5. 6. 8. 13
Close your eyes for just a second and picture where you were at 7:11 PM on April 30th, 2016. If you’re anything like me you were sitting in front of a tv watching the NHL Draft Lottery show on Sportsnet. What you may not realize is at that exact moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs fortunes were trending in an unmistakably upward direction. The general public just didn’t know it yet.
Coming into the 2015/2016 season Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock had promised fans that there would be pain and he was completely right. Even the most diehard fans had a problem getting through all 82 games. There were more than a few hopeless nights but as the losses piled up the fan base was more content than they had been in a long time. The team was losing on the ice but behind the scenes the pieces were being put in place to ensure that this time, the pain of defeat would be followed by the joy of success.
Brendan Shannahan, Lou Lamoriello, and the rest of the front office have put together the Leafs deepest, and most talented prospect pool the organization has seen in decades. William Nylander is down in the AHL leading the Marlies on what hopes to be a deep run in the Calder Cup playoffs and Mitch Marner is averaging just over 2.5 points in the OHL playoffs with the London Knights. Those are just the most high profile names. You can add Kasperi Kapanen, Jeremy Bracco, Dmytro Timashov, Connor Brown, Travis Dermott, and Scott Harrington and you still haven’t listed everyone. The Leafs are making a puzzle but they’re missing some of the pieces. It seems like they’ve been perpetually looking for a #1 centre and the goaltending has seen it’s fair share of ups and downs.
At 7:11 PM on April 30th, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced to a room of team representatives that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the winners of the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery. Everyone outside that room would have to wait until after 8pm for Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly to announce the winner on live TV. The Leafs had found, maybe not the final, but easily the biggest piece of their rebuild.
But who’s name are they going to call?
It’s difficult to say with 100% certainty that the Leafs are taking Auston Matthews with the 1st overall pick this summer but it’s largely considered to be the consensus among among the people that really matter. There is the odd contrarian that thinks Patrick Laine should be the player that puts on the jersey (not a lot is being made of the fact that whomever they pick will be putting on the new jersey the team is unveiling for their centennial season) but the odds of it being anyone other than Matthews are so slim it’s almost not even worth mentioning. He’s the big, highly skilled, potential cornerstone 1st line centre that the Leafs have been craving since Mats Sundin packed his bags and moved west to play in Vancouver. Matthews will be the 1st overall selection in June and will most likely break camp with the big club. He’ll have to earn his spot but he shouldn’t have a problem doing that.
Aside from his obviously elite skill level, the other thing worth pointing out is that the Scottsdale, Arizona native (how cool is it that he’s from Arizona?) has an added level of maturity than some of his peers. Being a late ’97 birthday means that Matthews will have celebrated his 19th birthday before the puck drops on the 2016/2017 season. He’s only 6 months younger than Mitch Marner but because he was born 2 days after the cut off for the 2015 draft, he had to wait an extra year. Rather than spend that year in the NCAA or the WHL with the Everett Silvertips controlled his rights, he elected to turn pro and spend the season in Europe playing for the ZSC Lions in Zurich. The Swiss League might not possess the cream of the crop in terms of talent but it’s still a professional hockey where he had to battle against men as opposed to players similar to himself in age.
Winning the draft lottery is a giant victory for the Leafs. The team made tremendous strides this past season towards learning how to play the game with structure and discipline and the last place finish was not indicative of their progress from the year before. Adding another elite player provides Mike Babcock with another weapon to deploy throughout the regular season but while the 1st overall pick is an important building block that will help the rebuild, it only represents a single puzzle piece. Any talk of this being the piece that turns them into a playoff contender is far too premature. There are still holes that need to be addressed, and will be over time.
If you’re a Leafs fan don’t feel bad about celebrating this win and don’t let anybody tell you that this pick doesn’t matter. Not all wins take place on the ice. For years the Leafs lost in the front office and behind the bench long before the puck was dropped. After everything this fanbase has been through it deserves to celebrate a big win. Pretty soon you’ll get to cheer on Matthews wearing the blue and white but at the end of the day; He’s a puzzle piece. A really, really important puzzle piece