Before everybody’s chips land on the table, trades start to fly around, and teenagers begin to get poached by NHL teams, I think it’s important that we step back and acknowledge today’s circumstances. Nothing substantial, but an acknowledgement nonetheless.
In less than ten hours, members of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ head office will walk up to the podium and add their biggest piece to the rebuild yet. Don’t let the speculation fool you; as much as Patrik Laine would like you to believe it’ll be him, the Leafs will be drafting Auston Matthews.
I can’t tell the story quite like others can (James Mirtle probably had the best go at it), but Matthews is a different beast. He’s a Mexican-American from Arizona who learned how to skate on small rinks with an unorthodox Eastern European tutor pulling out wackier and wackier ideas on the fly. He skipped college and major junior to play hockey in Switzerland, where he dominated. He’s smashed records everywhere he’s gone, he’s almost certainly going to be an elite two-way forward, and tonight, he’ll be putting on Blue and White.
After that, the Leafs will turn their focus to the second day of the draft, where they have ten picks. Their eleven in the draft, assuming that they don’t add even more of them as things progress, are the second most a team has ever amassed in a single year. Mark Hunter and his staff have received near-universal praise for their selections in the last two drafts, so it’s likely that they’ll clean up on the draft floor again. What trait is going to be undervalued this year? Will it be size, position, character, age, or hair colour? Who knows, but there’s a good chance the Leafs will exploit it.
At around the same time, one or both of Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan will be making a call to Don Meehan and Newport Sports Management about Steven Stamkos. There’s no guesswork here; every team will at least show a passing interest in acquiring the 26-year-old superstar. But expect Toronto to be fierce; not necessarily the highest bidder in terms of cap dollars, but pulling at Stamkos’ local heartstrings, laying out the team’s vision moving forward, and reminding the endorsement-happy young man where that money is easiest to get. Nobody can say for sure what the final result will be on July 1st, but the Leafs are fully expected to be there from beginning to end, if not the likely victors of the race. Some feel that Detroit and Buffalo may be early favourites, but Mike Babcock is a good reminder of how that race could play out.
All of the above is exciting, but it’s supplemented by some solid work already done. Toronto has roughly $12.5 million to work with this offseason assuming nobody gets shipped out, and nobody major left to re-sign. Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri took below-market deals to stay already. Frederik Andersen has bolstered the Leafs between the pipes and is already locked up. The cap situation only gets better next year; Toronto will see nearly $20 million in non-essential contracts disappear if they aren’t moved in the coming weeks and months.
In a league where teams are in a frenzied panic to balance their budget, with no exit routes in sight, the Leafs are in a unique position. Their core is young enough to largely escape next year’s expansion draft. Their remaining RFA’s are depth players who won’t get significant contracts. Their books will get even lighter next season, which is astonishing given the team’s big-budget ambitions. Meanwhile, other rebuilding franchises are looking more trigger happy than ever, with nearly every other pick in the top 10 being considered “up for grabs” by teams looking to make power moves.
In short, there’s a lot of crazy stuff happening in the National Hockey League right now. Everybody is out of cap space, or unsure how they want to rebuild. Meanwhile, the Leafs are the ones sitting in the corner about to draft a franchise centre, about to attempt to sign another, and prepping to have a bus full of prospects supporting them as they calmly swim through hockey’s economic crisis.
Let’s be honest, that’s not a description any of us ever expected to give the Toronto Maple Leafs. So sit back and enjoy it today.
By the way, if you’d like an in-person to place to celebrate the big day, join us at the first-ever TLN Draft Party downtown tonight! We’ll be giving away Auston 4:16 tees and other swag. The fun starts at 6PM.