Leafs rebuild can still flourish without Tavares or Hedman

The World Junior Hockey Championships concluded last week in Ottawa, with each of the two final teams in the gold medal match carrying one of the top two highest-ranking players eligible for this year’s NHL Entry Draft: Canada’s John Tavares and Sweden’s Victor Hedman. Coincidentally, and to the chagrin of Leafs fans, the Ottawa Senators – not the Toronto Maple Leafs, are more likely to add either of the two highly-touted prospects on draft day in June.

The Senators are in complete disarray; with head coach Craig Hartsburg continuously looking over his shoulder to see if he will be summoned to the chopping block. The lack of any secondary scoring beyond Ottawa’s top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza has seen the team plummet to the NHL’s cellar of offensive output, being the only team in the league yet to score at least 100 goals.

Meanwhile their provincial rivals the Maple Leafs, while no more destined for any playoff aspirations, at least appear to be committed to a rebuild, with general manager and president Brian Burke poised to stockpile as many draft picks as possible. On the ice, head coach Ron Wilson has instilled a never-quit work ethic into his squad, exemplified in their 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, in a game that was much closer than the scoreboard indicated.

For Leafs fans, there lies in the rub – in that the team will likely fail to get an invitation to the post-season dance for an unprecedented fourth straight year in its history, but is too talented to fall into a bottom-five position to win the draft lottery. If the first half of the season is any indication, Ottawa along with the NY Islanders, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and St. Louis should hold a collective monopoly on the opportunity for the coveted first-pick.

Nevertheless, Leafs followers should not be too disillusioned by the dim hopes of landing either Tavares or Hedman. The 2009 draft appears to be loaded with enough talent for Toronto – who will be drafting in a top ten position barring an epic turn of fortunes – to find a gem. Brayden Schenn, the brother of Luke whom the Leafs drafted fifth-overall last summer, would be a fine complement to his sibling. If Schenn is unavailable by the time the Leafs get to the podium, other options may include Sweden’s Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, Vancouver Giants’ forward Evander Kane, or Windsor Spitfires defenceman Ryan Ellis, all of whom had fantastic outings at the World Junior Tournament.

Toronto’s rebuilding phase received a boost of sorts this past week when veteran blueliner Tomas Kaberle hinted that he may be willing to waive his no-trade clause before the March deadline. The concession is in stark contrast to Kaberle’s stance ten months ago when he remained firm on staying in blue-and-white; his position reportedly nixing a deal that would have seen him become a Flyer in exchange for a first-round draft pick and the current NHL lead goal scorer, Jeff Carter. Given that there exists a small window of opportunity to trade Kaberle between the draft and August 15 if the Leafs miss the playoffs, it’s in the Czech defenceman’s best interests to agree to a move, should a deal be presented. With his no-trade clause in effect for this season, Kaberle would have the flexibility of waiving the clause only for selected destinations of his own preference. Otherwise, Kaberle runs the risk of being traded to a team not to his liking, should he wait for Burke to use the hammer between June and August.

As for the Leafs’ draft position. Burke simply avoided speculation, when asked during the World Junior tournament. “We’re not in that derby”, said Burke of the forthcoming Tavares-Hedman sweepstakes. “And we don’t intend to be. We might end up there. But it’s certainly not our goal. Our goal is to not be in a lottery position. We have to get farther along in the season and then if it’s at that point where we decide to move some veterans and plug in some young people, that’s a different decision. But there’s no talk about draft position right now.”

Lottery, or no lottery, the Leafs should be well into their rebuild by the time they make their first draft pick in 2009.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca