On Sunday night the Toronto Maple Leafs eked out a gutsy, hard-fought 1-0 shutout win over the Detroit Red Wings. It was a big win for the Leafs, one that can build confidence and character for a young, inexperienced club.
And, even better, the team still remained in 30th place in the NHL in spite of the win.
It’s been a strange, strange season in the city of Toronto, the epicenter of the hockey universe. The Leafs have been steadily shambling towards a last-place finish for, well, pretty much the entire season, and yet, the organization arguably couldn’t be in a better possible position overall because of it.
Like many other teams in the post-salary cap NHL, the Leafs have gone the route of a rebuild, sacrificing success in the present for a greater chance at success in the future. Few teams, however, have embraced this strategy quite like Toronto has.
The Leafs have 12 picks in the upcoming 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Nine different rookies have made their NHL debut with the team this year. And, if their current pace of futility continues to the end of the regular season, the Leafs will have the greatest odds to land the most coveted prize of the draft, gamebreaking forward Auston Matthews.
Full speed ahead.
What’s most amazing, though, is just how successfully the team has straddled that fine line between “young and improving” and “still bad enough to get a great draft pick.”
While Toronto’s record of 23-34-11 is firmly in the league’s basement, they’ve actually made great strides throughout this season at playing solid, competitive hockey. They’re 5th in the NHL in terms of shots-per-game and 12th in terms of shots against. They’re also 11th in Corsi For %, and making gigantic strides at puck possession compared to where they were last year.
All of this despite having players like Leo Komarov, P.A. Parenteau and Matt Hunwick as some of the team’s most trusted skaters. Serviceable, hard-working players, to be sure, but hardly top six or top pairing material on most other teams in the league.
That same lack of veteran depth has allowed the team ample opportunity to test drive some of their top young players in major roles, roles that the youngsters are expected to grow into (and excel at) over the next few seasons. Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner have all seen significant playing time this season, and it’s all but guaranteed that dynamic 19 year-old wunderkind William Nylander will be there too soon enough.
The Leafs still have a long, long way to go before they’ll actually be competitive in the standings, and the never-ending failures of the Edmonton Oilers show that rebuilds can go sideways if a franchise isn’t careful, but tearing it all down and starting fresh has proven to be a sound strategy in today’s NHL. Toronto, for their part, is determined to do it bigger and better than any other team has before.