With the first overall selection of the 2016 NHL entry draft, the Leafs will draft Auston Matthews.
Much is being made about the possibility, however remote, of Patrik Laine actually usurping Matthews as the top dog at the draft based on his excellent play during and since the World Junior Hockey Championship and most recently during the ongoing World Championship, in which he leads the tourney in goals. Incidentally, the 18-year old Finn phenom also broke a 26-year old record set by one Jaromir Jagr for most points by an 18-year old in the championship. According to reports a growing number of scouts have Laine ahead of Matthews and as that story spreads, the misnomer that the Leafs should even consider selecting anyone but Matthews likewise gains traction.
Laine vs Matthews, No Controversy Here: The Maple Leafs will Draft Auston Matthews
Let’s put this silliness to rest once and for all… A goal scoring winger in the mold of a Rick Nash or a Jaromir Jagr; someone who can power his way through defenders and put the puck in the net pretty much whenever he needs to, is always going to be near the top of every coach’s wish list. It will be right up there with a top pairing defender and a bona fide starting goalie. Above all, however, will be a franchise centreman. We can talk about building from the net out all day long, but if we look around the league, goalies – even top goalies – get moved far more frequently than top-flight centremen. Same goes for defenders, and wingers. The Leafs have invested tens of millions in every facet of their organization from coaching and development to a world-class training/practice facility, to the best available player personnel that they could coerce to hole up in Hogtown while they attempted put a competitive team together. Until last season, the top of that particular list was winger Phil Kessel, who despite his foibles, led the team in scoring every year but one. He was also the first player in a decade to put up eighty points in a season. None of that mattered, because ultimately, the blueprint proved to be built on sand and it was soon clear that the group they assembled, led arguably by a moody, oft-snakebitten sniper who was prone to scoring slumps and standoffs with his coach, wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
Without a legitimate first-line pivot with the physical tools to control the game the way Mats Sundin or Doug Gilmour once did, the hockey drought in Toronto would continue until all but hardcore fan interest completely dries up. Gilmour was not a big man, but that did not affect the way he played, or the way opponents played him: like he was 6’3’’ and 210 pounds. He was fearless, tenacious and relentless. While highly competitive, Matthews has more in common in terms of his physical makeup with Sundin. At 6’3’’ and 200+ pounds, he has the ideal frame for the task that lies ahead. He can battle down low and he can protect the puck against anyone you care to name. Matthews represents the most complete centreman the Leafs will probably ever draft, and in an era where any hockey trade is tough to make, there is virtually zero chance the Leafs would be able to trade for that elusive cornerstone piece, and it certainly wouldn’t come without a hefty price.
Sure, the Leafs could probably trade for a Leon Draisaitl, who may be a legit first line centre, but if you think it would cost any less than Morgan Rielly to make that happen, you’re fooling yourself. The Leafs have acquired and developed some pretty respectable centremen; Nazem Kadri the most notable of the bunch. There’s also been Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, and Dave Bolland. We don’t need to break down the contributions of each; let’s just jump to the overall team record, which is anything but flattering. No matter how you analyze it, whether by means of statistical data or good old eyeballs, the lack of a tried-and-true franchise pivot has hurt and hindered the Maple Leafs despite the quality or quantity of support pieces they’ve employed over the years. You just don’t win with any kind of regularity without that cornerstone guy in the one-hole.
Some may argue that the Leafs could afford to give Matthews a miss if they sign former first-overall draftee Steven Stamkos; a player that would become the Leafs’ de facto top-line centre the instant the ink dries on the signature line of what would be an extremely lucrative contract. Stamkos is in fact a superstar, even if he is four years removed from his 60-goal season. At 26, he is still a force, and will continue to be for a number of years. If the Leafs are fortunate enough to sign Stamkos, they not only create a much-needed buffer for Matthews, they also add a mentor for the entire group, which still lacks that high-character veteran with elite skill to reinforce the messages of coach Mike Babcock. As Brooks Laich once said: “well done is better than well-said”. Toronto has a number of veterans with something to offer its youth, but a true superstar to lead the charge? Not so much.
Toronto media has an insidious habit of devouring its young in the sports arena, and young Mr. Matthews would surely be thrown to the wolves the minute he shows himself to be less than superhuman. If Toronto is to create and maintain that “safe place to play” that Babcock talked about at his introductory presser almost a year ago, acquiring highly skilled veterans who can can take the heat off the younger players while they find their stride is paramount to the overall success of the group, and Stamkos is their best bet. If the Leafs were able to get five or six productive seasons from Stamkos before the inevitable decline became obvious, they’d once again be a ship without a rudder by choosing not to draft Matthews; a future franchise centre in his own right. If he had the opportunity to play the role of young apprentice behind Stammer for a season or two, he arguably develops more completely and organically, without being thrust automatically into the role he will ultimately play.
As an example, let’s look at the rise of Morgan Rielly. Reilly could have arguably gone in the top three of the 2012 draft if there was a do-over today. His skill is matched by his work ethic, which is by all accounts, through the roof. That said, Rielly is still a work in progress with lots of room for development, but it wasn’t until he showed that he could handle big minutes and power play time that the Leafs were comfortable moving Dion Phaneuf and entrusting the young blue liner with added responsibility. Reilly benefited from the buffer that Phaneuf provided, and Matthews would benefit from the presence of a Steven Stamkos in much the same way, as would numerous other Leaf assets. Auston Matthews represents an opportunity to build for the future success that has eluded the Leafs for more than a decade. There was nobody on deck to step into the one-hole when Sundin bid Toronto adieu and the void left by his departure has never been adequately filled. This off-season is the perfect opportunity to land the core pieces that could change the franchises’ fortunes for the next ten years or more, and despite all the noise swirling around in hockey circles, drafting any player other than Matthews would be an opportunity wasted.
There is chatter of the Leafs trading with the Arizona Coyotes for a veritable boatload of high-end assets including one or both of Dylan Strome and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and while the likelihood of this happening is minimal, any deal for a potential top line centre like Strome, plus a bevy of assets makes a ton more sense than selecting a winger; even one as good as Laine. The Coyotes won’t be so short-sighted as to strip-mine their club in order to make Matthews their own, and it would take nothing less than an absurd overpayment for the Leafs to let that bird in hand fly way.
Make no mistake Leaf fans, MLSE isn’t going to botch this one. Unless they receive a ridiculous overpayment for the top pick in the draft, it is Matthews who will be slipping that blue and white jersey and ball cap on come June 24th.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC – SEPTEMBER 22: Auston Matthews #34 of the ZSC Lions Zurich skates during the Champions Hockey League round of thirty-two game between Sparta Prague and ZSC Lions Zurich at o2 Arena Prague on September 22, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Sparta Prague/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)