As a fan of a Toronto Maple Leafs team that finally seems to be doing the rebuild the right way, the last few seasons have been weird for me.
While hoping for a win, deep inside many times I’m strategizing that a loss will help our future more. Many times I have found myself justifying the Leafs’ losing record by saying things like ‘at least we are close to last place.’
For those who aren’t fully aware of how the NHL draft system works, the worst teams in the leaguea get the best shot at choosing the top junior talent.
I remember a few seasons ago there were years where the Leafs would come close to making the playoffs and just finish one or two points short. During that time, I was the optimistic fan that was hoping for something lucky to happen, for a team near the top to falter and for the Leafs to finally make it in the show. However, things have changed.
The Leafs have grabbed a lot of great talent the last few drafts: Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Frederik Gauthier and Mitch Marner. However, from my standpoint, they are still missing that key elite cog, like a McDavid, a Toews or a Crosby. Toronto has not had a true number one centre since Mats Sundin left for Vancouver and then retired. That is where, from a fan’s standpoint, a drop in the overall standings is justified in hopes to grab the piece to change the future of a franchise.
Avid readers of this column will know what my feelings were when the Leafs lost out on McDavid last season.
Now, I know from a management or coaching standpoint, you can’t build a team on tanking because you want a winning culture. You don’t want to have players on your team that set out to lose just to ensure the team wins in the long run. But when the Leafs take a dip in the standings and fall closer to Edmonton and Calgary, the excitement of possibly winning the rights to a player such as Auston Matthews comes back.
At the same time, I want the first year of this new era under Mike Babcock to go well. I would like to see some more progress before the 82 game season wraps up. But as a hockey fan, I want to have the situation where you have your cake and eat it too. I want to see this team fight for a playoff spot, but I also want this season to ultimately bring a future game changer to this rebuild.
Of course, this week I was happy to see a guy like Garrett Sparks get his first career NHL win and shutout on Monday, Nov. 30. Don’t get me wrong, I want the team to win, but my mind as a fan seems to also be focused on the future of the proud leafs franchise and what we could be with a first overall selection in this year’s draft. I’m stuck with two trains of thought, that of the future and that of the present.
As some may know, last place does not guarantee you first overall this year. The NHL changed the format of the draft lottery a couple of years ago and the change to the format this year will see three lottery draws for first, second and third overall with the lowest team having the chance to slide all the way back to fourth overall.
However, staying near the bottom is still the best strategy to possibly finding that gem of a prospect.
It’s sad that losing is the one way to improve your franchise, but that is where the reality is at in today’s NHL.
However, until the Leafs are a championship calibre team every year, I will remain a fan conflicted.
Is a reporter for The Standard Newspaper, so if you see him, feel free to say hello. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @dancearnsy