of great things. It’s a little early to start planning the parade route in detail, but it’s worth at least securing a permit. You know, just in case.

The present is bright and the future is even brighter. On the strength of an under-21 cohort of players that is without peer and a solid prospect list, the Maple Leafs ranked as the No. 1 team in THN’s 2018 Future Watch edition. It should be noted that current Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello had a luxury Ferguson was never afforded. By the time he left the Devils and took the helm of the Leafs in 2015, team president Brendan Shanahan had already done what was thought impossible by convincing the organization’s corporate structure that a complete teardown was essential in order for there to be a proper rebuild. (Or in this case, build. The Leafs actually weren’t rebuilding anything.) That path, one with which Lamoriello and new coach Mike Babcock were entirely on board, led to the selection of a generational player in Auston Matthews.

Combine that with two brilliant picks in Mitch Marner and William Nylander prior to Lamoriello taking the job, along with an unlimited budget for scouting and developing that allows the organization to flex its financial muscles in a salary cap world, and the Leafs find themselves in the enviable position of having some of the league’s most talented young players and with a bountiful crop coming soon. And it’s all happening at a time when the NHL is ruled by young stars. “That is a luxury of the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Lamoriello said. “To have the farm team in the city, to have the market they’re in and to be able to afford to do things that maybe some other people can’t afford to do. You don’t apologize for it. It’s a fact. And I’ve seen both sides of it, so I do know.”

Lamoriello is referring to his days with the Devils, where he spent 28 years working with a budget and facing the pressure to make the right call on players all the time. In his 28 years in New Jersey, Lamoriello always had a steady stream of good young players to supplement his draft home runs – Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur. He doesn’t quite have that kind of a holy trinity around which to build in Toronto, but the template looks awfully familiar.

“What that allows you to do is to make decisions on players, when they get to the end (of their careers) that you’re not going to miss a beat,” Lamoriello said. “I hate to go back to the past, but really the kick-start to the years we had (in New Jersey) came in 1995 when we won the Stanley Cup and the Calder Cup. That’s the last time it’s been done.”

From that group came Sergei Brylin, a Swiss Army knife on the Devils’ future Stanley Cup teams and a player that Lamoriello’s lieutenant and head scout David Conte has often said is his favorite all-time draft pick. Along with Brylin came a slew of serviceable NHLers led by Steve Sullivan and Scott Pellerin and soon to be followed by the likes of Jason Smith and Sheldon Souray. None of them were superstars, but they gave the Devils options, either to use them in trades or to fill spots vacated by fading veterans. It’s a template that Lamoriello, who still hadn’t been signed to a contract extension by late March, wants to replicate in Toronto.

Part of that involves cultivating a minor league system that can support the young players who are coming into the organization. And the Leafs have done that with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. In fact, when the Leafs are on the road, Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe can often be seen splitting the team into two groups, with one working on skill development on one ice pad and the other on systems on another pad, then switching. That way, when a Kasperi Kapanen or Travis Dermott joins the NHL team, the transition is seamless.

“You need a strong development team to allow (your prospects) to maximize their abilities but also teach them what is going to be expected of them to have success,” Lamoriello said. “Talent doesn’t always do that. You have to be committed to that. You have to be committed to do things a certain way. And if you can learn that in the minors, it’s going to be a big help in that regard.”

So what will be the result of this epiphany when it comes to drafting and developing? Will it necessarily lead to the end of the longest active Stanley Cup drought by an Original Six team? It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that the Leafs could win it this season. After all, stranger things have happened in this game. But the most important thing is the Leafs are finally giving themselves a chance, one they haven’t had in decades. There was a time when free agents from the Toronto area often found themselves signing cushy deals with the Leafs, usually with their best days behind them. But now, the crown jewel of free agency this summer, John Tavares, doesn’t appear to be an option for Toronto if he does hit the market, largely due to the fact it would be difficult to find a suitable role for him on this roster because of all the current talent.

When was the last time the Maple Leafs could say something like that?

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