The Toronto Maple Leafs are clinging to last place by a thread.
Finishing 30th in the NHL brings with it the greatest odds of getting the first overall pick in the entry draft – a measly 20 per cent. So maybe it should not come as a surprise that the Maple Leafs are not tanking down the stretch.
There are those who would suggest the Maple Leafs are shooting themselves in the foot by winning. It could cost them the No. 1 pick.
With the Maple Leafs having won four of their past five games, including a thrilling 6-5 overtime victory against the Stanley Cup contending Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, their hold on 30th is suddenly tenuous.
This has not escaped the attention of coach Mike Babcock. Asked following his team’s victory against the Ducks if he’d like to see the Maple Leafs run the table in their final nine games, Babcock was diplomatic:
“I’m like everybody else, I like to pick first. There are 30 teams in the league that would like to pick first. In saying that, I like to win every night, too. I’m a big believer that in life if you do good things, good things happen. If you cheat the system, it cheats you. So it’s, do what you’re supposed to do; do your job the best you can. A lot of people in the organization are trying to do their job. We have tried to manage this really well this year. We look like we have some hockey players. To me they look like they are hockey players. I understand there is pressure on the opposition and not on us and I know how that affects things, but it looks like we are going in the right direction as a team. But if we could pick first it would be great. If you finish last you have a 20 per cent chance…80 per cent chance of not. I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is.”
In other words: What will be, will be.
The master plan for the Maple Leafs this season was mainly about changing the culture of an organization that had become a country club. It is all about getting the players throughout the entire organization to embrace professionalism, making players accountable for their actions on every shift of every game and embracing a work ethic on and off the ice that is conducive to being the best they can be.
If they could accomplish all that and still get the top draft pick, fantastic. If not, getting better has to trump getting the No. 1 pick.
The thing about the Maple Leafs is, they may be in last place, but they don’t suck. Really.
Despite being very young and using many prospects when injuries and trades skinned their roster to the bone, the Maple Leafs are competitive.
If it costs them the No. 1 pick, so be it.
The team that has not had a legitimate No. 1 center since Mats Sundin departed as a free agent for the Vancouver Canucks in 2008, could surely use this year’s top prospect, Auston Matthews. A 6-foot-2, 195-pound difference maker, the 18-year-old Matthews played pro in Switzerland this season and received glowing reviews from his coach, Marc Crawford, who told me, “This kid is going to win lots of championships.”
At the end of the day, however, the players Babcock sent over the boards on any given shift generally played with a desire to be their best. Babcock’s lessons in how the play the game ‘right’ came shining through.
Following the trade deadline when GM Lou Lamoriello shipped out many veterans, the Maple Leafs called on their kids who were burning it up in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies and, for the first time in years, it is abundantly clear there is a solid foundation of youth and skill from which to build upon.
Among the forwards, 19-year-old William Nylander has demonstrated star potential. Others who will challenge for fulltime NHL employment next season include: Kasperi Kapanen, 19; Josh Leivo, 22; Nikita Soshnikov, 21; and Ben Smith, 27. Connor Brown, 21, and Frederik Gauthier, 20, are close, too. Mitch Marner, the fourth overall pick in 2015, could also factor in next season, too.
On defence, Connor Carrick, 21; Frank Corrado, 22; Viktor Loov, 22; Scott Harrington, 22; Rinat Valiev, 20; and Stuart Percy, 22, have not looked out of place in the NHL.
Goaltenders generally take longer than skaters to develop, but Garret Sparks, 22, has shown glimpses of No. 1 potential. And there are those who believe Antoine Bibeau of the Marlies is further advanced.
The hockey gods will determine whether or not the Maple Leafs get the top pick in next June’s draft. In the meantime, Toronto has not cheated the system and things are looking up.