That No. 1 card will be the highlight, the go-to clip that they show for years when they talk about the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery. The moment when Bill Daly flipped over that final card to reveal a Maple Leafs logo and award the top pick to Toronto will be the lasting image of Saturday night’s festivities.
But for diehard Maple Leafs fans – a group that it’s fair to say I know a thing or two about – the biggest moment of the night had already come a few minutes earlier. It was the No. 4 card, the one that would reveal the final team to fall out of the top three. The fourth pick represented the worst-case scenario for Leafs fans, and so it went without saying that it was what we were all expecting. When that last spot came down to the Leafs or the perpetually lottery-charmed Edmonton Oilers, we all knew what was coming.
So when Daly flipped that No. 4 card and we were left staring at an Oilers logo instead, there was a palpable confusion mixed in with the joy. The Maple Leafs had won… something. We didn’t know quite what, but something good had happened. And we all had the same thoughts: Did we just witness the turning point? Could decades of misery be ending? Are things really going to be different now?
And then, inevitably: How are they going to screw this up?
That’s just how Maple Leafs fans are wired. And rightly so. We’ve lived through Harold Ballard and Kerry Fraser and Doug Gilmour’s comeback and Rask-for-Raycroft and “It Was 4-1”. This has to end badly, because these are the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it always ends badly.
So how does that work for something that seems as undeniably positive as winning the Auston Matthews lottery? Today, let’s try to figure it out. Sure, it sounds pessimistic, but that’s just who we are. It’s better if we all work through this together. Call it preventative maintenance.
Here are five ways that what seems like a sure-thing could still go badly for the Maple Leafs.
Matthews ends up being a bust
This is the most obvious possibility. The Leafs take Matthews, their fans anoint him as the chosen one, and then he turns out to be the next Alexandre Daigle or Patrik Stefan. The NHL has a long history of high-profile draft busts, as you’d expect given the difficulty involved in projecting the future development of an 18-year-old kid. There’s no reason Matthews couldn’t be next.
That’s not to say he will; scouts seem to love the kid, and most prospects who enter the league with this sort of resume go on to long and successful careers. When there’s this much hype around a prospect, even a mild disappointment still nets you a pretty good player, even if that ends up being an Owen Nolan or Pierre Turgeon instead of an Alex Ovechkin or Mario Lemieux. True busts in the number one slot are memorable in part because they’re fairly rare. But they do happen.
Could it happen? Sure. It’s unlikely – today, nobody thinks Matthews will be anything but a star. But nobody thought Daigle would disappoint either, and look how that turned out. It’s pro sports, and busts happen. And if you’re a Leafs fan convinced that something has to come along and derail all this newfound optimism, this is your most straightforward possibility.
Matthews wilts under the Toronto spotlight
Let’s say Matthews arrives in Toronto and is everything fans are hoping for and more. He lights up the league, runs away with the Calder Trophy, and is well on his way to joining the league’s top tier of truly elite players.
And then, the Toronto fishbowl gets a hold of him.
Toronto can be a tough town. It’s not that the media is overly critical so much as that there’s just so much of it, with all of them competing to stand out with the hottest take or most contrarian angle. And with a massive fan base that stretches well beyond the city limits, you’re never going to be able to please everyone. Remember, this is the town that took forever to warm to Mats Sundin even as he put together a Hall of Fame career. They hammered Phil Kessel constantly, even as he racked up top-10 scoring seasons with little help. And while it’s been all but forgotten now, even Wendel Clark was ripped for years before eventually being granted local deity status.
Not everyone can handle that. Some players have the right combination of self-confidence and no-nonsense focus to shrug off the spotlight. Some guys will even embrace it, like Gilmour did in the early ’90s. But others will eventually start to wonder what they’re doing in a town where nothing ever seems good enough, and whether a more low-key environment would be a better fit.
And yes, you could combine this with the previous option to get an especially nasty combination. Maybe Matthews arrives in Toronto and doesn’t immediately look like a superstar. How long before fans and media start throwing their unreasonable expectations at his feet? The city has been surprisingly patient with Brendan Shanahan’s rebuild so far, but you wonder how much longer that would last if their long-awaited saviour were to get off to anything resembling a slow start.
Could it happen? There’s no doubt that the spotlight on Matthews will be blinding from day one. Can he handle it? From the sounds of things, yes. His most recent coach, Marc Crawford, described him as a kid that’s “not afraid of big markets”, and there’s little to suggest that Matthews can’t handle a spotlight. It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike some of Toronto’s previous regimes, the Shanahan version has been careful to avoid overhyping their progress. They’ll manage expectations as best they can, which will help.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine the day-to-day grind of playing in a market like Toronto eventually wearing down anyone, Matthews included. Sorry, Leafs fans. This is why you can’t have nice things.
