The Maple Leafs sit 14th in the East, five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Typically, when a team has the second-fewest points in the league through more than a third of the season, its fans and management are of two minds.
Losing has its rewards and though we all know it runs counter-intuitive to the most basic premise of sports and competition, it’s tough to ignore that glowing, soft-handed carrot dangling off in the distance in the form of a very high draft pick come June.
But, as alluded to, anyone who’s ever tried to do anything better than another person or group of people can tell you, unequivocally, losing sucks.
So did the Toronto Maple Leafs – suck, that is – for the first month of the season. The Leafs were an extraordinarily odorous outfit in October, winning just one of 12 games.
Since then, they’re 9-6-3 and with the exception of a 7-2 shellacking at the hands of Boston last Saturday, they haven’t looked terribly outmatched any time they hit the ice.
Still, the notion of selecting a franchise-defining player might remain a more palatable path than another failed playoff run, if that was even an option for the Leafs. It’s not, of course, because they flipped their first round picks in 2010 and 2011 – along with a second-rounder next June – to Boston for Phil Kessel.
So it’s settled; Toronto’s focus is playing its first playoff game since 2004 and who cares if the charge, as in recent seasons, falls short because there’s no draft position to sacrifice this time out.
Things get slightly more complicated, however, when you consider the current core of this team is likely to undergo serious change before next season, due to the fact eight guys currently in the lineup are set to become unrestricted free agents next July.
Certainly the Leafs could add some pieces here and there by signing other UFAs, but a rebuild via free agency is more unrealistic than ever for any team, simply because so many top-end talents are already locked up in long-terms deals designed to soften salary cap blows.
Basically, unless you believe the Leafs already have all the major building blocks required to construct a winner in-house, you have to wonder where the missing pieces are going to come from.
It won’t be from a high draft pick this year. And, likely, not from free agency. A big trade? Tough to bank on that; teams tend to be sticky about sending their best players to other teams.
The one route that’s been beat around is moving valuable assets in the form of Tomas Kaberle and Niklas Hagman for another team’s picks or prospects.
Both men would fetch something significant in return because they’re really good players. That being the case, why is a team gunning for a playoff spot and spurning the notion of a long-term rebuild in favor of more immediate results shipping out players who will be good for at least five more years?
Leafs GM Brian Burke is the very definition of decisive, so you have to believe there’s a stringent plan in place leading up to and beyond this season’s trade deadline. Another one-win month would bring about some easy decisions, but that is highly unlikely at this point.
From the outside perspective, it’s not entirely clear which side of the rebuilding road Toronto is on. Like most situations in life, the key is committing to one thing or the other, because we all know where walking down the middle gets you.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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