Why the Maple Leafs should mortgage the future to go all-in

Photo credit:Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
4 months ago
We are trying something a bit different on TLN today. We have two articles going up at the same time with different takes on the same topic, what the Maple Leafs should do with their 2024 1st round draft pick. Let us know in the comments who got it right.
The modern version of the NHL trade deadline is an exercise in prolonged anxiety and wish fulfilment, almost certainly designed to make fans of all 32 franchises miserable if their team didn’t make a seismic move. In large part due to the wide-ranging implications that come with deadline-driven deals, it provides fans and executives with a chance to reevaluate the entire direction of their franchise. This dynamic is always heightened in Toronto and I’d like to deliver a brief state of the union, if you will, before March 8 arrives on the horizon:
The future does not matter, it is an abstract concept, all that matters is now. 
You may be wondering if we, the undersigned at The Leafs Nation have lost our collective minds, but the truism remains: all first-round picks are not created equal, they are less valuable to a contending team, or a team designed to maximize their window, and the Maple Leafs squarely fit these categories. It doesn’t matter to the 2023-24 Maple Leafs if they retain their first-round pick this summer, especially if a deadline acquisition like Chris Tanev leads to a parade. You can’t get what you want all the time, opportunity cost factors into any pursuit of a trade target like Tanev, or his teammate Noah Hanifin and if the cost is a first-round pick that will likely graduate to the NHL by 2027-28, so be it.
Auston Matthews has scored 51 goals in 54 games. William Nylander is amid a tour-de-force campaign that earned him a massive contract extension and the silence of the omniscient Southern Ontario Uncle, who no longer has any grounds to complain about No. 88’s overall body of work. Mitch Marner has re-established himself as one of the NHL’s premier playmakers, while John Tavares is creating rebounds at an elite rate. Matthews, Nylander and Marner are firmly in their primes, Tavares is in the final year of his prime, Morgan Rielly turns 30 a day after the trade deadline. Although many Leafs fans and journalists have grown up with the Matthews-Marner era for nearly a decade, they’re not getting any younger. Protecting picks from trades is almost always predicated on the idea of a better future or preserving some seeds for growth. The future isn’t getting any brighter than the current core. It’s time to go all-in.
You could counter back and state that the Maple Leafs went all-in last year and only had a second-round appearance to show for it. Nothing is guaranteed in this lifetime, even less so under the parameters of playoff hockey. If you’re a team with four All-Stars, you have to go for it. Are you going to sit around hoping the Maple Leafs preserved the No. 24 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft if the team advances past the second round, or makes the Final, or hell, wins the Cup? Of course not and the idea that the Maple Leafs should be constrained to cap-issued conservatism is nonsense. Imagine wasting a 70-goal season from Matthews because you were concerned that the team’s prospect pool would be barren in a few years? It seems counterintuitive to the idea of professional sports itself.
Last year, the Maple Leafs traded Rasmus Sandin for Erik Gustafsson and Boston’s 2023 first-round pick. Toronto used the pick on Easton Cowan, drawing outrage from those who value prospects and more pointedly, those who purportedly believe that maintaining prospect depth is the real goal of professional sports. Cowan has excelled for the OHL’s London Knights, riding a 24-game point streak and he almost made the Maple Leafs out of camp. In some circles, Cowan is untouchable. His potential is fascinating. But would you rather have the 23-year-old Sandin, a real NHL defenseman who is logging over 21 minutes per night while admittedly struggling with higher volume than he was used to with the Maple Leafs? For the time being, Cowan is intriguing but I’d want a real NHL asset who can help the big club immediately. MVP-calibre seasons from Matthews don’t grow on trees!
Could you face Matthews and look him in the eye and tell him you didn’t do everything you could to maximize this year’s chances at a Cup because there are no prospects left in the pool, while the 2022 MVP fumes back at you, under contract through 2028? Good luck with that!
There is no magical trade that guarantees the Maple Leafs a Stanley Cup and to be sure, they’re the third-best team in the Atlantic with the star potential to beat any team on any given night and no, this isn’t the function of recency bias emanating from a five-game winning streak — prior to Thursday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights, anyways. Pragmatism may land you a job in an NHL front office but tomorrow isn’t promised, certainly not in professional sports, so the Maple Leafs would be wise to go after the best players the open market has to offer.

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