The Toronto Maple Leafs insisted to the media this week that they’re going to be patient in developing their top prospects. The more pertinent question for the Brendan Shanahan and Maple Leafs management isn’t whether their organization can stick to their guns on this, it’s whether or not the fans in a success starved Toronto sports market can be patient with them.
When assistant general manager and wunderkid Kyle Dubas addressed the media for Toronto Marlies garbage bag day this week – Jeff Veillette recapped the press conference ably earlier today – the spectre of a lengthy rebuild was never far from the surface.
This could be a long process for the Maple Leafs, and if Dubas’ commendable discipline in staying on message indicates anything, it’s that selling the rebuild to fans is a foremost priority for Leafs management.
“We still have a long way to go if we want to be an elite organization,” said Dubas on Monday, in discussing the lessons he took away from the Marlies’ sterling, youth-driven run in the second half of the AHL season. “And that’s only speaking towards the number of high end prospects that we have.”
Dubas then drew an unflattering parallel between Detroit’s fully stocked cupboard and Toronto’s relatively barren one.
“Up two-nothing and you go there and you see some of the better players in the AHL that are still young,” said Dubas of the Red Wings’ AHL prospect depth. “Detroit is a team that is in the playoffs every single year… and they’re going to be a contender moving ahead. Their best players in that series, especially as it went down, were some of their best prospects.”
So not only do the Red Wings, a division rival, have better prospects than the Maple Leafs, but they’re also way better at the NHL level too. Dubas is not-so-subtly implying throughout that ‘hey, this could take a while, guys.’
Dubas didn’t leave it there though. To his credit he did hint at the management team’s long-term solution to the problem of not being very good at all. That solution is all about accumulation.
“It’s up to us to as management to continue bring in as many good young players as we can,” said Dubas. “We’ve got some good pieces, they were excellent down the stretch, and now it’s just a matter of continuing to add to those players and not putting (the weight of the world) on the shoulders of William Nylander, and Connor Brown and Brandon Leipsic and so on and so forth.”
I think it’s interesting to contrast Dubas’ comments at Marlies locker room clean out day and Shanahan’s comments following Blue Sunday. Where Shanahan was mostly evasive and vague – a sensible approach considering the club’s uncertain future, and the need to carve out some flexibility – Dubas was specific, and focused on Monday.
He can be, because it’s ultimately not his name on the door.
In fact Dubas is probably the right vessel for beginning to lay the preparatory groundwork for buying patience, time and space in hockey’s most patently insane market place. I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that this is precisely what was going on when Dubas addressed the media on Monday.
“The Leafs overall – we’ve got a long way to go,” Dubas said revealingly. “We’re excited about it though.”
That was his summation when asked if the Maple Leafs intend to bake (/overcook) prospects in the AHL in a way similar to what the Red Wings have done with the likes of Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. Dubas framed this subject as having a certain push-pull dynamic, related not only to a prospect’s personal abilities, but also to the level of talent on an organization’s NHL roster.
“That’s a luxury (patience with prospects) we one day hope to have,” began Dubas. “It’s a double edged equation. The first part is that you have to have players up top that are significantly better than those players – that it takes them longer to usurp the players ahead. And we have to continue to have an excellent development model whereby, when those players are ready, you have player that are here cultivating with the Marlies before they’re ready to go up.”
There’s an echo in that comment to a quote that Dubas gave Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman last week, on the topic of factoring size into player evaluations. “Right now, we aren’t good enough to be picky about smaller players,” Dubas said then.
The over arching theme, again, is that the Maple Leafs are leagues and years away from being at the point where they’re doing anything but accumulating assets and developing talent.
This is a team that’s poised to be pretty bad next year, and that’s even before Shanahan and company start dealing established players for futures over the next seven weeks (which we should very much expect, in my view). This is actually a team that’s poised to be bad for several years.
There are fans, surely, who welcome a rebuild done right. No half measures, or Phil Kessel trades.
We can’t underestimate how painful a lengthy rebuild can be though – even for a brand as massive as the Maple Leafs, even in a market as absolute as Toronto. Based on the noises that Dubas is making lately, I don’t think Maple Leafs management is.