The Toronto Maple Leafs announced tonight that they have drafted Auston Matthews as the #1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft. Matthews has been the consensus first pick and for once in a long, long time there is real optimism in the GTA. In fact, this week brings about a significant shift in the direction the Maple Leafs are heading and despite the arduous and perilous road still ahead, the journey will be filled with plenty of excitement.
It has been about 26 months since Brendan Shanahan was hired as President and there was really, only one mandate. Make the Toronto Maple Leafs great again, make them champions. So he took some time to assess what he had and then got the green light to rebuild from scratch. The tear down began with front office staff, coaches and players. What remains are just a handful of players from when he started and a whopping 11 draft picks this year. But as difficult as it is to get value for players when everyone knows you are rebuilding, the tear down is still the easiest part of the process. Choosing the correct NHL player to add and selecting the correct draft picks can turn the rebuild from a one to two year process or an ongoing one (just ask the Edmonton Oilers). That is why this week has been quite different than the past 18 months.
The Leafs took their first step in the build process by trading this year’s 30th pick and next year’s second round pick for Anaheim Duck’s Goalie Frederik Andersen. The Denmark native has been quite impressive in shared duty for the past couple of years and was available not only because the Ducks couldn’t reach an agreement with the unrestricted free agent, but with expansion to Las Vegas next year, they could only protect one of their goalies. After making the trade, the Leafs signed “The Great Dane” to a comfortable $25M/5 years. As I mentioned this may be considered the first step chronologically, but there is a good chance the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t make this trade if they didn’t get the number one pick in this year’s draft.
That is why tonight is very different than the past 18 months which includes last year’s draft as well. When they selected Mitch Marner 4th overall, it was fairly certain it was a pick for the future. When the Leafs selected Auston Matthews tonight, it was believed by most that he will suit up for the Leafs this very fall. That is of course after he suits up for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey in September. He will play alongside players like phenom Connor McDavid, fellow American Jack Eichel and fellow Maple Leaf teammate Morgan Rielly. Don’t worry that this may be too much too soon, because Matthews has already proven he belongs in the 2016 World Championships finishing 4th in tournament goal scoring with 6 goals and 3 assists.
As much as he belongs, people will always be skeptical of the Phoenix native because of his origins (that’s right the Maple Leafs future is in the hands of a kid who literally grew up in a dessert) and the uncommon path he took to get to the NHL. The 6’2′ centre did not play junior hockey in Canada or in the American College circuit either. He joined the US National Team Development Program where in his second year he broke Patrick Kane’s record for most points. Yes, that very same Patrick Kane who just won the Hart Trophy for Most Valuable Player in the NHL. Get excited Leaf fans, get real excited. Again he took the path not travelled by joining the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League. Despite being a boy amongst men he finished 10th in scoring while his 1.28 points-per-game average was second in the league.
Auston Matthews is that big centre we haven’t had since Mats Sundin. He is a two-way centre and can even play the point on a power play. He has size, skill and great vision. One day we may look back and say he was the main reason for bringing a Stanley Cup back to Toronto. But until then Leaf fans, remember he is only 18 years old. He is still a kid and as such let’s give him and the team some patience. The tear down is over, but the build part is also an arduous, perilous and lengthy road. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
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