Leafs–Red Wings: An old battle reborn

Carlos Osorio/AP

The current crop of young Maple Leafs and Red Wings have the talent—and grit—to keep an old rivalry going for years to come.

Cast forward to game seven of the 2020 Eastern Conference final. Danny DeKeyser thinks he’s seen every move in Nazem Kadri’s arsenal, but they’ve been doing this dance for the better part of a decade now, and DeKeyser knows he’d better stay alert. While being forced to the outside, Kadri surveys his options; he could drop a pass to the hard-charging Morgan Rielly or float the puck on goal in the hope that James van Riemsdyk will do what he’s done for so many years with the Leafs and bang home a loose puck in the crease. While Kadri cycles options in his mind, Gustav Nyquist arrives on the backcheck. The lessons he learned long ago from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg about two-way hockey have served him well, and he wouldn’t be one of Detroit’s best players if he didn’t take care of his own zone. Having stripped Kadri of the puck, Nyquist head-mans to Tomas Tatar. The two rip back up ice toward Jonathan Bernier as the back-and-forth battle that the teams’ best players have been fighting for years rages on.

When NHL realignment moved the Red Wings back to the Eastern Conference this season after they spent decades miscast as a Western club, it not only did wonders for their travel schedule, but stoked the fire of a dormant hockey rivalry. Detroit and Toronto have been adversaries at various points in NHL history, and what makes the reunion so exciting now is that both teams, to varying degrees, are cultivating a new generation of heroes who figure to be in the middle of the fight for years to come. Someday, the fictional scene depicted above may come true. What is certain, however, is the fact that both Leafs and Wings fans are already looking at many of the players who will write the next few chapters in this epic battle.

The main difference between the two teams is that Toronto already relies on its youngest players to make a big impact, whereas Detroit is slowly moving toward losing its last two superstars—Datsyuk and Zetterberg—which is when they’ll require the guys who’ve been developing in the system to take lead roles. What’s more, the Leafs’ youth movement is simply what happens when a team misses the playoffs for nearly an entire decade and is forced to rebuild, whereas the Wings haven’t skipped the post-season since 1990.

The Maple Leafs’ organizational approach of drafting and development represents a departure from more than just the immediate past. Toronto’s last period of success, when the club made the playoffs every year from 1999–2004 and twice advanced to the NHL’s final four, was largely the result of free-agent signings and a few sharp trades. The moment Toronto inked unrestricted free agent Curtis Joseph, it had a goalie who could keep the team in games. Mats Sundin, obtained in the famous 1994 deal that sent Wendel Clark to the Quebec Nordiques, was the linchpin up front, and veteran UFA signings like Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny helped keep the squad scoring. The Leafs were competitive, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of a plan for sustainable success. And while the current team’s results have been mixed even after making the playoffs last year, there’s no question that management has its eye on the big picture. That’s already paid dividends with respect to the development of a few players, including Kadri. “You don’t see it being about Kadri as much any more,” said one scout of the 23-year-old’s evolving attitude. “I think he’s starting to understand what it means to be a pro, especially a smaller pro.”

While Kadri and 19-year-old defenceman Rielly were both high draft picks, the Leafs have gone the trade route to acquire other young talent. If sending two first-round picks with an additional second-rounder to the Boston Bruins for Phil Kessel in 2009 still looks like a steep price, the fact that Kessel is the team’s best offensive player and basically a point-per-game producer at 26 removes much of the sting. Acquiring the 25-year-old Bernier from the Kings last summer is a move that, along with the presence of 25-year-old James Reimer, should provide crease stability for a decade, while nabbing the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk from the Philadelphia Flyers for struggling defenceman Luke Schenn is officially a coup. The six-foot-three left winger may never be mistaken for Cam Neely, but he’s a highly skilled player who scores both with touch and from tough areas. “I don’t think he’s exceptionally hard for a big guy, but I don’t think there’s fear in his game,” the scout said.

While the Leafs have already formed a core of mid-20s players, the Wings’ turnover is still in the early stages—a result of the franchise’s long-standing insistence on providing lengthy apprenticeships for most of its draft picks. DeKeyser is a bit of an exception, signing as a free agent coming out of Western Michigan University last spring. After inking with the Wings, the Michigan native stepped right into the lineup, playing 11 regular-season games and two more playoff contests. Right now, it seems the six games DeKeyser spent as a Grand Rapids Griffin in the Calder Cup final last  year might wind up representing his entire American Hockey League experience. “He’s actually exceeded expectations,” the scout said of the 23-year-old. “I don’t know if they realized he would become as steady as he is so fast.”

Up front, there’s still nobody who figures to take the torch that was passed from Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman to Datsyuk and Zetterberg. But both Tatar, 23, and Nyquist, 24, are talented wingers who were brought along slowly and are now starting to show their stuff. Another name worth noting is that of 24-year-old centre Joakim Andersson, a Swede who could help fill the void created in front of the other team’s net when Tomas Holmstrom retired before last season. “Not a great skater, but a real strong guy,” the scout said. “That net-front presence they’ve been missing from Holmstrom, this guy has kind of taken over.”

And if that 2020 East final does come to pass, expect Andersson to plant himself in the Leafs’ kitchen, perhaps daring Rielly to clear him out. With any luck, it’ll be one of many hostile showdowns between players who’ve gained a healthy distaste for each other thanks to years of close encounters.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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