The Leafs have 26 games to play in this season and they need to take a page out of the Sabres playbook in order to secure a competitive future for the franchise. A quick look at the NHL standings shows that the Leafs are only nine points behind the Oilers for 29th in the NHL. The Sabres most likely cannot be caught as they are 15 points ahead (or behind; not sure on the terminology in a reverse Playoff race) and recently traded players off of their roster for one who won’t play until next season.
The Leafs need to look to this play and copy it. That means making trades right now instead of trying to maximize the returns for their players as the deadline approaches.
The team has had a near historic run of futility in the last six weeks. Going back to the post-Christmas game against the Panthers, the Leafs have been a toxic mixture of failure, bad luck and weak efforts. In the long-run, as tough as its been to watch, it’s ultimately one of the best things that ever happened to the franchise because instead of proceeding down Nonis’ path of trying to eke out eighth place and drafting twelfth each year, the Leafs will now attempt to build their team with blue-chip homegrown players acquired through the draft. But regardless of why it happened, a crazy-low shooting percentage and injuries to the teams #1 d-man and one-third of their top nine forwards suggest at least a part of the losing has been due to extreme bad luck.
With that in mind, note that there are eight games- or almost one-third of the remaining ones – until the trade deadline. With the Leafs due for some puck-luck, their players being professionals who hate to lose, and the injury bug receding, the odds are good that, over that time, the team will win a few games, perhaps even go on a little 5-3 run. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Whatever the Leafs have planned for the deadline, it is essential that they recognize that the difference between what might be available today and what will be available at the deadline is almost assuredly not as significant as the difference between having a top three pick and picking lower.
Sure, the draft is deep this year, but that doesn’t mean there’s a ton of franchise altering players available. Which means that the Leafs must do everything they can in order to catch the Oilers for second-last. That explicitly means moving out a significant piece or at least some of the sure-to-be-moved UFAs right now, before the team can make any kind of 8th-overall-assuring late-season run.
Basically, if the team is going to rely on building through the draft, they should do everything in their power to make the draft pick this season higher.
If you look at the draft lottery odds, you will see that if the Leafs finish 29th, they have a 13.5% chance of landing Connor McDavid. Hoewver, if you add in Buffalo’s chances of winning, there is then a slightly more than three to one chance that that either the Leafs or Sabres win the lottery and are thus guaranteed one of the two potentially generational players. A 29th place finish also gives them a 100% chance of picking top 3 – so getting there is the most important thing the franchise has attempted to accomplish in the last decade.
In my opinion, you’re not getting that much for Bozak, Polak, Franson or Winnik anyways, even if you hit a home-run at the deadline.I mean, as useful as Winnik is, I’d be shocked if the Leafs got even a second round pick for him. Knowing this, they should move all four players by the end of this weekend. Who cares? Whatever you get back is found money, because the best way to compete in the NHL isn’t a secret: have a well balanced lineup, have salary cap flexibility, but most of all: have one of the NHL’s best all-around players. Who won the last six Cups? Kopitar, Toews, Kopitar, Bereron, Toews, Crosby: probably the four best all-around centres in the NHL for the last half-decade or so.
Kopitar and Bergeron prove you don’t have to pick at the top to get one of them, but the odds of you finding them drop significantly after the top three, as those two examples are outliers, not something you can bank on happening.
There is every reason to believe the hype is real. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are the kind of players the Leafs have simply never had. Mats Sundin was once one of the greatest players in the NHL and the Leafs could have won two Cups with him if they had just gotten a little lucky – but there is every reason to believe both these players will be better than Sundin.
So gut the team. Do it now. Today.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.