The Toronto Maple Leafs had a lot break their way this year. They were able to shed the long-term cap space of both Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, the latter without any hint of salary retained. They traded veteran players away and stocked the cupboards with prospects and draft picks. At this time, they have 12 selections, including two first rounders.
They called up the kids from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. Those same Marlies had a historic season, finishing at the top of the standings with 114 points. The next closest team only had 102. They also just swept the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in their first round playoff series.
Many of the players in the current postseason run spent time with the big club this year. William Nylander, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman, among others, left excellent impressions with the Maple Leafs front office, coaching staff and their legions of fans.
Arguably the biggest turning point of the season was the draft lottery. The Maple Leafs finished the season as the NHL’s worst team. That gave them the best odds of winning the lottery, and in turn, having the chance to select a super talented player in Auston Matthews.
It was an extremely nervous atmosphere. Hockey fans across the globe tuned their televisions into CBC for a look at which three teams would be lucky enough to draft in the top three. As luck would have it, the Columbus Blue Jackets were able to win and move up to the third position. That should give them a shot at one of the Finns, most likely Jesse Puljujarvi.
The Winnipeg Jets were also big winners on the night. They won and were able to move up to the second overall pick. Patrick Laine is a fantatsic prize, and should fit right into Winnipeg’s young core of players. The Jets also drafted another Finn 28 years ago, and he turned out to be a pretty good player. You may have heard the name Teemu Selanne once or twice through the years.
The biggest winner of the night though, was of course the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brendan Shanahan was live in the studio for the franchises best moment of the year. The Maple Leafs won the lottery and with it, the right to select Auston Matthews with the first overall pick this coming June.
It was a moment of elation for Leafs Nation. The team had many things go right for them this season, but this lottery win was easily the biggest of them all. The rebuild is in full swing, and adding a player like Matthews into the fold will only serve to help make the team more competitive in the very near future.
And for a bit of a history, the last time the Maple Leafs selected first overall, they took Wendal Clark. And that selection worked out pretty well, as Clark became a fan favourite for his gritty play and the way he wore his heart on his sleeve.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 1, 2016
The Matthews Factor
The Maple Leafs have been looking for a franchise centre since Mats Sundin left. That type of player is coveted in today’s NHL, and teams that have one are quick to lock them up. Matthews is almost guaranteed to hear his name called by Toronto in June.
He will join a young and talented team filled with up and coming players looking to make an impact in the NHL. The Buds will finally have a respectable core that will include the likes of Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Matthews.
The big centre is just what the doctor ordered for the Blue and White. Matthews has size, skill and smarts. He has a great shot from the perimeter, but isn’t afraid to get in tight and score the dirty goals as well. He’s also underrated defensively, and will make a solid effort in his own zone. He’s the type of player that can contribute right away, and under the tutelage of Mike Babcock, the sky is the limit.
Connor Carrick on Auston Matthews: "Coaches love talent, but they want guys who are responsible right away & he seems to fit the bill"
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 1, 2016
He fits every single parameter the Maple Leafs are looking for in a future superstar. The pain of this year was well worth it, knowing that the Buds got the first overall pick. It’s a bright future, and with Matthews in the fold in the near future, the rebuild can continue to soar into the next stage.