As the Toronto Maple Leafs embark on an extensive, painful, absolutely necessary and long overdue rebuild, there are fans and media who've estimated the team will need something in the area of five years before people see a genuine Stanley Cup contender. But for as long as that sounds, it’s actually a conservative estimate. There are exceptions, of course, but to see how long it can take for a legitimate Cup threat to round into that form, look no further than the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings – or perhaps more appropriately, the St. Louis Blues franchise that is still seeking its first championship after 47 seasons.
The Kings didn’t win their first Cup until 2012. By that point, team captain Dustin Brown had been in the organization for seven seasons. Superstar Anze Kopitar had been there for six years. Elite defenseman Drew Doughty was in his fourth year as an NHLer. Brown and Kopitar had been drafted in 2003 and 2005 respectively, and the Kings still failed to make the playoffs for five straight seasons after taking Brown 13th overall in 2003.
The Blues selected Backes – in the second round, 62nd overall – in the same season the Kings selected Brown. Winger T.J. Oshie was selected 24th overall in 2005; Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz were drafted in 2010. Alex Pietrangelo and Jake Allen were selected in 2008. In those seasons, the Blues missed the post-season five out of six seasons and still have only won one playoff series since 2002.
So, about that five-year window the Leafs are looking at to be a “winner”? It’s more than likely more than a little optimistic. Team president Brendan Shanahan and his management group could speed up the process with some good fortune, augmentative trades and free agent signings, but the reality is, five years is almost certainly going to be the minimum it takes to truly build Toronto’s team or any team into one that has the depth and talent to compete with the NHL’s elite teams. And Kings assistant GM Rob Blake agrees.
“It does take many years,” Blake told The Hockey News Monday.
“Development is a big part of a rebuild, and you have to get it set up, then effectively working. The biggest part is not just getting a couple high picks, but about working with all the players you draft. And the chances of most players drafted coming in and playing right away in the NHL are difficult. You have to look at the development side of a player – whether that’s in his last years of junior or college, or a couple years at the American League level – to help that player become a contributor. That takes time.”
Blake's attitude toward young players is matched by his employer. Look at L.A.’s current roster of forwards: all but four of their 13 forwards were drafted by the Kings. To be fair, those four non-draftees (Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll) are crucial components, but they wouldn’t have nearly the same on-ice effect if the Kings hadn’t enjoyed great in-house success in identifying and honing the skills of the right cornerstone players. And if they didn’t use a great deal of patience to shade their young players from the searing heat of layman expectation, or overreacted in the wake of a post-season disappointment, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
“You see players fail because they’ve been rushed into it, but you rarely see players fail because they’re over-prepared,” Blake said. “You’ve got to build and not rush these kids into something they’re not ready to deal with.”
There’s one more team Leafs fans ought to consider when setting their finish line for when the too-familiar feeling of extreme frustration sets in again. That team is the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Islanders. That team needed a phenom such as John Tavares as a base upon which to build a winner, but it didn’t start becoming a real threat until players such as Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson turned into consistent forces.
Eight of the 12 forwards on the Isles’ roster were drafted by the organization. Guess how many of Toronto’s 13 forwards were home-grown?
If you’re a Leafs fan who correctly guessed the answer is two – Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov – congratulations, and condolences. (You can be generous and increase that number to three if you include NCAA signing Tyler Bozak, but the glaring disparity remains.)
That’s the challenge for Shanahan, GM Dave Nonis, assistants Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas and the rest of the Leafs braintrust: getting that number to go from two to eight or nine.
They can’t say it for public consumption, but they know it: it’s impossible to change that reality in one or two years. And for that reason, a five-year rebuild is the very least Leafs fans should expect.