Leafs’ Focus Must Be Prospects, Not Playoffs

When the 2016-17 NHL season began, few, if any, could or would have predicted that the Toronto Maple Leafs would be in the midst of the playoff race at the Mar. 1 trade deadline.

However, a few months later, such has become exactly the case. Despite icing a team laden with young talent, the Leafs have surprised the hockey world and have pushed into playoff contention through their highly skilled and energetic style of play.

Mitch Marner has been red-hot for the Leafs in his rookie campaign. (Photo: Katie Whitty)

Led by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner offensively, Toronto has quickly and shockingly become one of the most lethal teams in the league on any given night. Ranking within the top ten in the NHL in terms of goals for per game, the Leafs have surprised their opponents on a consistent basis and have even defeated a number of the league’s top teams.

So, while a playoff berth originally appeared to be out of the question, reaching the post-season is now a more attractive and attainable goal than ever. And, with the trade deadline quickly approaching, Toronto’s standing in the race has led to the question of which stance the team will take as the cutoff approaches.

Will the team be buyers with hopes of making a significant playoff push, or, instead, sellers looking to move a number of veteran players and pending unrestricted free agents in order to further strengthen their rebuild?

Buyers or Sellers?

As I discussed in a recent article, there are positives to be had regardless of the approach taken by Toronto ahead of the coming trade deadline.

If the Leafs decide to be buyers, Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan are operating under the belief that playoff experience in the short-term is of the greatest value to their team moving forward. Given the immense number of young players on the Leafs’ roster, playoff ice-time would be of incredible value to the team as well as illustrate exactly what is required of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

What’s more is that after placing Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injured reserve, the Leafs have the ability to operate $15 million over the cap until the end of the season.

On the other hand, Toronto can opt to be sellers at the deadline — an approach which would focus on the long-term growth of the team yet would likely come at the cost of the team’s playoff push.

As sellers, the Leafs would be able to trade players of value in exchange for potentially massive returns which would surely further their rebuild. Whether it be prospects, picks or established young players, dealing significant pieces of their current core would ensure a highly successful rebuild and sustainable future for the franchise.

It is this stance which the Leafs must adapt as the trade deadline approaches, and there are seemingly endless reasons why.

Prospects, Not Playoffs

Oh, how appealing playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is. After all, it is the sole reason why players play the game, as the ultimate goal is to win a championship. Further, outside of one’s name on the Cup, an appearance in the post-season for a team like Toronto would provide their players with invaluable experience on both a personal and team level.

A playoff appearance would do wonders for the development of Auston Matthews and his young Leafs teammates. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

However, it is essential to remember the current state of the Leafs’ franchise as a whole.

State of the Franchise

Committed to a comprehensive and long-term rebuild, Toronto is focused on building a strong young contender who can compete with the league’s best on an annual basis. In enduring this process, the Leafs will undoubtedly encounter more than their fair share of pain and difficulties, although, the road traveled thus far has been incredibly successful.

Despite this surprising short-term success, Toronto must stay true to the long-term vision of their franchise, which is to continue to strengthen all aspects of their organization. Such is exactly why taking the stance of a seller at the 2017 trade deadline is the right approach for the club.

Sell, Sell, Sell

As a seller, the Leafs will be able to trade players of value and those who are pending unrestricted free agents in return for additional young players, prospects and draft picks. In doing so, not only will Toronto be able to free further cap space in coming seasons, but they will open up roster spots in which young prospects can be inserted into and gain valuable experience from. Also, with a deep 2017 draft class, the Leafs could add a prospect of immense potential in the process.

Andrew Nielsen and Toronto Marlies teammate Travis Dermott are ready for NHL experience, they simply need an opportunity. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

The acquisition of additional young talent would allow the Leafs to create and bolster a strong organization ranging from the ECHL to NHL level, as well as generate a winning culture founded on development through on-ice success.

However, although the Leafs have found success early on in their rebuild, it is important to remember that there are a number of areas in the organization which still require drastic improvement.

Yes, Toronto has been a force offensively, but major questions and deficiencies remain both on defense and in goal. Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen, in particular, have continued their strong development on the blueline and so too has Antoine Bibeau in the crease, but if the Leafs hope to build a deep and highly skilled organization, additional pieces will need to be added at every position on the ice.

The trade deadline presents the opportunity to do exactly that.

So, although clinching a berth in the 2017 post-season would be an incredible achievement for a team whose season began with minuscule expectations, sacrificing their playoff push in exchange for sustainable long-term success is the Leafs’ only true option.