TORONTO – With all due respect to Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, there’s probably no person more important to the Toronto Maple Leafs rebuild right now than Mark Hunter.
It will be the director of player personnel and his scouting staff that set the trajectory for the coming years, starting with the NHL Draft in Buffalo when Gary Bettman might just mandate that they set up a table on stage.
The Leafs will be picking early and often in June.
Following the trade that sent Shawn Matthias to the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday afternoon, the organization was left with a whopping 12 selections in 2016: Two firsts, a second, two thirds, two fourths, two fifths, two sixths and a seventh.
“Nine (draft picks) is high,” said Lamoriello. “But to have 11 or 12 is quite a bit.”
He may yet add even more to the pile depending on how things play out leading up to the Feb. 29 trade deadline. P.A. Parenteau, Roman Polak, Brad Boyes, Michael Grabner and Nick Spaling are among the other Leafs on expiring contracts that are currently available.
With so many pieces potentially in play, it was important to get a deal done early.
The Avalanche had a need for a big winger and Matthias fit the bill. Once they made an offer the Leafs could live with – a 2016 fourth-rounder and AHL forward Colin Smith, who is viewed as depth for the Marlies playoff run – Lamoriello had no qualms about pulling the trigger.
“We’ll have other situations that might wait, but when you think something is fair and you think something is right you make that decision at that time,” he said. “You don’t have to get into a situation where you keep holding and holding.”
It’s a pretty important week after the franchise stocked up on relatively inexpensive veteran players last summer with an eye towards turning them into assets now.
The result is likely to be a fire sale unlike any Lamoriello has previously overseen during his decorated career, and it’s being done with an eye towards giving Hunter the best opportunity to unearth future players.
The London Knights co-owner is known for having a sharp eye for talent and has completely remodelled Toronto’s scouting department since being hired in October 2014. That group has been preparing all season long to be ready for a crucial draft weekend in June.
“I think the scouting staff always gets excited with the more picks they have,” said Lamoriello.
Despite the Leafs painful season on the ice, there seems to be a positive long-term outlook forming on the horizon.
The Marlies are currently enjoying one of the best American Hockey League seasons in history and they’re doing it with a young team that includes 19-year-old standout William Nylander. Lamoriello hinted that we might see more of the prospects from there called up to the NHL team soon.
“I think winning breeds winning, and it’s invaluable,” said Lamoriello. “It brings everybody together … to feel good about each other and grow up with each other. That’s the environment you’d like to create.
“That’s the reason that they have stayed down there throughout the year, that is the young players; you’ll certainly see them soon, but they have stayed there for the majority of the season and then they will be there to make the playoff run.”
As for Matthias, the season didn’t go quite as well as he hoped when signing a $2.3-million, one-year deal with his hometown team last summer. He struggled for stretches to get ice time, and recently missed five games with whiplash, but scored his sixth goal of the season after returning to the lineup Saturday night.
Matthias originally sought more security in free agency last July, but got squeezed like many others with teams showing an unusual amount of restraint.
It basically guaranteed that he wouldn’t finish the season with the rebuilding Leafs, but he maintained a positive attitude about his situation despite that fact.
“Every (dressing) room’s the same, we’re all hockey guys,” Matthias told me recently. “If it does happen, you’re making more friends and it’s another journey in this crazy life. You’re in the NHL and you’ve got to be thankful for that, appreciate that.
“Not a lot of guys get to spend this much time in the NHL so if you’ve got to play somewhere else, you’ve got to play somewhere else.”
Lamoriello had high praise for Matthias on Sunday, calling him an “exceptional pro,” and indicated that he should be an ideal fit for an Avalanche team trying to remain in playoff position in the Western Conference.
At 28 years old, he’s the kind of player that can help an organization in the present.
All the Leafs are concerned with right now is the future.