Morgan Rielly (John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
Toronto is entering rebuild mode and the Buds just happen to be cratering during a very strong draft year. Next season's crop also looks strong up top, so filling out a lineup behind players such as Morgan Rielly may not be too difficult.
All is not well in Leaf Land, as Toronto has sunk into a funk that has eclipsed the cataclysmic slumps of the recent past. As reported by Sportsnet's Chris Johnston yesterday, Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas has publicly stated that if the team needs to start from scratch, that's what they'll do in order to make things right.
Luckily, this is a great time to do so.
As I noted the other day, it is nearly impossible to find a true No. 1 center these days unless you draft and develop him, and elite pivots make the hockey world go 'round. It also helps to be sturdy on the back end and right now Toronto has one excellent piece in Morgan Rielly, a puck-mover on an upward trajectory who doesn't turn 21 until next month. But another young blueliner of his caliber would go a long way.
Unless you've been living off the grid, you probably know that the 2015 draft features some pretty decent talent up top in centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Then there's incredible defenseman Noah Hanifin, a very solid No. 3 in the rankings. Currently, the Maple Leafs sit 26th in the standings, so Toronto would have to win the draft lottery in order to procure the services of one of those phenoms.
But let's assume the Maple Leafs go full-on Buffalo rebuild for the next 15 months and dredge the bottom of the NHL standings next season as well. That gives them a shot in 2016 at big American center Auston Matthews, who has put up staggeringly similar (if not slightly better) numbers to Jack Eichel on the exact same U.S. NTDP team that Eichel played for the year before he was eligible for the draft.
On the defensive side, OHL Sarnia's Jakob Chychrun – who played minor midget in Toronto for the Jr. Canadiens – is also looking like the real deal already.
Best-case scenario is that Toronto wins the lottery this season and grabs McDavid, then finishes low enough in 2016 to grab Chychrun. Or, the Maple Leafs continue to tumble down the standings this year and land Hanifin, then nab Matthews in 2016.
The worst-case scenario is that Toronto does not win the lottery this year and finishes outside the bottom three. But even this isn't a death-blow. In my humble opinion, there are two other pivots available this summer who have the obvious potential to also be elite NHLers: Dylan Strome and Mathew Barzal.
With Strome and Barzal, both could go back to junior next year and benefit wildly. Strome has been playing behind McDavid with the OHL's Erie Otters and with his fellow center in the NHL next season, Strome could dominate domestically and then take on a large role on Canada's world junior team. Barzal, who plays in Seattle, missed a good chunk of this season due to a freak knee injury, so there's no sense rushing him into The Show either.
In this case, Chychrun is still a great target for 2016.
At this point, you may be howling that I have omitted the names of several other top prospects, such as Mitch Marner (2015) and Jesse Puljujarvi (2016). I have done so because they are wingers and although they are incredibly talented, Toronto needs needs needs a center and it's rare for a junior winger to become an NHLer center. Plus, the Leafs' best prospect right now is William Nylander, who can play center, but also plays wing, where he might be better suited in the NHL. There's also defenseman Sean Day in 2016, but he's more high-risk, high-reward and I'm not sure that's what the Leafs would prefer right now: Keep in mind, I'm envisioning the best, safest route for Toronto to go here.
Rebuilds are rarely easy (unless you're Calgary, apparently) and there has already been a lot of pain in Toronto. But if the Maple Leafs can score a couple talents in what appear to be very strong drafts this summer and next, that well-structured lineup may finally come to fruition.