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The Sarnia Sting's Nail Yakupov is expected to be drafted first overall in this year's NHL entry draft. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail)
The Sarnia Sting's Nail Yakupov is expected to be drafted first overall in this year's NHL entry draft. (Tim Fraser/Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail)

James Mirtle

Maple Leafs' fall is <br>for the best</br> Add to ...

Another loss. Another night where teams crept up on them in the standings.

And suddenly the Toronto Maple Leafs are closer to having the fourth- or fifth-overall pick in the NHL entry draft than making the postseason.

That is how quickly things can fall apart when you pick up only a measly five points in a month-long freefall.

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Looking back, after a 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 6, the Leafs looked poised for their first playoff berth in eight years.

They had a 28-19-6 record, and heading into a road game in Winnipeg, sat two points back of fourth place in the Eastern Conference and six from the Northeast Division lead.

After 53 games, Toronto was one of the highest-scoring teams in the league and on pace for 96 points.

Fourteen games later, they’re bottoming out.

Entering Thursday’s games, the Leafs were in 24th place in the NHL – meaning they would be picking seventh if the league’s annual entry draft was held a few months early. They were also just two points from falling to 27th, with the Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes all able to pass them in the next few days.

With Toronto losing four players to injury – Joffrey Lupul, Cody Franson, Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong – in its last two games, dropping into a top-five pick now seems more likely than ever.

There’s a silver lining beyond that, too.

Because of the NHL’s draft lottery system, the Leafs would have an 8.1-per-cent chance of picking first overall if they finish with the league’s fifth-worst record. That rises to a 10.7-per-cent chance if they finish with the fourth-worst record.

Which is right about how high their playoff chances are these days.

On the heels of blowing a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh last Wednesday, there is now a growing sense in the fan base that rooting for a better draft pick out of another lost season is the way to go.

Barring being able to select Sarnia Sting star Nail Yakupov first overall, teams drafting in the fourth-to-seventh range in June will have a chance at the likes of Filip Forsberg, Alex Galchenyuk and Radek Faksa.

All three are forwards with size and are likely to be picked in the top 10, with someone like Galchenyuk – a centre who had 83 points in 68 games as Yakupov’s teammate a year ago – an intriguing option for a team needing help down the middle.

History, however, isn’t exactly on the Leafs’ side when it comes to getting a top pick. Toronto has drafted higher than 10th overall only twice in the last 20 years – Luke Schenn (2008) and Nazem Kadri (2009) – and hasn’t picked higher than fifth since drafting Scott Thornton in 1989.

Over that span, the organization has been well-known for either trading its first-rounder (à la the Phil Kessel deal) or going on a late-season run that takes it out of the bottom 10.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, Toronto has had surprisingly poor starts and then a strong record after the all-star (or Olympic) break while missing the postseason every year.

That hasn’t been the trend in 2011-12 – at least so far.

But with only 15 games left, the Leafs will need at least 10 or 11 wins to make the playoffs, something postseason-odds tracker sportsclubstats.com only gives them an 8.3-per-cent chance of accomplishing. (That number doesn’t account for all of their recent injuries, either.)

That’s the cold, hard reality right now for this team: Losing is better than winning.

And any rally short of 89 or 90 points only serves to put the Maple Leafs further from the draft lottery – which may be the only way to find a little salvation in another lost year.

How the Leafs fell

First 53 games

Last 14 games

Record

28-19-6

2-11-1

82-game pace

96

29

Goals per game

3.09

2.36

Goals against

2.87

3.86

Power play

20%

18%

Penalty kill

76%

85%

Shooting percentage

10.6%

7.8%

Save percentage

.907

.873

Shots per game

29.1

30.2

Shots against

30.8

30.5

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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