The Maple Leafs finished the 2015-16 season in the basement of the NHL standings. The result suits team president Brendan Shanahan just fine.
Toronto has the best odds – a 20% probability – of getting the first-overall pick at the June draft, based on the terms of the draft lottery. Even if the Leafs don’t win the opportunity to select highly-coveted American sensation Auston Matthews, either of Finnish junior stars Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi would be sure-fire choices available in the second or third slots.
Overall, there is a 52.5% chance of the Maple Leafs drafting among the top three.
“While it may not reflect in the standings, I think that the people that we were really hoping would respond in a positive way did,” Shanahan said to the media on Sunday as the Leafs players were cleaning out their stalls at Air Canada Centre.
Whoever is taken by the Leafs at the draft will add his name to a list of prospects that includes William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, and Mitch Marner. Indeed the surplus of young talent in the Leafs’ farm system is at its highest level in decades.
The team’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies, clinched the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the league’s regular season champions, and will have home ice advantage throughout the Calder Cup playoffs.
For good measure, the Leafs have a dozen picks at the 2016 Draft, including a pair of selections in each of the first four rounds.
First-year coach Mike Babcock promised at the beginning of the 82-game campaign: “There’s pain coming.” And while Babcock’s words came to fruition, there was also a culture shift in the team’s work ethic.
Players didn’t take a shift off. They skated at both ends of the ice. They performed within a structure.
And the fans appreciated the honest effort. In the season before the arrivals of Babcock, and general manager Lou Lamoriello, patrons showed their disgust by throwing Leafs sweaters on the ice, mocking their own team with Bronx cheers of “Let’s Go Blue Jays.”
But a sound management structure and a commitment to sacrificing short-term success in favour of a long-term rebuild is already paying dividends. The stockpiling of draft choices and high-profile prospects provides the players, staff, and paying customers with enthusiastic optimism.
“The fans that I’ve spoken to, most of them have been involved with this for decades, and I think they’re almost fearful of someone influencing the process in a way that speeds it up and hurts it,” Shanahan said. “So I’m not getting that from them. What I’m getting is ‘do it right, however long it takes. Don’t fall short.’”
Out of all the recent seasons in which the Leafs have missed the playoffs, this past campaign – despite the won-loss record – feels like the most successful one.