Maple Leafs chasing No. 1 overall pick while maintaining dignity

HC at Noon discussion on the Maple Leafs coming back to earth a wee bit after their surprising run, also touch on Dion Phaneuf’s simple, solid game under coach Babcock.

Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and fans of common sense – often mutually exclusive, but less so lately – are likely beginning to exhale as this pivotal NHL season turns toward the second half.

After those nervous days of December when it appeared that Mike Babcock was somehow going to wrestle this bunch into the shadow of playoff contention, the schedule and the fate intervened.

A tough loss in Los Angeles, a dispiriting shellacking in San Jose and then a huge loss at home to the last place Columbus Blue Jackets – a four-pointer, as they say – should have dimmed any faint hope that the Leafs could make the playoffs.

A timely broken foot by leading scorer James van Riemsdyk should provide additional ballast for the race to the bottom. Selling off any competent asset that can fetch a draft pick should help even more.

After years of zealously pursuing ninth place the Leafs look like they are prepared to embrace the fruits the NHL draft is waiting to provide.

There is good news and bad news with regard to the effort.

The good news is that for years finishing last in the NHL required shedding your pride as an organization; selling tickets for 41 home games but showing up for almost none.

Last season the race to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel inspired the Buffalo Sabres to a 54-point season. Only the 2013-14 Sabres and the 2000-01 New York Islanders were worse in the past 15 years, each finished with 52 points.

How bad was Buffalo? Consider that as the Leafs finished 9-30-5, as ugly a meltdown as could be imagined, they gained four points on the Sabres beginning January 1.

For the past decade finishing last in the NHL meant earning, on average, just 60 points a season, compared to the league average of 92.

This could be the Leafs' lucky year, however. A lot can happen over the last three months of the season, but at the moment last place is projecting to be 64 points, which would be the best last place finish since the Los Angeles Kings were able to finish last and draft Drew Doughty (with the No. 2 pick) after a 71-point season in 2007-08.

Also working in the Leafs' favour is the quality of the competition. Of the other bottom five teams in terms of points percentage, the Blue Jackets came into the season thinking playoffs before their horrid start. John Tortorella seems to be whipping them into shape, or at least having them make a run at 29th. The Edmonton Oilers have no interest in finishing last ever again, and they should improve when McDavid returns the line-up. The Buffalo Sabres have finished with tanking and the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets were playoff teams last year and are striving to get back.

As long as the Leafs don’t do anything stupid, last place should come to them.

Of course, the benefits of finishing last aren’t quite what they used to be, even if this will likely be remembered as the Auston Matthews draft in honour of the Arizona-bred centreman who is playing his draft year in Switzerland and widely is considered a talent worth tanking for.

It’s probably not a coincidence that teams aren’t as bad as they have been recently. The golden age of tanking is over. Under changes announced in the summer of 2014 the NHL will hold three lotteries to determine each of the top three picks in advance of the draft.

As before the worse a team’s finish the better their odds of picking higher, but there is more randomness to the process. The first draw will included the 14 teams that don’t make the playoffs; the second draw will include the 13 remaining teams and the third the 12 teams that didn’t win the first or second pick. If the last place team doesn’t win one of the top three picks, the worst they will pick is fourth with the remaining teams falling in order behind them, from 4 to 14.

It’s a smart move by the league to discourage the naked race for the bottom that had crept in the last few years, and it appears to have worked in that there doesn’t seem to be any cases of teams drilling holes in the hull of their own ships.

But make no mistake, the worse you finish the better chance you have of picking first overall and of picking higher in general.

And this is where opportunity is staring Babcock right in his lantern-jawed face. While the franchise figurehead famously promised "there will be pain" when he and his eight-year, $50-million contract were unveiled last summer there was a legitimate concern among a certain type of fan that the old hockey coach would turn the lifeless bunch that quit in the second half a year ago into a bunch of over-achievers.

And he has. Almost all of the team’s underlying metrics have improved and in many cases improved dramatically: a year ago they were in the bottom five in puck possession, this year they are firmly in the league’s top-10. The scary thing is that were it not for Jonathan Bernier playing like an open garage door for most of October the Leafs might be on the verge of a playoff position at the moment.

Aside from that it’s been 41 games replete with moral victories and a few too many real ones for those who recognize that the Leafs' most obvious need is a No.1 centre, the type of athlete that provides the foundation of almost any championship contender and who are typically taken in the top three of the draft.

The Leafs know that as well as anyone, but there seemed to be a hesitancy about simply wasting a season or two and there was no way Babcock was going to embrace that lack of effort. You could almost feel the franchise’s best chance at a top draft pick being plucked up and whisked away by the winds of change.

Before the season I asked Leafs president Brendan Shanahan about the ‘risks’ inherent in hiring Babcock and the possibility he could coach a rebuilding team out of the richest vein of the draft lottery at precisely the point the franchise would seem to need all the elite young talent it can gather.

He countered that the young talent in the fold already deserved the chance to be developed, regardless of the outcome.

“Jake [Gardiner] and Morgan [Rielly] and Nazem [Kadri], they’ve had a lot of coaches up until now,” he said. “[Now] they’re being taught by what I think is a top staff. To just try to bury our seasons intentionally; to not give them a good coach for the next two years, now you’re looking at guys who are 25, 26 that have never known what it really is to play the way we want them too.

“You’ve picked higher – these are assumptions – but you’ve neglected the players that are already here that deserve in my mind, [to know] what the plan is and start moving forward on it,” said Shanahan.

Except halfway through the season the rebuilding Leafs have a chance to have the best of both worlds. With Babcock’s influence they’ve largely removed the stain left by last season. Young talent like Kadri, Rielly and Gardiner have all seemingly benefited from the coaching they have received; some veterans have turned themselves into useful trade assets playing within his system.

The Leafs are on the cusp of both drafting high – perhaps even No. 1 overall – and maintaining their dignity in the process.

It behooves them not to screw up a perfect season with too much needless winning. The future is closer than you might think.