About a year into a self-proclaimed rebuild and a half-century since their last Stanley Cup, the long-overdue foundation has finally been laid for the Toronto Maple Leafs road back to respectability.
As you delve deeper into the journey and take a closer look at the path the Leafs appear to be taking, it looks ominously similar to that travelled by a modern-day dynasty and fellow original sixer south of the border.
With a lesser focus on truculence and belligerence and a greater one on drafting and player development, a capable management regime along with a world class coaching staff are finally at the helm in Toronto.
Pair that with a meticulously-assembled scouting department and a yield of top-notch prospects collected through years of incompetence, and you have what the Leafs hope will be the blueprint to the ultimate rebuild – one that has recently been proven to be more than legible by the Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s been laughable to put the famed Blackhawks and the lowly Maple Leafs in the same sentence in any hockey conversation over the last decade. The Leafs were granted perennial floor mat status – making the playoffs just once since 2004, while the Blackhawks were busy winning three Stanley Cups and cementing their place among the game’s historic greats.
Recency-bias and ever-dwindling attention spans aside, we must remember that it hasn’t always been this way. The Blackhawks used to be the NHL’s comparable to actual garbage.
Now, they are good – very good. But the trek from the bottom of trash mountain to the top of the hockey-sphere has been anything but an expeditious one for the league’s third oldest club.
Before their first of three recent Stanley Cups, the Blackhawks last won in 1961 – a span of 49 years without hoisting the mug. The New York Rangers quenched their thirst in 1994 after a 54-year dry spell, while the only other original six team to hold a losing streak in the same universe is… yes, the toronto Maple Leafs, who are entering their 50th year of ineptitude this fall.
NO RIDDLE UP THE MIDDLE
The model for success is as dynamic and ever-changing as the game itself, and only a few constants have remained through it all. Good goaltending, at least one stud defenceman, timely goal scoring, and an absolute horse at centre ice are the preeminent elements that have comprised championship hockey teams since the mid 1900’s.
Jonathan Toews has been that horse for the Hawks since being drafted out of UND third overall in 2006, becoming their unequivocal leader at the age of 20 and turning into the league’s best two-way centreman. The Maple Leafs are hoping that Auston Matthews, this year’s first overall pick, can turn into a similar presence on both sides of the red line.
Drafted exactly ten years apart, both left-handed centremen standing at 6-foot-2 and right around 205 pounds, the similarities between Toews and Matthews don’t end at their stature and skill sets. The paths they took to the NHL as elite prospects were as parallel as they were unconventional.
Despite being a first overall WHL draft pick at age 15, Toews went on to play prep school hockey in Minnesota prior to moving onto the University of North Dakota for two seasons and joining the Blackhawks in 2007. Matthews also went the prep school route before spending parts of two seasons with the under-18 USNTDP, competing against NCAA schools on the regular. He spent his 18-year-old season with Zurich in the Swiss League developing under former NHL bench boss Marc Crawford.
Both of those roads to the show are unique routes that top five prospects historically rarely take. The Maple Leafs are hoping that a similar development path combined with reciprocating skills and intangibles will yield the same on-ice results produced by Toews over the past eight seasons.
CALLING ON LONDON
When it comes down to the nitty gritty of wins of losses, it’s all about timely, consistent scoring. As Toews does his best to handle everything at both ends of the ice, Patrick Kane is the team’s closer. He has scored the biggest goals at the highest levels, and it all started after a jaw-dropping 18-year-old season in the OHL with the London Knights.
Since being selected first overall by Chicago in 2007, Kane has flourished alongside Toews while developing into the premier offensive player in the world. The Maple Leafs believe they have found their equivalent in fellow London Knights graduate Mitch Marner.
Kane put up an obscene amount of points in his first and only season in the OHL with London, amassing 62 goals and 83 assists while leading the league in scoring. Marner, just as Kane did in 06/07, absolutely lit up the OHL in his final season before jumping to the NHL.
In his last two OHL campaigns, Marner averaged 121 points per season, nearly two points per game. In 2015/2016, the Maple Leafs fourth overall pick was awarded league and playoff MVP while Leading the Knights to a Memorial Cup championship.
Undersized, but with other-worldly talent, skill, and smarts – both have made their pre-NHL mark on the hockey world with the London Knights under Head Coach Dale Hunter. Multiple scouts from within and outside the Knights organization who have watched both Kane and Marner play on a very regular basis can’t help but compare the two.
BUILD IT FROM THE BACK-END
Defence doesn’t necessarily win championships, but in hockey if you don’t have a number one d-man who can control the play at both ends and stabilize things in front of your net, you have no chance.
Duncan Keith has provided all that and more over his 11 seasons for the Blackhawks. A 6-foot-1 fluid-skating defenceman from Winnipeg, Keith put up 46 points with Kelowna of the WHL in 2002-2003 before kick-starting his pro career in the AHL. The two-time Norris Trophy winner averaged just under 30 points per season over his first three campaigns with the Hawks.
Keith has developed into arguably the best d-man in the world over the past seven years or so, and the Maple Leafs believe that their own Morgan Rielly can develop into their western saviour, if he hasn’t already arrived.
Selected fifth overall by Toronto in 2012, Rielly was a standout with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, putting up 54 points in his final season of junior. Since joining the big club at the age of 19, the Vancouver native has turned into one of the top five young defencemen in the league.
While also being a left-handed shot and possessing a game based on world-class skating and elite level decision making, Rielly has put up spookily similar numbers to Keith at his age – averaging just over 30 points per season over his first three as a Maple Leaf.
CHICAGO’S WINDY ADVICE
When trying to emulate an organization that went from the laughing stock of the NHL to winning three Stanley Cups in five years, what steps should one take, you ask? It may go a little something like this…
Be awful, really awful, for a very long time. Next, draft a smooth-skating WHL defenceman with a rocket of a shot from the left side and a hockey IQ more enhanced than most. Make sure that d-man will average about 30 points over his first three NHL seasons – just to be certain.
Exactly four years later, draft a left-handed, franchise-changing centreman who stands at 6-foot-2 and paved a unique road to the league that most elite prospects never travel.
Somewhere in there, select a crudely talented and skilled winger who played for the London Knights while putting up mind-blowing numbers in the OHL, almost making it look easy.
Add in a world-class head coach who’s focused on player development, and a goaltender who makes the right save at the right time, and eventually that 50-year Stanley Cup drought may just come to an end.
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