This year has been a success for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That may sound crazy to some given the team resides in last place in the entire league with eight games to play and need to get 10 points from those contests in order to break the 75 point plateau on the season, but measuring success for this franchise in 2016 isn’t about wins and losses, but rather progress in the rebuild and things are moving along nicely.
Finishing last – or as close to the bottom of the table as they end up – is a positive. In a draft with a handful of potential impact players, including projected first-overall pick Auston Matthews – landing a Top 5 selection is a step in the right direction for this team.
There is no rush to hustle whomever they select into the NHL, unless they end up with Matthews, who has already proven capable of playing with grown men during his season in Switzerland. Regardless of who ends up donning the blue and white, it will be another quality young talent to join a collection that has been enjoying an extended audition over the last month and done relatively well overall.
William Nylander has shown he belongs, at least as much as a 19-year-old getting his first cup of coffee in the NHL can in March. While not a McDavid/Eichel-type impact player, the young Swedish forward should be a first line player for the foreseeable future and one of the offensive leaders for this club for the next decade.
The blue line tandem of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardner remain quality building blocks on the back end, with first-look options like Frank Corrado and Connor Carrick showing upside. Up front, Nazem Kadri has enjoyed a maturation year, James Van Riemsdyk remains productive when healthy and there have been enough positive signs from the likes of Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov and Connor Brown to factor them into the forward mix for the next couple seasons.
Add in 2015 first-round pick Mitch Marner, who dropped highlight reel plays all season long in London, Kasperi Kapanen and a handful of other guys that are no more than three years away from being regulars and you have a young, solid core that can become the foundation for a quality group of skaters that compete every night.
The one missing piece right now is between the pipes, where the Leafs moved on from James Reimer at the deadline and are currently rolling with a tandem of Jonathan Bernier and Garret Sparks.
As someone that preached patience with Bernier heading into this season, I’m ready to admit that I was wrong. The more I see him, the more I think he’s a “Quad-A” goalie – a baseball term for a guy that is too good to play in the minors, but not good enough to be a regular contributor in the big leagues. Those players sometimes figure it out later than others, but Bernier has had plenty of chances and never been able to capitalize, so it’s looking less and less likely with each passing season.
Sparks has some upside as a 22-year-old that has gotten a bit of a baptism by fire this year and done reasonably well, posting a 6-4-1 record with a 2.73 goals against average and a .900 save percentage, but as a seventh-round pick in 2011, it’s safe to say he wasn’t expected to be a franchise player, so it’s fair to keep looking.
Antoine Bibeau has been solid for the Marlies (AHL) all season and shouldered the majority of the load since Sparks was recalled, but he too was a late-round pick so anticipating that he blossoms into an every-night option might be asking too much.
There are a handful of free agents – both restricted and unrestricted – that Toronto could take a look at, with Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen and the Rangers’ Antti Raanta topping the list of UFAs.
But all in all, this team has done what you want to see a club in their position do in the first season of a rebuild. They’ve bottomed out, gotten away from all kinds of veteran players and gotten a look at some of their kids. It pains me to say this, but there is reason to be optimistic in Leafs Land once again.