Last night the Toronto Maple Leafs won the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery, effectively sealing Auston Matthews fate as the consensus number one selection.
Barring a brilliant late surge from Finnish winger Patrik Laine, Matthews will be a Maple Leaf come June’s draft, that’s not to mention the other first round pick the Leafs got through the Phil Kessel trade that will see them pick somewhere late in the first round, where they could pick up a guy like Swedish forward Rasmus Asplund or even another centre in Brett Howden.
But let’s not get too caught up in all the hype, yes Matthews is an absolutely phenomenal talent and the second centre in two drafts to have the “generational” label, much like Connor McDavid he’ll be a great cornerstone of a franchise for many years to come, but let’s not confuse that with him being an immediate saviour.
When Matthews makes his NHL debut in October (let’s be honest, he’s more than ready to make the jump) he’ll hope – and so will the fans – that the Maple Leafs have a better core group of guys around him to try and push for a better season than the one they just had where they finished dead last in the NHL.
Matthews will be a first line centre for a very long time in his career, but he won’t jump right into that role. So let’s look at who the Leafs currently have at centre heading into next season.
If Matthews takes a 2nd or 3rd line role that probably means that Nazem Kadri takes the top line spot, now Kadri is a solid performer but he’s no top line centre by any stretch of the imagination. He’s great at drawing penalties (one of the best in the league), his average stat of 49.16% faceoffs won needs to improve if he’s to become the Leafs top centreman next season, he just isn’t cut out to be the lead guy down the middle on most teams in the NHL.
He put up 45 points this season which would be alright if he takes up a 2nd line role and demotes Matthews to the third line but then that leaves the Leafs needing a top line guy through free agency or trade.
The obvious conclusion to jump to is “It’s okay, Steven Stamkos will be a Leaf” but as former NHLer Patrick O’Sullivan pointed out on Twitter, Matthews arriving in Toronto could be a hindrance to the current Tampa Bay captain to come to Toronto in the summer.
Now that’s not to say that Stamkos would definitely be turned off by this rare win by the Leafs, but let’s assume he stays in Florida, it means that Kadri has to pick up the workload.
So let’s put Kadri on line one, Matthews takes up line 2 (I firmly believe he can take on that sort of workload almost immediately) who’s left for lines three and four?
You could move Matthews down to the third line and play Tyler Bozak on line two, he’s a solid performer but still overpaid. He missed a chunk of the season with concussion and put up 35 points in 57 games which is actually pretty good, and he’s one of the teams better faceoff guys at 56.7% last season.
At 30 years old he’ll really need to prove he’s worth his $4.2 million cap hit and if he takes up a third line role I can see him becoming expendable and possibly a piece moved even at the draft. But let’s keep him for the sake of this post, he’d be a incredibly strong third line guy and could be a solid special teams guy, that would be a solid fit for the Leafs.
Then down to the fourth line, currently the Leafs have a few guys who could play centre or wing in Brooks Laich while Colin Greening is a UFA this summer. That leaves Byron Froese as a fourth line option, in his first year in the NHL he registered 5 points in 56 games while seeing his ice time fluctuate from over 15 minutes a night to less than 10 minutes. Even as a fourth liner the Leafs are due an upgrade.
While those players are interesting to look at, let’s not overlook some of the depth the Leafs have through recent drafts. William Nylander is one of those players as a guy who can play both centre and wing. He was huge in the AHL this season and would’ve done even better had it not been for a concussion suffered in Sweden’s first game at the World Juniors, but Nylander was one of a handful of players called up to the NHL late by the Leafs to gain experience, and with 13 points in 22 games he’s really shown at a young age he could be a dominant player for the Leafs. Where they decide to start the young Swede next season remains to be seen.
More time in the AHL could be beneficial to his development or they could call him up to play on the wing in a bottom six role next season.
Another player that springs to my mind is Frederik Gauthier who the Leafs picked 21st overall in 2013. Gauthier turned pro this past season after three solid years for the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL and while his numbers show he still needs more time to grow with 18 points in 56 AHL games for the Toronto Marlies, Gauthier should be one of the many young kids coming into the Leafs opening night rosters down the stretch.
One player to watch is last years first round pick for the Leafs in Mitch Marner, his size might be an issue at just 5’11 and 163 lbs, but his speed and determination is what sets the 18-year old from Markham, Ontario to be a big contributor to the Leafs future. He’ll probably stay down in the OHL with the London Knights again next season where he’ll continue his development and look to post a third straight 100+ point season for the team he was named Captain of last year. Marner is in an unfortunate position though, he’s obviously too good for junior but not good enough for the NHL, but not eligible for the AHL, so the Leafs really have to decide what’s best for both parties. Can they really afford to put the training wheels on Marner for a year for the sake of him getting better competition if it’s going to negatively impact their team next year.
With some solid centreman in the leafs system, they also have guys in other positions like Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic and Scott Harrington to name a few yet to come up to the big club, so with some talented prospects and two more first rounders to come, the Leafs have a bright future, but not so much a bright present.
In all honesty the Leafs need an overhaul of their main roster. That’s why this rebuild will take a few more seasons, Matthews’ potential arrival does give them the guy to build their forward core around, they already have that guy on the blueline in Morgan Rielly who they just signed to a big extension, now with Matthews coming in they can start structuring their team properly and gear up for a successful future that won’t start immediately.
One of the big issues I’ve had with the Leafs for a few seasons now is their goaltending, Bernier isn’t going to win you championships, nor do they seem to have a prospect in their ranks that could do that in a few seasons, so for me the Leafs need to ship out some of their bad contracts, ship out some of their deadweight and bring in a better core that all buy into a system, but the first thing they need to put in their shopping basket is a true starting goaltender to help make them competitive while they and their fans suffer through a gruelling rebuild.
As long as it doesn’t take as long as the Edmonton Oilers seemingly endless rebuild, fans of the Leafs will be cheering, just not for a couple of years.