It’s come to this. At some point tonight, Bill Daly is going to step up to a podium with a list of results to deliver to the hockey word. They’ll be ones that shape the destiny of franchises for years to come if they play their cards right. Or, rather, the oversized square cards are played in their favour.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs at the top of the odds chart for tonight’s Draft Lottery, many fans will finally feel able to cheer for their beloved team for the first time this season. Will it end the way that they and their team would like it to, though? Or are they about to get one last taste of disappointment before the offseason?
One could argue that, in a just world, they’ll get the former.
Think about the road that brought the Leafs here for a minute. Much debate is had about how exactly this process works. Specifically, is it worth rewarding failure, or should the spoils go to those who put in their best effort and barely missed out on a knockout audition for the Stanley Cup? Every team’s path to eligibility is different, though.
Look at the Buffalo Sabres of last year; the team completely gutted itself, traded or diminished playing time lower-value players the second it looked like they’d get hot and mess with the process, and played the most miserable hockey we’ve seen in the post-lockout era. They weren’t shooting pucks into their own net, but the team was so set up for failure, both from a systematic and talent perspective. Failure on the ice was the ambition off the ice; a set goal, if you will. Whether you see it as unethical or not, management saw success in their plan. It was easy to be upset with them, though, because while their methodology made sense, the games were eye-roll inducing at best and painful to watch at worst.
Compare that, for example, to the Vancouver Canucks of this season. Jim Benning had a run that made the 2013/14 season in Toronto seem not so bad, making questionable trades, signings, and personnel decisions that led to a questionable, veteran-laden roster heading into Opening Night. For their own myriad of reasons, the team finished in 28th place. Like the Sabres, it was an on-ice failure. Unlike the Sabres, though, that wasn’t in the plans; Jim Benning called for a 100 point season at the start of the year and Wilie Desjardins was still talking about playoffs after the deadline until a 9-game losing streak followed immediately afterward. That’s unplanned failure, and it seems weird for rewards to go to someone who set a goal and completely whiffed.
Unplanned failure can also be applied at some of the better non-playoff teams. The Boston Bruins were knocked out on a tie-breaker, even if they had quality players playing good hockey for stretches. One would argue that the team deserves to be rewarded for coming close but not quite, but there are debates about the future of members of the coaching staff and players on the team. Do they deserve to win because they were so close yet so far? They met the hopes of entertainment and effort that fans want out of teams who receive these windfalls, but they failed to reach the (overly optimistic) internal expectation. Should a group that fails at its own goals get rewarded?
This all brings us to the Leafs. Yes, losses were plenty, but the team was systematically sharper than it’s been in years, had surprisingly good underlying numbers, and even as veterans (who were put in positions to succeed) were shed to make way for youth on stretch assignments, the team kept their losses from being embarrassments. Toronto may have had the “failure” of 30th place in their sights from the start, but despite the ethics, they still reached their expectation and did so in a fashion that prevented the games from being hard to watch.
There’s a difference between giving up and accepting the realities of the system. When Sam Hinkie stepped down from the Philadephia 76ers a few weeks back, he stressed the point that there’s no value in being a mediocre team, and perpetually being “close enough” was a miserable spot to be in. I agree with that idea wholeheartedly.
Like with NBA teams, clubs in the NHL are often dependent on drafting an elite prospect or two to eventually lead your core as an early prime-aged player in an opportunity window. I’m okay with teams accepting that and working with “planned failure” as long as the product on the ice is entertaining and it isn’t detrimental to the development curve of their young core; the Leafs met both of those requirements this year. Combine that with finishing where the team expected themselves to be, and you have something more than what most other franchises can say about themselves.
A New Hope
The Toronto Maple Leafs might not necessarily need Auston Matthews. William Nylander and Mitch Marner look like great long-term pieces, Nazem Kadri is locked up for the long haul, the secondary pieces are looking good, and it seems like the ball is in their court as to whether or not they’d like to sign superstar Steven Stamkos if he tests the market on July 1st. The team has a ton of other picks in this draft, and with world-class employees in the scouting, coaching, R&D, and general management departments (among others), drafting a great prospect instead of a cornerstone one wouldn’t be a doomsday scenario. But let’s not get it confused; the Leafs would love this to go their way.
Matthews is an incredible hockey player in so many senses. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s intelligent, he’s willing to play in his own zone, and he loves to put the puck on and into the net. He’d be the top-end centre that the city has been missing since Mats Sundin moved on. It’s also really intriguing how he broke through the status quo this year and became a North American player playing his draft year in a European Men’s League, which was both unprecedented and likely a necessity, given Patrik Laine and Jessie Puljujarvi’s success in the SM-Liiga this year. The modern Leafs are all about pushing the boundaries and the status quo, making it a match made in hockey heaven.
If the balls go their way and the Leafs hold the golden ticket, would be selecting first overall for the first time in 31 years (Wendel Clark). To have so many down points in the last three decades and go this long without such a top-end “gimmie” asset speaks volumes to the Leafs’ bad luck. For things to go the other way for once would be seen as a pivotal moment for the organization. With all everybody’s been through, the way the team found a balance between total failure, player development, and entertainment, and the type of player Matthews is, why not have the winning combo land in Toronto’s hands?
You know, minus the other 80% of the list. We’ll see what happens in a few hours.
No matter what happens tonight, we want to get together and have some fun! TLN is hosting ti’s first ever Draft Lottery Party at The Titled Kilt on The Esplanade in Downtown Toronto this evening. Bring a friend or two and get excited as we look to the past with a screening of the classic 1993 Leafs documentary “The Passion Returns” before looking the future as the Ernst & Young lottery machine decides the fate of fourteen teams. We’ll be getting things started at 6:00 PM, so be there or risk jinxing the entire thing and giving the Oilers another talent to ruin.