Maple Leafs An Unfair Benchmark for Red Wings To Shoot For

Well, you could feel it, and you could see it, too.  Joe Louis Arena as it creaks into it’s “15th round” was invaded by Maple Leafs fans, who were loud, passionate, and for a rare time in the last couple decades, able to be quite celebratory at a Maple Leafs/Red Wings home game.

Now, of course the Leafs have won their fair share of games there, and of course, the memory of the Nik Borschevsky OT winner on May 1st, 1993 does equal work in firing up Maple Leafs fans talking about where they were, and mildly riles Red Wings fans, who were one part jealous the Leafs were advancing past a (then, and now again) geographic and division rival, and because it seemed a second straight wasted chance for the Red Wings to push deeper into the playoffs as a Cup contender.  I mean, would this talented group EVER get it done?  It’s been since 1955!!!!

Well, we all know how it worked out.  Four Stanley Cups later, and two other visits to the Final that were less successful, while the Leafs have been……well, the Leafs.  You truly have to be closer to your mid-fifties than your mid-forties to really remember a painful era for the Red Wings, and in all honesty, it’s been since the late 1970s when you could honestly say, “the Leafs are good, and the Red Wings aren’t”.  From the beginning of the 1980s onward, both franchises were lousy, close to the worst in the league, really, and that counts the WHA newbies who entered, all of whom adjusted on the fly to the NHL, with the notable exception of Winnipeg, who also were hamstrung by being shoved in a division with Edmonton, Calgary, and even some strange years, Vancouver.

Anyway, the dawning of a new era may have begun last night with an obvious mismatch of talent in a Toronto-Detroit game that didn’t favour the American-based team.  In the first game played indoors between the teams this season, a lot of factors favoured the Leafs.  Toronto players were nicely tucked into their beds the evening before watching Detroit play 3-on-3 OT against Boston in Boston, so catching any team on a back-to-back where they go from road-to-home is a pleasant turn of the cards.  No Dylan Larkin for Detroit, obviously, and though there didn’t seem any rust on Thomas Vanek, who, along with Gustav Nyquist, drove play to the Leafs’ net better than any other forwards did, Vanek is also nursing an injury.

Petr Mrazek had a terrible evening in net, giving up two very sloppy goals (to James van Riemsdyk and Nikita Soshnikov) after it was already 2-0, and the Red Wings couldn’t take advantage of the absence of Leafs blueliner Morgan Rielly, not to mention Toronto goalie Freddie Andersen is in a very good groove headed to the All-Star Break.

Red Wings fans have reason for envy, that’s to be certain, for while their great successes, infinitely more significant than the Maple Leafs’ collective accomplishments, were built through smart mid-to-late round drafting (mostly thanks to European scout, Hakan Andersson), spending via free agency on the right players in the right off-seasons, it’s now a draft-based league, and the Maple Leafs are taking full advantage.

Last night’s Maple Leafs lineup featured the following:

a #1 overall pick in Auston Matthews (obviously a franchise #1 centre, who could become the franchise’s best ever, high praise given Mats Sundin, Doug Gilmour, and Darryl Sittler have all been a 1C for the Maple Leafs within the past 45 seasons),

a #4 pick in Mitch Marner, the current rookie scoring leader,

a #8 pick in William Nylander,

a #7 pick in Nazem Kadri, having his best NHL season by far, and a player the Leafs have been very patient with in not abandoning during some undisciplined times,

a former #2 pick (behind Patrick Kane in 2007) in James van Riemsdyk who was acquired for a prior #5 pick (Luke Schenn) who underachieved and frustrated on the Leafs’ blueline,

and as noted are missing, probably until the conclusion of the All-Star Break, a very good #5 overall D-man in Morgan Rielly.

So let’s add that up, all within the last eight seasons, a #1 pick, #2 pick, #4 pick, #5 pick, #7 pick, and #8 pick.  In fact, the Leafs had SEVEN 1st-round picks in the lineup last night (a healthy Rielly would have made eight), six of whom were picked in the Top Eight, four in the Top Five.

Detroit?  A very different story.  We all obviously know their last Top 10 pick was Martin Lapointe in 1991 at 10th overall.  The Red Wings had five prior first-round draft picks in the lineup last night, but note the obvious difference in youth, future peak performance, and where they were taken.

Last night’s Red Wings lineup featured the following:

a #29 pick in Mike Green (age 31),

a #29 pick in Niklas Kronwall (age 36),

a #21 pick in Riley Sheahan (age 25),

a #20 pick in Anthony Mantha (age 20),

and a former #5 pick in Thomas Vanek (age 33).

Bit of a difference, huh?  And yet, the Red Wings have succeeded for years in being a competitive franchise while having the obvious disparity of either not drafting in the top half of the first-round (Larkin is their only pick this CENTURY above #19 overall), most objective observers, and only a few clever folks in the Detroit media have figured out how barren the organization is in terms of star-potential players, and how hamstrung the organization is moving into their shiny new arena with aging players, unproductive mid-level players, and more than a few contracts a new general manager would, were he to have unconditional do-overs, would clear from existence.

But I don’t feel it’s fair to judge the Red Wings against the Maple Leafs.  No organization currently has three forwards under age 22 like Toronto does in Matthews, Marner, and Nylander.  This isn’t an endorsement of the phrase I coined in 2007 when I moved to Toronto, “Tank Nation”, because being bad doesn’t automatically make you good.  The examples are obvious, and for every Pittsburgh and Chicago that found their way through drafting multiple franchise-altering Top 5 talents, there’s a Buffalo, that looks as muddled as ever to find an identity and consistency (about to miss the playoffs for an 8th year in the past 10), or an Edmonton (possibly about to make the playoffs for the first time since the Oilers Cup Finalist team in 2006 that ended Steve Yzerman’s playing days in the first round, yes, THAT long ago!).

The Leafs have been at this for a while, trust me.  And just in the last couple seasons, they’ve figured out how to properly bottom out.  This took some time.  So many draft mistakes — trading the pick that eventually became Scott Niedermayer in 1991 for journeyman blueliner Tom Kurvers a couple seasons earlier.  Out goes Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft.  Trading for Vesa Toskala costs you the pick San Jose used for Logan Couture.  On and on — in fact, when I moved here to do afternoon drive with Bill Watters in 2007-08 on AM640, the Leafs were, on many a day, in 30th place.  The best possible position to be in outside the playoffs to draft Steven Stamkos.  They won a bunch of games in the last several weeks and had to settle for Luke Schenn (and only AFTER trading a 2nd and 3rd to move up two spots to get him.  Sigh.).  The next year?  Not bad enough for John Tavares or Victor Hedman, but right there for Nazem Kadri.  And, of course, your blow-up plan takes a back seat when you brazenly trade two first-round picks and a second-rounder for Phil Kessel.  A superb scorer to be sure, but ultimately, it took the Leafs absolutely nowhere, and forced them to spin their wheels for another half-decade.

If you’re a Red Wings fan, it’s easy to point to the Leafs and say “that’s what we should be doing starting now”.  Just trust me, it isn’t that easy.  It takes so, so, SO much pain and suffering, and as noted, there are no guarantees.  The Leafs may finally have had the stars align more so than at any point in my lifetime, and that doesn’t mean there’s a guaranteed ascension to Cup contender coming in the next year or two.  They still need much more to be that, but, what last night proved is fairly obvious — if the only way to build up is through the NHL Draft, then the Red Wings are way, way behind (because of the standard of excellence they’ve set) in laying the foundation to build around the astute first-round picks of the likes of Larkin and Mantha.  And if they don’t see the light soon, they’ll be wasting those players and their prime years of production.