Process is a set of interrelated activities that interact to achieve a result. Process philosophy which regards change as the cornerstone of reality or praxis by which a theory or skill is enacted or realized, certainly seem straightforward enough and clearly fit the mandate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Upon further examination of the process the Leafs have under way, change has taken place with a number of financially burdening contacts dealt with or eliminated. The Praxis or theory has been laid out; first by Brendan Shanahan gaining the confidence of ownership, transitioning into Mike Babcock’s (with the help of Lou Lamoriello) playbook, that hopefuls with aspirations to wear the Leaf crest must strictly adhere too or they will be moved elsewhere. This thesis is irrevocable and it’s about the name on the front of the sweater not the nameplate across the shoulders.
Friday May 24th the Leafs took a step closer in the process with the selection of blue chip prospect Auston Matthews as the overall number one pick in the 2016 NHL draft. The previous year the Maple Leafs chose skill over brawn that consisted of a smaller group of players. This year Leaf management offset those selections with much bigger players with the mindset to surround the skilled group with some size.
The emergence and development of theses smaller skilled players was evident during the later stages of the NHL season. A number of them auditioned with the parent club, leaving management, coaches and fans beaming with delight. Thus the Leafs went off the grid with eight of their last selections focusing on players with a more aggressive and effective game.
The Chicago Blackhawks have a blueprint most franchises envy built through the draft, setting a foundation of youth, experience and depth that will ensure them a competitive team for a number of years. Sounds like the perfect model? Did you know that cornerstone defenseman Duncan Keith was a second round pick in 2002? Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford in 2003? Jonathan Toews 2006? Patrick Kane 2007? They won in 2010.
It takes time and that is the crucial component for not only the Leafs but for any success in the world of sports we have come to understand today. So why is that? Well the players are bigger, stronger, faster and better conditioned which all sounds great but what if a player can’t compete at the highest level? Anyone believe Phil Kessel is in great condition or any stronger than the next guy? If you didn’t know him, sitting in his underwear in a dressing room, would you differentiate him from Joe Beer-hack, playing for Buds Esso in the Art Thompson men’s league in Pickering Ontario?
Anomalies and the intangibles are left in the hands of the hockey gods better known as luck. You really think Detroit knew what they were getting in Datsyuk taken 171st in 1998 or Zetterberg 210th, the following year?
Maple Leaf management did not succumb to the “white noise” or frustrations that broke previous regimes when things became bleak. Instead, stayed with the plan laid out very clearly to fans that a winning 2015-16 season and maybe a few more to follow would be non-existent. It was part of the painful process we all must endear to enjoy the fruits of long-term success. The foundation to build a championship franchise can only be accomplished through the draft. Period!
Any Championship team is strong in goal, has an all-star defenseman and center. You may get lucky on a goalie through trade but the other two players are just not available unless acquired through the draft, simply because every team covets them.
The toughest parts for everyone from management to the fans is to stay grounded during the process, ignoring any short-term successes that may come as a result of the change. The easiest thing to do is to say yes. Just look recently how the media and fans started buzzing because Mathews wasn’t signed at the time? Did any smart hockey person really think the Leafs wouldn’t sign him? What people didn’t understand about the entry-level contract was it is incentive laden with goals that should be reached by a player of Mathews stature. Connor McDavid in a shortened season reached his easily and collected almost $4 million as a result. The process consists of the players understanding that personal goals are secondary; the only thing that matters is the name on the front of the sweater.
Think of Mathews being given six to seven digit codes to unlock the Leaf vault. How does he get to the seventh digit? Deliver! He is ranked a snick below McDavid and just slightly ahead of Eichel so it’s all up to him.
The Blue Jays are always a good example for comparison with the Leafs and they face a dilemma themselves this off-season with Encarnacion and Bautista both free agents. As I have stated in the past, the easy thing to do is to say yes and just sign them. That keeps everyone happy but does it work? Remember when both those players arrived about six years ago? They weren’t very good and looked like guys just filling spots on the roster and as a matter of fact they almost released Edwin. Who’s to say Saunders and Smoak aren’t the new Edwin and Jose? Offer both players what you think is fair but on your terms. That’s how you win long term and I hope the Leafs are paying attention, I think they are.
Steven Stamkos the most coveted free agent in many years opted to stay with Tampa for less money. Recall how GM Steve Yzerman balked at paying him after his entry-level contract expired and the owner had to step in and adjust the figures. Yzerman stuck to his guns this time around and Stamkos is still a Lightening. Tampa has kept its core players and is a favourite to compete for the Cup.
Nothing in the world comes without a price and not a bigger price to pay than in sports. The Leafs appear on track to building a team the proper way and piecing a team together can bring short-term happiness but won’t result in longevity or championships. The Leafs have built up a war chest of prospects but at this point in time that’s all they are. The 15 or 20 they have stockpiled including this years selections will be considered a huge success if four work out. That’s roughly 20-25% of your picks you hope give you a chance; those are casino like odds, thus why you cant move away from the plan and continue to develop to the point of overdevelopment at the minor levels for sustained success with the big team.
To be a Champion today, remember it takes strong non-interfering management, respected coaching; a lot of luck and this is were we the fans come in; as Axl Rose sings, “Just A Little Patience.”