Baby Leafs take positive first steps, but pain is coming

on March 2016 | in Sports | by Dario Passarelli | @PapaDart | with No Comments

For the moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in last place in the NHL standings and for most of the Bud’s faithful, that’s quite alright. Management promised sweeping changes last year and this is ultimately the result. Rebuilding a team the right way, comes with spending time, plenty of time, at the bottom of the table. Even Mike Babcock during his first press conference as the Maple Leafs head coach, tried to warn fans.

The Leafs are losing, but the sense of pain has not yet been felt. The talent level has dropped significantly. Injuries to Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk had each of them out for almost half a year; Daniel Winnik, James Reimer and a few other Unrestricted Free Agents were traded at the deadline and yet, the sense around Leaf Nation is more optimistic than ever before. Where is the pain?

For the past two weeks since the trade deadline, many open roster spots needed to be filled so up came a number of rookies from their farm club, the Toronto Marlies. Maple Leafs’ managers, coaches and fans finally have a glimpse as to what the future may hold. During this eight game stretch there has been a great deal to be excited about despite having lost six of those games. Four rookies, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, and Nikita Soshnikov started their very first NHL game at the same time which was a 2-1 loss to the Stanley Cup finalist Tampa Bay Lightning. Not a bad result at all.

The next four games were also one goal losses, including one to the league-leading Washington Capitals. The rookies did make mistakes as expected but in no way, shape or form did they look out of place. There is a buzz around the Toronto Maple Leafs again and even more excitement from the rookies themselves. “Listen” to Soshnikov’s reaction in scoring his first NHL goal which just happened to be a bar down beauty.

So where is the pain?

Finally, hard work was rewarded with their first win in the NHL as they beat the New York Islanders 4-3 thanks to Soshnikov’s shootout winner. Throw in a 1-0 regulation time victory over the Detroit Red Wings and realistically, the only bad game these new Leafs have had, was a 4-0 loss to Ottawa. Eight games is a miniscule sample size and that should not be taken for granted. They require a lot more experience and seasoning, but the bottom line is that the rookies certainly have not looked out of place.

Next year there will be a few more additions from this year’s draft including a chance at Austin Matthews the consensus number one draft pick. But if the balls don’t bounce their way, the Leafs should still be content with Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi or Matthew Tkachuk. Apart from the draft there is also free agency where superstar Steven Stamkos is still available. It is highly unlikely that he will choose his hometown, but these rumours have not gone away either.

It has nearly been a full season and one still must ask, where is this pain?

Babcock was not wrong. The pain is coming. It won’t come from a particular loss or statistic, it won’t come from an unsigned free agent or a draft ping pong ball gone awry. The pain will come from our own expectations. Dismantling the team was the easy part. Drafting the right players and making the right trades is trickier and it is too early to tell how this new regime has done in that area. Having those rookies fit in this early is exciting and promising.

The assumption now is that next year, this crop will be even better. They will also have Mitch Marner, the Leafs first pick in 2015 who has been tearing up the OHL. With the Leafs being better, they can then turn those one goal deficits into one goal victories. Win enough games and they might even challenge for a playoff… let’s stop it right there.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will not make the playoffs next year and quite possibly the year after that. The next steps in their evolution will take time and patience and luck. There is a good possibility that a number of these rookies will not be with the team when they eventually do make the playoffs. This is where the pain is.

When you watch talent, young talent, work hard to get better but the result doesn’t come, that’s painful. When you see them be so close to winning, always close but never quite there, that hurts. When the playoffs resembles a desert oasis that disappears every time you get closer to it, that is where the true pain lies. Does this sound like an exaggerated nightmare? Edmonton Oiler fans don’t think so. They have had the number one pick in the draft four times in the past six years and they are the second worst team in the league. They have not made the playoffs in a decade and were usually in the bottom five in the standing.

Toronto, the pain is coming, prepare yourself.

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