CALGARY — The National Hockey League rebuild is a perilous, unpredictable venture. Ask Brian Burke’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Craig MacTavish’s Edmonton Oilers, or even this year’s Calgary Flames under the astute management of general manager Brad Treliving.
The problem is this: The early, losing years where you deconstruct the roster, ask your fans for patience, and vie for the latest Auston Matthews are guarantees. They happen every time.
But the success part — the decade of Stanley Cup contention built on a foundation of pragmatic drafting, developing and augmenting with free agents — is anything but assured.
Often, that part never arrives at all.
Put into context, days like Tuesday where the Toronto Maple Leafs dealt away their captain and consensus leader for a collection of spare parts are a key component of the NHL rebuild. Though dumping the final five years of Dion Phaneuf’s bloated contract on the Ottawa Senators may be an overt example, trades that package a tangible asset for something as intangible as cap space are the marrow of the rebuild.
Or, sometimes, the magic beans of the rebuild.
The time between the loss of Phaneuf and the re-acquisition of similar assets however, is a long, open-ended void in which a fan base’s spirit — and the rebuild itself — will be severely tested.
“The problem for us is, Dion is ready right now to win and we’re not ready to win,” opened Toronto head coach Mike Babcock, who will slap the ‘A’ on the jerseys of journeymen Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Leo Komarov for Tuesday night’s game in Calgary.
Three players who wear their own jerseys down Queen St. and do not get stopped for an autograph.
“I can’t emphasize this enough,” said Babcock. “(Phaneuf) did it right every single day. He did it right when he wasn’t at the rink, and he did it right at the rink. He did it right in the weight room; he did it right with the coaches; he did it right with his teammates.
“That’s what you need on good teams to have success.”
Good teams need it, but the Leafs just traded it away. That’s fine. It’s the stated plan, and we all get that.
Tonight however, and perhaps for 82 nights next season and maybe even the season after that, there are 20 players and hundreds of thousands of fans who will enter most games knowing they are nowhere near as good as their opponent. And the kind of dressing room stability, the leadership that could possibly help an undermanned roster punch above its weight at least into January or February, well, it’s still playing for the Marlies.
Or it’s going to be a UFA soon — unless it re-signs in Tampa.
“Obviously management has a plan,” said goalie James Reimer, himself a pending UFA. “There is so much uncertainty in sport … and for us now. You try and live in the moment. You try not to think about … deconstructing, or going forward.”
In the old days, a nine-player deal had some on-ice juice to it. This one? It smells like it was cooked up by the capologists.
Milan Michalek is nearing the end of a productive career. Jared Cowen is a project, and a third-pairing one at that, and Colin Greening is a buried contract. Tobias Lindberg is a big, 20-year-old winger who looks promising, the only addition could be considered part of the Leafs’ future.
The rest represent the meat inside the hot dog wrapper that will sustain Leafs’ fans through the rebuild. With the promise of a great, long feast at the end, of course.
Look at the current Leafs roster and ask yourself: Which players join defenceman Morgan Rielly as players that still be wearing the uniform when Toronto is a contender? You might think Nazem Kadri, but then you may have noticed Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello talking up Kadri’s value this season.
Kind of the way they talked up Phaneuf’s value in recent weeks, a classic case of the old “pump and dump.”
There are a few players in the AHL and junior earmarked as keepers: Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, Garret Sparks, Kasperi Kapanen, perhaps a or a Dmytro Timashov — but a wise GM once told me: “If you have five prospects you consider to be good, you can count on two panning out. Three, if you’re lucky.”
The Leafs will draft and develop, which takes much hockey acumen, even more time and patience, and some luck. They have a ton of cap space to add free agents. Contention is far, far away however, which puts me in the Show Me State when it comes to a veteran like Steven Stamkos hitching his horse to this rebuild.
Not for a few years yet, by these eyes, will a top UFA with options see the Leafs as a place to win. But, I didn’t think Babcock would settle there either.
So I could be wrong about that. But I’m sure about this: The Leafs will keep their promise to the fan base.
They said there was pain ahead, and it is certain that pains lies ahead.
How long will that hold true? Aye, Leafs’ fan
That’s the thing about these rebuilds, isn’t it?