A Long Time Coming
Have the Maple Leafs finally learned?
The team that over the past three decades has been synonymous with rushing, wrecking and prematurely disposing of young hockey players appears to have finally grasped the concept that approach won't get it anywhere. This is the franchise, after all, that started three teenagers on the blueline in the early 1980s, put Luke Richardson in the NHL at age 18, dealt 20-year-old first rounder Scott Pearson in a desperate attempt not to finish dead last, insisted Jeff Ware was NHL ready at 19, force fed 18-year-old Luke Schenn to the league and traded away Brad Boyes, Tuukka Rask and Alex Steen before they even knew what they had.
Maybe the leopard can change its spots. Right now, underpinning the club's strong start is a philosophy that wasting kids and draft picks is no longer going to happen in Toronto. It was established by Brian Burke, but his decision to trade away high picks for Phil Kessel obscured it from view.
Now, under Dave Nonis and with the team 8-5 early in this lockout shortened season, the apparent end to the bad old days can be more clearly seen.
--Nazem Kadri, Burke's first draft pick back in 2009, has emerged as a solid NHL offensive player after an extended apprenticeship under Dallas Eakins with the AHL Marlies. Many wanted to declare Kadri a bust, Don Cherry screamed loud and often that the Leafs weren't giving Kadri a fair chance, but the team's patient approach has paid off with a bona fide NHL asset.
--Teams that have approached the Leafs offering players for the team's 2013 first round pick have been told it's not available and isn't going to be available.
--The club's 2012 first round pick, defenceman Morgan Rielly, might have been ready in some eyes to crack the NHL roster, but instead Nonis sent him back to Moose Jaw of the WHL for seasoning. In other years, Rielly might have been kept by those who believed it was politically profitable to keep high picks in the NHL regardless of their suitability in order to demonstrate the club knew had blue chippers so good they could play right away.
--Jake Gardiner played 75 NHL games as a 21-year-old rearguard last season and made the roster out of the lockout. But when it became apparent he hadn't fully recovered from a concussion suffered in the AHL, he was returned to the minors for playing time and more seasoning. Some squawked, but for the most part, this was viewed as an intelligent manner in which to carefully sculpt and develop a good young player.
--Burke and Nonis have established a strong farm system, keeping Eakins well-paid and in place as the Marlies have become both successful on the ice and one of hockey's more highly regarded minor-league spots. It gave players like Kadri, Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens a place to learn their craft, and a long playoff run last spring - the Marlies were the first Toronto pro hockey team to ever play in June - gave those youngsters another valuable experience and prepared older players like Mark Fraser and Korbinian Holzer for a shot at an NHL roster position.
--The club has started to use its considerable financial might to acquire youth, not overpaid, big-name veterans. A primary example would be defenceman Cody Franson, acquired from Nashville in the summer of 2011 mostly because the Leafs were willing to swallow Matt Lombardi's hefty contract. Lombardi is now gone, while Franson, at 25, survived an up-and-down first season in Toronto and has become one of the club's go-to blueliners this season.
--When it was finally decided Schenn wasn't going to be part of the team's future, he was traded for a similar-age player, winger James Van Riemsdyk, rather than some expensive, seasoned pro. Van Riemsdyk already has eight goals, and the memories of past futures-for-immediate-help deals (Rask for Andrew Raycroft, Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo for Lee Stempniak) are fading.
None of this means the Leafs have the best youngsters in the game or will always make the right decisions with prospects. But it does mean it's not automatic that they'll make the wrong choices for the wrong reasons any longer.