TORONTO — The plan for digging the Toronto Maple Leafs out of the abyss is the easy part. Sticking to it is another story.
That’s why emerging from training camp without William Nylander or Connor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen or Zach Hyman on the opening night roster should be viewed as a positive step from an organization that has typically shown the patience of a five-year-old.
There was some temptation to go in another direction here. A couple days ago coach Mike Babcock said roster cuts had been delayed because “I like these kids.”
Members of the management team did as well.
In fact, the highlight of the last few weeks for Leafs executives was charting the progress of the youngest players in their system. They’ve amassed a pretty solid group of prospects. There is reason for hope.
However, there is also an understanding from Brendan Shanahan on down that the big picture has to be kept in mind. As Shanahan, the team president, put it at his end-of-season press conference in April: “Shortcuts have gotten this organization into trouble in the past and this has to once and for all be a build that we are committed to and that we don’t stray from.”
An important aspect of the blueprint is giving the kids an adequate amount of time to grow. Nylander or Brown could probably survive in the NHL right now, but the organization needs them to eventually thrive.
No timeframe has been set behind closed doors for how long that process should take. It will almost certainly vary from case-to-case, and the Leafs brass insists it will err on the side of caution.
“At this time the right thing is for them to go and be the best possible players they can be,” GM Lou Lamoriello said Sunday on a conference call. “There’s going to be an excellent team there (in the American Hockey League). … They could be here before you know it or it could be some time.
“A lot depends upon the whole sort of process that we’re going through. The first thing is for us to see where our veterans are and what type of a team we have.”
You can bet that everyone’s patience will be tested in the months ahead.
Quite frankly, this doesn’t look like a competitive hockey team. Its most exciting player, Phil Kessel, was jettisoned in the off-season and the additions are all journeymen on cap-friendly, tradable contracts.
Outside of Babcock and 21-year-old defenceman Morgan Rielly, there isn’t any sense of permanence here. The most exciting hockey in the city will likely be played at the Ricoh Coliseum this season.
When you couple all of that with the fact the Leafs brand doesn’t appear to be quite as teflon as it once was, you can envision a scenario where the organization might want to start selling the future. Attendance was sparse throughout the pre-season — going head-to-head with the Blue Jays no doubt played a factor — and the on-ice product isn’t going to be sexy.
Should the losses start to pile up, the pressure on Shanahan, Lamoriello and other members of the front office will mount. It’s inevitable. What do you think we’ll be discussing on the FAN590 if at the same time Nylander is lighting it up for the Marlies?
That’s when it will really take some stomach to see this plan through.
There certainly wasn’t any heat to contend with at the end of the quietest Leafs training camp in memory. Lamoriello and Babcock met a couple times over the weekend and essentially decided on the roster by the time the exhibition schedule wrapped up with a 2-1 loss to Detroit on Saturday night.
(One final cut still has to be made before Tuesday’s deadline and Lamoriello wouldn’t say whether it will come at forward or on defence).
When Toronto elected not to even dress Nylander or Brown during the home-and-home series with the Red Wings, it was clear they were headed for the AHL.
“What matters to me is that we make the best decisions we possibly can,” said Babcock. “We better know what we have before we get in a hurry to do something and then we find out later it was wrong. So being patient, I think, is important.”
Patience is an oft-discussed concept in pro sports, but it’s rarely adhered to. We’re talking about competitive, successful people who are preconditioned to win.
The men in charge of the Leafs organization would probably love to fast forward to a time where the players heading to the AHL today are members of the NHL team, and a lot more prospects have been loaded in the pipeline behind them.
That’s the end goal here. That’s the plan to get this organization back on track.
“There are millions of blueprints in this city but we can only use mine while I’m here,” Shanahan observed back in April.
They’ve got an awfully long way to go, but at least they’re staying on script at the start.