The Leafs trade the pick
We’re all assuming that the Leafs will take Matthews, even with other top prospects like the highly rated Patrik Laine on the board. The franchise has been looking for a first-line centre for so long that it seems unimaginable that they’d use the first-overall pick on a winger instead. But there’s another possibility that would see Matthews end up elsewhere: the Leafs trading down out of the top spot.
The trade down strategy is gaining steam across the sports world these days, as teams begin to realize that the best path to success in the draft is to amass as many picks as possible. The Maple Leafs seem to be on board – they moved down twice at least year’s draft, turn the 24th pick into two seconds and a third. More recently, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns used the same strategy prior to last weekend’s draft – and if the Browns are doing it, it must be a good idea!
Could it happen? Unlikely. Any team with as many holes as the Leafs should be willing to consider all their options, and Lou Lamoriello won’t hang up the phone if some other team wants to try to knock his socks off with an offer. But trading out of No. 1 is a whole different world from trading out of No. 24; the top pick hasn’t been moved before the draft in the salary cap era. Short of the Coyotes deciding they absolutely have to have local kid Matthews – and wishful thinking aside, there’s little indication that they feel that way – it’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario where the Leafs would move this pick.
The Leafs overreact and rush the plan
Sure, Shanahan and friends had a whole long-term plan mapped out, one that everyone agreed would take years to bear fruit. And for the most part, the fans have bought in.
But that was before the ping pong balls delivered a potential franchise player, and that changes everything. Maybe having a guy like Matthews in place even makes Toronto a more attractive landing spot for Steven Stamkos. And once you get Stamkos, then you’re only a few more veterans away from being a borderline playoff team. Surely you could sacrifice a few of those stockpiled picks and prospects to get those guys, right? Maybe you even have to overpay a bit, but we’re talking about a playoff run here, and once you’re in, anything can happen. Hey, where would be a good place to hang this “Mission Accomplished” banner?
Could it happen? It might be tempting, but the betting here is that the Leafs are smart enough to stay the course.
It’s worth noting that Shanahan has always refused to put an actual timeline on his rebuild, in part for exactly this reason – unexpected developments, both good and bad, can move the finish line on you. That means the Leafs can’t really be accused of rushing anything, since we don’t know where the original target way. But it’s fair to assume that when Mike Babcock arrived and started promising a “massive challenge” and that “pain is coming”, he didn’t mean for one season.
Winning the Matthews lottery probably does speed up the Leafs’ rebuild, as could landing Stamkos or some other top veteran talent. But there’s still a long way to go, and Toronto fans should hope the team remembers that. Chances are, they will.
Matthews is good, but the Maple Leafs still aren’t
Thanks to Saturday’s win, the Leafs now look like they may have a top line centre for the first time since Sundin. That’s crucial, since history shows that it’s nearly impossible to win a Cup without that sort of player in the lineup.
But it’s not the only piece. Most Cup winners also have a stud defenceman in the Drew Doughty/Duncan Keith/Nicklas Lidstrom mold. The Maple Leafs don’t have that yet – Morgan Rielly could get there, but right now he seems more like a solid top-pairing guy than a future Norris contender.
You also need a dependable goaltender. Maybe not a superstar, although that obviously helps, but at least a guy you can trust. But the position is a massive question mark for the Maple Leafs right now, both at the NHL level and in terms of the prospect pipeline.
And then there’s the veteran depth. And the rest of the top six. And the special teams standouts. And… Well, you get the point.
Without question, the Leafs are further ahead than they were a few years ago. They’ve finally got a top-level coach, a smart front office, and a well-stocked prospect cupboard. And now, maybe, they’ve also got that elusive top-line centre. But there’s still a long way to go.
Could it happen? To be determined. Matthews will be a huge addition, but even if he turns out to be a perennial Hart contender, he’s just one guy. The Maple Leafs weren’t one player away on Saturday morning, and they’ve still got plenty of holes to fill.
So there you go, Leafs fans. There’s your roadmap to ruin. Choose your favourite – ah, who are we kidding, choose more than one – and sit back and watch the single best Maple Leafs moment of the past decade unravel. Just remember to try to look surprised.
Of course, it’s also possible that none of this happens. Maybe the Leafs pick Matthews, he’s as good as advertised, the Leafs stay patient, the other pieces fall into place, and everyone manages to make it through the first few seasons without driving the kid out of town for wearing the wrong colour hat. If all that happens, maybe Leafs fans really do look back on Saturday as the turning point.
But that seems unlikely. I mean, what are the odds of all those positives coming true? They’re low. Maybe even as low as, let’s just say… 20 per cent. And when has that number ever come through in Toronto?