The Toronto Maple Leafs can’t even do wrong right…
If you’re a card-carrying member of “Tank Nation,” you’ll no doubt concur with that sentiment.
As the chilling winds of winter give way to longer, warmer days, the first signs of new life will soon emerge. Yes, spring will soon be in the air. In Toronto, we puckheads call this annual event “garbage time.”
The moniker has nothing to do with local waste collection schedules and everything to do with the remaining regular season NHL contests that the Leafs will compete in before the attention of Leafs Nation turns to hot topics like the entry draft and free agency.
Nothing about these remaining games matter in terms of post-season play, because once again, your Toronto Maple Leafs will soon be shining up their golf clubs while playoff–bound teams ramp up for the annual war of attrition that will yield an eventual battle-scarred, deserving champion.
Leafs President Brendan Shanahan and General Manager Lou Lamoriello have added an interesting wrinkle this season by replacing a number of tenured Leaf veterans who have either moved on via trade or have been shut-down for the season with a smattering of promising, talented rookies looking to make a lasting impression.
Watching the fresh-faced and super-skilled William Nylander negotiate his way through the NHL jungle minus the pressures of actually having to win is a pretty good deal for both the fans and the player. He gets to find his rhythm and timing against the best in the game, while we all get a glimpse of what looks like could amount to something akin to greatness.
Our hearts warm as we watch local boy Zach Hyman go hard to the net and into the corners after loose pucks, hoping that his relentless energy and passion are not fleeting.
As Nikita Soshnikov infuriates opponents around the league, we see a player with elements of Darcy Tucker who can shoot the puck in a way eerily reminiscent of Leaf great Wendel Clark. That sneaky, perfectly-placed wrist shot is a thing of beauty to behold.
Indeed, these “kids,” including defender Connor Carrick, hulking centre Frederick Gauthier, and steady shut-down back-ender Rinat Valiev, give reason for hope that the dark, long winter that has been Leaf hockey for too long has begun to thaw.
So far, so good. Nylander, who some (including Coach Mike Babcock) might argue took a few games to find his legs as well as his touch with the puck, shows flashes of offensive dominance. He’s developing quite a knack for holding onto the biscuit just long enough to freeze goalies and create optimal looks, as well as a deft touch as a passer. With five points in his last two games, the young Swede drafted 8th overall in 2014 has seven points (four goals, three assists) in 12 outings. More importantly he’s learning how to adapt and apply his skills and vision at the NHL level, a challenge which has eluded a number of prospects over the years.
Hyman forechecks like he is getting paid bonus money to do so. He is clearly undaunted by the challenge of competing against NHL-level talent, and he’s been rewarded for his courage. In twelve games, he has four goals and an assist and a shooting percentage of just a hair over 14%.
Soshnikov has two goals and three assists in 11 contests, as well as 33 shots and 34 hits. Like Nylander and Hyman, he’s also earned the praise of his coach for his efforts and enthusiasm.
Connor Carrick was generally considered a throw-in who came along with Brooks Laich and a 5th-rounder from Washington in exchange for Daniel Winnik’s rights, however, he’s has been anything but spare parts. Carrick has scored twice and added two assists in 15 games, but has also looked very much an NHL-caliber defender who can play in a variety of situations without hurting his club, averaging about 12 minutes a night.
Most, if not all of these young men will return to the Marlies at the close of the NHL regular season and will take their new-found confidence back to the trenches to compete in a Calder Cup run, and there is every reason for optimism, as the Marlies continue to dominate the AHL.
So where’s the downside to all this, you may ask. Well, if you’re Babcock, and you have winning genetically encoded into your DNA, not a damn thing. You’re watching the kids take critical steps towards becoming NHL hockey players who will all return in the fall bigger, stronger, and even more dialed-in and ready to make an impact. But if you have your heart set on watching Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi pulling on one of those newly-designed centennial season jerseys come June 24th, you may be tearing your hair out right about now.
The Leafs have won four of their last five matches, outscoring the competition 15-9, pushing them perilously close to conceding a lottery pick opportunity altogether, and that just doesn’t sit right with many, if not most Leaf fans. The popular sentiment at this stage of the rebuild is that the hockey gods must throw the Leafs a bone after missing the boat on Connor McDavid last season. The probability anomaly that sent the lifelong Leaf fan to Edmonton was a something of a slap in the face considering the odds actually favoured Toronto.
While a worst-overall finish only yields a 20% chance of lottery success due to the implementation of new lottery rules, the more garbage time wins the Leafs pile up, the more the likelihood of drafting that franchise piece slips through their fingers.
Instead of a game-breaker like Matthews, the Leafs may find themselves looking at a player like Finnish defender Olli Juolevi or perhaps Nylander’s younger brother, Mississauga Steelheads forward Alex Nylander. Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 6’1’’ two-way centre who is creeping up the charts and into the hearts of hockey scouts, might also be a serious consideration.
While none of the above should be viewed as a disappointment, there is a distinct drop-off after the first three picks in the draft, and the following three spots are largely interchangeable depending on who you talk to. Jacob Chychrun, Matthew Tkachuk and Alex Nylander have all been discussed in this range, with the odd off-the-board addition thrown in for good measure. All three of these players are high-end, and should prove to have long and rewarding NHL careers.
Should the Leafs fall out of lottery-pick eligibility, all is not lost, as they will most assuredly be in hot pursuit of a top-shelf free agent over the next year or two, and while the kids have been more than all right, Leaf fans have yet to see the best of the bunch, as young Mitch Marner will emerge soon enough, and when he does, things are going to get very interesting around Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Marner enters the OHL playoffs with the London Knights having amassed a jaw-dropping 116 points in 57 contests. While concerns about his stature may worry some, let’s bear in mind that he’s exactly the same height as William Nylander, and he weighs almost exactly what Nylander weighed this time a year ago. A good summer of training should have Marner ready to be a serious contender to make the team right out of camp in September.
While this rookie experiment has quite possibly impacted the Leafs’ chances at a golden ticket at the draft, it has also revealed an exciting group of rookies who look like they can play at the next level and possibly, lead the franchise out of the long winter of non-playoff contention that has kept them frozen in mediocrity for over a decade.