It’s hard to comprehend how fortunate the Leafs front office is when it comes to the NHL Entry Draft in recent memory. But what if they weren’t so lucky after all?
This team has had some pretty high picks not too long ago. It felt like just yesterday that every single Leafs fan was more obsessed with draft day than every single one of the 82 games that season combined.
The teams that picked before the Leafs were able to grab their elite talent, are just plain dumb for passing up the opportunity to grab any of these players.
A slight change in philosophy and draft strategy for some other teams in this league and suddenly the Leafs are still hoping for that high pick to draft some good players. It could have all gone horribly wrong.
The Leafs had top-10 picks in six of the last eleven drafts – obviously, most of those players changed the franchise and proved that building through the draft is the way to go. But what if they were unable to draft some of those players because they were already gone?
I will not be going all six of those top-10 picks, but just the actually relevant ones. Sure, if the Leafs didn’t draft Luke Schenn fifth overall, they might have got a great player – but no James van Riemsdyk trade. It can get messy and convoluted.
The next two top-10 picks that the Leafs had were Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly. It’s fair to say that they were taken exactly where they should have and saying “what if” to the Leafs drafting some mid-round pick that turned out to be really good, is ridiculous.
But with all that said, what if the Vancouver Canucks didn’t take Jake Virtanen sixth overall, but instead took William Nylander.
Let’s look at this nightmare scenario.
William Nylander is a Vancouver Canuck
In 2014, the Leafs were lucky enough for a couple teams ahead of them to make crucial mistakes and not draft Nylander. Really messing up their whole franchise in one fell swoop.
On the eve of the draft, there was a consensus that Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Leon Drasaitl and Michael Dal Colle, rounded out the top-5. There was no sure-thing for a first overall pick, but everyone knew that there was going to be no surprises when it came to the first five picks.
After those first five picks were made, the Vancouver Canucks took the podium and made that decision to invest heavily in skill and take the craft Swedish forward William Nylander at sixth overall.
After the Canucks take Nylander, the Hurricanes stay on their path on improving their back-end and select Haydn Fleury at seventh overall.
Now the Toronto Maple Leafs are up at eighth overall, do they take skill? Do they go size? Do they just give up and trade away the pick for some help-me-now forward?
Dave Nonis and his crew walk up to the podium and select Nikolaj Ehlers at eighth overall.
Trying to take the franchise into the modern era, they go for the speed and skill of the Danish winger. It’s not a bad pick and they certainly went with the best option. No Nick Richie or trying to reach for a defenceman and take Julius Honka at that spot. It was still a move in the right direction.
The Leafs play an awful year with Ehlers still developing his craft with the Halifax Mooseheads, and surprise they get another top-5 pick for the 2015 NHL Draft.
In the lottery, they miss out on the generational talent Connor McDavid and end up with the fourth-overall pick. It’s not too bad and it’s their highest pick since they drafted Scott Thornton third-overall in 1989.
The first two picks go as planned, McDavid to the Oilers and American superstar Jack Eichel to the Sabres. The Arizona Coyotes are next and they want some high skill potential – that “wow” player a franchise like them needs. Therefore…
Mitch Marner is an Arizona Coyote
The Leafs panic. Mark Hunter was just over the moon thinking about a London Knight leading the future of the team that currently employs him. They succumb to the pressure of Mike Babcock and draft his prized defenceman.
At fourth-overall, Noah Hanifin is drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The American blueliner is delighted to be going to such a historic franchise and not one that is constantly in relocation rumours.
Pressured to balance out their prospects, the Leafs now have forward Ehlers and defenceman Hanifin to round out the top of their prospect rankings – not too bad but could be better.
Since Ehlers doesn’t turn 20-years-old until 2016, the Leafs have to decide to return him to the Mooseheads for his third year with the team and risk stunting his development, or keeping him in the NHL and make his debut.
Ehlers is on the team on opening night. On a line with Nick Spaling, Ehlers is locked into the bottom-six to earn a spot as the year goes on. As the season continues, the Danish winger rises to the challenge and is eventually put on youngster Nazem Kadri’s line.
The two make an instant connection and go on a complete tear. Absolutely not making the team go on multiple five-game losing streaks and absolutely collapse in the third period of some games. That never happens.
The season isn’t a complete success, but they do not bottom out and finish dead-last in the league. But because of their success, another Canadian rival, the Edmonton Oilers, finish worst than they wanted and finish in that dreaded 30th-overall position.
But hey, they get the first overall pick in the lottery and get another good player to go along with arguably the best player in the world, Connor McDavid. The Leafs get to pick fifth-overall after finishing 28th-overall – not the best feeling when two teams get to jump ahead in the lottery, but it is what it is.
There is an obvious pick at first overall and the Oilers aren’t afraid to make it.
Auston Matthews is an Edmonton Oiler
There is Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and now Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid in Edmonton.
The media from both countries are going wild at the thought of these two players getting to team-up for a franchise that has been mocked and made fun of constantly. Predictions are coming out that they will break their playoff drought and rise to the challenge to win it all.
Meanwhile, the Leafs are deciding who to pick after Patrik Laine, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Jesse Puljujarvi are picked by their designated teams.
At fifth-overall, the Leafs have a tough decision as all the draft rankings have this area plateauing in talent and ability.
Brendan Shanahan and co. take the stage and draft Matthew Tkachuk fifth-overall.
The pressure from Mark Hunter was too great and the team has decided to take Marner’s linemate in London and bring him to Toronto. Hopefully creating that same chemistry that they had while winning the Memorial Cup just months prior.
It’s not the best pick, but it’s understood and the conclusion is made – this front office trust what Mark Hunter has to say.
So now the Toronto Maple Leafs have a future core of Nikolaj Ehlers, Noah Hanifin, and Matthew Tkachuk to hopefully lead them to the playoffs.
They never get there, because those players are not as good as the players that were taken before them. The Leafs are now perpetually not bad enough to tank and not good enough to warrant any hope in this team.
With William Nylander and Brock Boeser leading the play, the Vancouver Canucks are now one of the hottest teams in the league. Exciting play and never ever signing a bad contract again.
Mitch Marner is enjoying his life in Arizona now. Surrounded by extremely nice weather and now calls Shane Doan “Dad”.
The injection of talent that a healthy Connor McDavid and rookie sensation Auston Matthews bring leads Edmonton Oilers to the Cup final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lose, but the McDavid vs. Crosby posters are now in everybody’s childhood bedroom.
WIthout those elite talents, the Leafs are stuck in hoping for a high pick to get some of their own. No one is a game-breaking player on that team, and they just keep on getting mediocre picks forever and ever.
I never want to think about this again.
We have the other franchises to thank for the Leafs’ current success. They messed up their pick and didn’t pick the truly best player they could, so the Leafs did exactly that and are reaping the rewards.
Ehlers, Hanifin, and Tkachuk are great players, but we are talking about a Leafs team without their three best players on it. Those three are more complementary players compared to Nylander, Marner, and Matthews. Needing good players around them to bring out their talents and that’s not what the Leafs had.
This was truly a nightmare to think about, so be thankful this upcoming Thanksgiving.
Blessed be Benning and Maloney. Blessed be Shanahan for sticking to his plan. Blessed be those lottery balls for gifting us Auston.
We are and we are going to be, so much happier now than we ever could be if this happened.