The Toronto Maple Leafs put a thumping on the Anaheim Ducks Tuesday night, generating seven goals and not allowing a single goal to Anaheim. It was the type of dominance against a clearly-lesser opponent that we haven’t always seen from modern-day Leafs teams, but at the moment, Toronto is playing some of their best hockey in years, and they’ve made all the years of losing that preceded their current core of talent very much worth it.
But make no mistake – the Buds would not be in their current position if they didn’t suffer through many brutal seasons. There is no one given road to a Stanley Cup championship, and the Leafs still have a long way to go before they establish themselves as a group worth the hype. But the proven path to their present-day level is to take a slew of shots in the goolies, and, eventually, develop an elite collection of players through the entry draft. That’s what Ducks fans, and fans of all current NHL sad-sack teams, should learn from Toronto.
If the Leafs hadn’t stunk out the joint time and again for three consecutive seasons from 2013-16, there’s no chance they put themselves in the position to draft star winger William Nylander eighth overall in 2014, star winger Mitch Marner fourth overall in 2015, and star center Auston Matthews first overall in 2016. You cannot trade for players of this caliber. In just about every case, teams will always hold onto young talent – and if they don’t, there’s usually a good reason why.
If you do suffer through the agony of a true rebuild, there’s no assurance you’ll be able to construct a Cup frontrunner. The Edmonton Oilers hit a home run with superstar Connor McDavid, but they also blew it when picking forward Jesse Puljujarvi fourth-overall. That’s on their scouting and development infrastructure. Some players you can’t go wrong on, while others make you rue the day you picked them for your side.
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But again, there’s no chance McDavid could be acquired in a trade. Most NHLers are loyal to a fault, and it takes a long stretch of losing before they even consider moving to a new city. Leafs star center John Tavares is the perfect example of such a predicament; he stayed on Long Island for nine seasons before he left the Islanders to sign as an unrestricted free agent with the Leafs. But do you really believe Tavares would’ve chosen to come to Toronto if Marner, Matthews and Nylander weren’t part of the organization? If you do, you shouldn’t. Players aren’t going to make an island (no pun intended) out of themselves, even if it is playing for their hometown team. Tavares’ signing is important for the Buds, but the foundation had to be set down before he seriously considered coming to Toronto.
Of course, any top NHL team has to have depth, and the Leafs have accumulated a slew of auxiliary talent who have rotated through the lineup over the years. But they would be going nowhere fast if they didn’t have Marner, Matthews and Nylander to hang their hat on. You have to suffer for talent like theirs. You have to go through bleakness and blowouts and abject misery before you can find joy again at this level.
The Ducks do have the makings of a team that will be much-improved in the near-future, but anyone who watched Tuesday’s steamrolling will tell you they’ve got to stumble through the rest of this season and pick up another top young player before they’re ready to contend for a Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes know that this road to rejuvenation is long, which is why they both tore down (and continue to tear down) their rosters last summer. They’re praying for the hockey gods to give them a top pick in the 2023 draft – and even if they get a franchise-type-player, it likely will be another year at least before they’re able to make the jump from pretender to contender.
Most Leafs fans have a full remembrance of the agony they had to suffer through to land Marner/Matthews/Nylander. But most would all tell you it was completely worth it. The birthing pangs of greatness are painful as hell, but they’re completely necessary to the delivery of true hope for a championship.
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