The Maple Leafs must move heaven and earth to land a top center in the draft

Dion Phaneuf Jake Gardiner
Dion Phaneuf Jake Gardiner

There are many things the Maple Leafs have done of late that’s rankled their fan base. Retaining the services of head coach Randy Carlyle tops the list, but after Toronto’s stunning late-season collapse, the general sentiment surrounding the franchise is still one of uncertainty and frustration.

There’s one way the Leafs can change that in the next few days: trade up in the NHL entry draft and select a center to serve as a franchise cornerstone.

That’s easier said than done. Given the fact there’s no consensus on the No. 1 pick, there could be more teams than ever jostling to move up in the draft. The owners of that pick, the Florida Panthers, have made it abundantly clear they’re willing to trade it in return for players who can help them win immediately. The Edmonton Oilers have the third overall selection and they too are under all sorts of pressure to produce in the standings sooner than later. So the opportunity is there. Now it’s about what kind of offer it would take to push the Leafs up from their current No. 8 slot and into a place where they can acquire the type of dynamic prospect they’ve been lacking for most of the past five decades.

Some have linked captain Dion Phaneuf to any move up in the draft the Leafs might make – and he would improve the blueline of the Panthers and Oilers – but his seven-year, $49 million contract extension means Toronto would have to take back an onerous deal. To avoid that scenario, I’d be fine with dealing any other blueliner not named Morgan Rielly, in combination with a young NHL-caliber forward or two and/or a draft pick of note, to acquire a better pick.

I’d be more reluctant to move a youngster like Nazem Kadri in a draft day transaction, but, depending on what else was headed Toronto’s way, his inclusion wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. If Leafs brass can land any one of the three top centers available – Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart or Leon Draisaitl – they’d be sending a clear message to their fans: there will be no more getting caught up in the idea they’re closer to being a frontrunner for the Cup; instead, they’re prepared to take a few steps sideways, or even backward, if it means building their lineup the right way. This squad isn’t going to make the Stanley Cup Final (or the conference final) in the next couple years, so deleting a few veterans should absolutely be on the table.

Most Leafs fans would gladly accept that. What other choice do they have? The Air Canada Centre is always going to be filled to capacity. Icing a young team that’s going to make mistakes will produce the same crowds as a roster that’s in the middle (or lower-middle) of the pack. Why not try your luck with a player whose upside is better than anyone currently in the organization’s farm system?

It always must be noted a slower build isn’t an assurance of a championship. The Oilers and Panthers are proof of that. But one of the main elements of new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan’s job is to ignore the calls for quick fixes and band-aid answers – and taking an elite youngster who might be a couple years away from being an NHL force fits perfectly with that direction.

The Leafs will always be rich in two ways: money and fan support. But for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve allowed money to overwhelm the safer bet of putting together key components slowly and surely. Now that the stars are lining up to allow them to do so, they’d be foolish not to give it their best shot.

If that means trading Kadri, Jake Gardiner or virtually any other current Leaf, so be it.