Draft, schmaft: The Leafs look ahead to the Auston Matthews era

At the NHL draft Friday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs surprised absolutely nobody by choosing Auston Matthews with the first pick. Matthews gives the Leafs something they haven’t had since captain Mats Sundin left town after the 2007-08 season: a big #1 center who (theoretically) can dominate. Although there was some speculation that Finn Patrick Laine could go in the top spot, everybody knew that the Leafs needed a center and that Matthews, an 18-year-old out of Arizona of all places, was the man-child to fit the bill.

It’s been a long, winding road of futility for the Leafs since their last Stanley Cup win in 1967, but the current management team led by team president Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello has been essentially building a new team from scratch. Star winger Phil Kessel was dealt to the Penguins last summer for what seemed to be a fairly low price, Pittsburgh’s #1 pick this year (plus some prospects), especially after the Pens went all the way to win the Cup. But the Leafs then turned that pick into their new top goalie, getting Frederik Andersen from Anaheim. And then they used their remaining 11 picks to stockpile players with size and potential. You never really know what any of these players will do, but for now at least, the future looks bright.

This is a far different approach from Leafs management teams in the past. GM Cliff Fletcher loved getting veterans and in 1996 infamously uttered the words “Draft schmaft” when asked about the draft picks he was trading away for aging players. Successive Leafs GMs followed similar paths: John Ferguson Jr., Brian Burke and Dave Nonis (as well as Fletcher in an interim stint) traded away plenty of picks and young players including Tuukka Rask, Alex Steen, Tyler Seguin (the pick that turned into him, anyway), Anton Stralman and the picks that turned into Rickard Rakell and John Gibson (in return for a first rounder that they used to pick the immortal Tyler Biggs).

In short order, Shanahan and crew have loaded up on young talent. In addition to the likes of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk, the Leafs have added the likes of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner (who flat out dominated the OHL this season), Nikita Zaitsev and Nikita Soshnikov, as well as the slew of picks they chose over the weekend. The future’s bright indeed.

But now comes the question of how the rebuild proceeds. Do the Leafs go for another season of futility and build up more high picks, or do they start adding veteran pieces now? There are indications Toronto could go the latter route, with the trade and signing of Andersen and the persistent rumors that they’re going to make a run for free agent Steven Stamkos (although it appears they’ll have plenty of competition). Will they pick up some pieces to support Matthews in his rookie season (assuming he makes the team)? Certainly coach Mike Babcock is making himself heard in the debate as well.

With the NHL’s free agent season starting July 1, the Leafs will be the focus of many in the hockey world as we wonder which road they travel. The amazing thing about Shanahan’s reign so far is the eternally cynical Toronto fans have bought in to the plan. After decades of short cuts and disappointment, what’s a few more years to build a Cup winner the right way? Leaf fans (including this one) hope the wait will be worth it.

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