How Low Can The Leafs Go?

Jonathan Willis
March 17 2012 11:22AM

Brian Burke has shown in the past that tanking for a draft pick is not something he’s willing to consider. At trade deadlines in the past, he’s even done ludicrous things – such as adding Martin Gerber to a going-nowhere team in 2008-09 – to prove that fact.

Nevertheless, the Leafs are realistically out of things, eight points back of eighth place with 10 games remaining. Barring the most miraculous of runs and some good fortune too, they’re done. The question now isn’t whether or not they’re in the playoffs; it’s how high they’ll select at the 2012 Draft.

The Lottery Contenders

Rank Team Points Games left
1 Columbus 51 12
2 Edmonton 63 11
3 N.Y. Islanders 67 11
4 Montreal 68 10
5 Minnesota 68 12
6 Carolina 69 11
7 Toronto 70 11
8 Anaheim 71 10
9 Tampa Bay 71 12

Realistically, these nine teams are the only ones still in the running for a top-five draft pick. Everyone else is still pushing for a playoff appearance. Toronto is in decent shape, but still sits outside the top five. Columbus and Edmonton aren’t catchable at this point, but a simple elongation of the Leafs’ current ineptitude could see them finish as high as third overall in the pre-lottery draft rankings.

With so many of the teams Toronto needs to pass playing in the East, there are a lot of must-lose contests left on the schedule. Toronto will play each of the Islanders, Hurricanes, Lightning and Canadiens over the remainder of their schedule. Losses to each would go a long way toward solidifying their draft position.

The Prize

With mostly a bunch of tightly-grouped defensemen available, does a jump in draft position really do much for the Leafs? It’s my opinion that it does.

First of all, a rise in draft position gives the Leafs a better shot at trading for the first overall pick. Rumour has it that the Columbus Blue Jackets might be willing to move the pick and Burke has showed previously that he’s capable of some pretty impressive draft day maneuvering (it’s how the Canucks landed both Sedins).

Secondly, we don’t know what teams have on their final lists. There’s at least some possibility that Mikhail Grigorenko – typically seen as the second-best player available – slides, as both the Oilers and Blue Jackets aren’t generally wild about Russians. Alex Galchenyuk’s been hurt for much of this season but might have been in the running for first overall, were he healthy. Even hurt, there’s a chance he’s a top-five selection. 6’2” winger Filip Forsberg isn’t likely to be around at 7th overall; he could develop into a first-line power forward. Even among the defensemen, surely the Leafs would prefer their choice of Murray, Dumba, Trouba, Reilly and Reinhart over just taking whoever is left.

Tanking is an ugly thing, but at this point the Leafs are better off with a few losses now and a better draft pick in June than they are with a couple of entirely irrelevant wins between now and the end of the year.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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