Dudley: Leafs have the pieces to become elite

Despite a second-half collapse that will extend the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff drought to seven seasons, Rick Dudley still believes the franchise is on the right path to becoming an elite team in the National Hockey League.

Dudley, who currently works as the Director of Player Personnel for the Maple Leafs, remains confident in general manager Brian Burke’s long-term plan and believes the team is much closer to contending than many critics would suggest.

“I think we have, as a team, we have several pieces that can be major parts of a very good team. I know our fans are down right now,” Dudley told Jeff Blair on Sportsnet 590 The Fan on Friday morning. “I’m sure it will succeed here. I think there are enough pieces in place that it’s not a daunting task. If we do the right things from here, I think this team will evolve into an elite team.”

The veteran NHL executive pointed to the team’s core of young players that he believes will be able to grow into a better unit in the near future.

“You look at Jake Gardiner and you look at Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri in the minors,” Dudley explained. “Those people will end up being good National Hockey League players. The (Phil) Kessels and (Joffrey) Lupuls are young enough that they’ll still be part of it when the (young players) mature.”

Dudley said those young players, along with Mikhail Grabovski and Dion Phaneuf — the team’s two highest salary cap hits beyond this season — are players the franchise can continue to build around moving forward.

He believes the critical aspect of the Leafs’ plan is that when the kids in their system are ready to consistently contribute at the NHL level, the team’s current key players will still be in the prime of their careers and young enough to perform at an elite level.

“We got Dion Phaneuf, he’s still a young man,” Dudley said. “You got Colborne — I believe will be a top-two line centre. Big guy, every team looks for them. We got Gardiner — I think will be a (top two) defenceman. You look down the list at Kadri who is an inordinately-talented guy. When he comes to the conclusion of what can be successful at the National Hockey League, which he will, he’s going to be a very, very good NHL player.”

Another young player Dudley singled out was 21-year-old defenceman Jesse Blacker, who has 16 points and a plus-11 rating in his first season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

“(Jesse) Blacker is a kid who I think is an enormous talent,” he said. “He’s a defenceman that everybody looks for. He can really skate. He can provide offence. So I think those pieces will mature into very good players.”

Regardless of what the local media or fans think, Dudley remains insistent the Leafs have the right mix to contend down the road.

Dudley is no stranger to feeling the heat, facing similar scrutiny when he worked in the front offices of the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. However, those teams’ struggles eventually paid off in the long-term with Stanley Cup championships in both cities (Tampa Bay in 2004; Chicago in 2010).

Dudley wouldn’t guarantee a Stanley Cup for Toronto, but said he is sure the Leafs will contend, and it won’t take as long as some might think.

“I don’t think you can guarantee Stanley Cup,” he explained. “I would never do that. I would like to think there will be a big page turn next year. We’re capable of that.”

The Leafs, after holding down a playoff position for much of the season, are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and currently sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.