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Toronto Maple Leafs’ Garret Sparks makes a save against Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos on Feb. 29. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Garret Sparks makes a save against Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos on Feb. 29. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rebuilding Leafs wise to make moves in weeks prior to NHL trade deadline Add to ...

P.A. Parenteau thought for sure he was a goner.

Bag packed. Mind at ease. Family ready to not see daddy for a couple months as he joined some far-flung playoff team after a successful 60-game run with the Toronto Maple Leafs – during which he had basically resurrected his career.

The call never came.

Parenteau was hardly alone in his surprise on Monday: an impossibly slow NHL trade deadline left a dozen rental players (including two more Leafs, Brad Boyes and Michael Grabner) without new homes on Monday afternoon.

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That lack of activity was only a mild disappointment for the Leafs. GM Lou Lamoriello had wisely beat the market by making five key trades in the weeks before the deadline, shipping out veterans Dion Phaneuf, Shawn Matthias, Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, James Reimer and Daniel Winnik for a nice haul of futures.

In exchange for six players not in their long-term plans, the Leafs landed four second-round picks, two fourth-round picks and two solid prospects in big Swedish winger Tobias Lindberg (a fourth-rounder in 2013) and defenceman Connor Carrick (a fifth-rounder in 2012).

Given that Vancouver was unable to find takers for talented unrestricted free agents such as Dan Hamhuis and Radim Vrbata, this was a good month for the Leafs.

“We’ve done a real nice job of acquiring prospects and picks,” coach Mike Babcock said. “This was our plan. We want to set ourselves up for a long run. We’re not talking about trading guys at the deadline; we’re talking about who we acquired.”

The Leafs made a splash even without making a trade on Monday. They pulled off a ridiculous 18 transactions with the American Hockey League Marlies in sending players back and forth all day as part of an elaborate plan to recall their best prospects all at once while still keeping them eligible to play in the AHL playoffs.

So up came William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman, who were thrown in for their NHL debuts against the Tampa Bay Lightning a few hours later.

The Leafs began this season with a relatively old lineup after signing a pile of stop-gap veterans. Against the Lightning, one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, Toronto dressed 12 players who were 25 and under, including seven who were 22 and under.

It was a curious move given all year the organization preached patience with its young prospects, even as the first-place Marlies stomped the competition in the minors. To bring up the four best young forwards for the final 22 meaningless NHL games is a different strategy than many expected, but there’s some hidden logic to it.

In the case of Nylander and Kapanen, if they play more than nine games, it will burn the first year of their entry-level contracts (ELCs) earlier than otherwise.

Typically that would be considered a bad thing given how inexpensive players are on that first contract. But the Leafs could have designs on bringing the dollar figure down on their second deals. Fewer NHL games played on their ELCs would help accomplish that.

Even if that fancy accounting doesn’t pan out, the recalls will at least add some intrigue to the end of the Leafs season. How Nylander performs in this quarter-season audition, for example, will give management an idea of how far he is from being a dependable top-two centre. And how the others fare will determine whether or not they’re pencilled in for NHL roster spots next fall.

Where you can really see the Leafs long-term thinking is in some of the contracts they took back in trades over the past few weeks. Next season, Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Jared Cowen (who they intend to buy out in the summer) are in line to make more than $14-million combined.

Add that to the $17-million owed to Joffrey Lupul, Jonathan Bernier, Tyler Bozak and Stephane Robidas, and suddenly the Leafs 2016-17 cap situation is a bit of a mess.

Manageable, but still a mess.

It’s the year after that where things clear up, and at that point, the roster can be turned over entirely to players added by new president Brendan Shanahan’s regime.

By then, they hope, Nylander will be a star and will have a lot more help, including whoever they draft in the top five this June.

“It gives us the flexibility to do what’s necessary,” Lamoriello said of the recent deals. “We have the ability to acquire players. We have the ability to sign players. We have that room that’s necessary to do what we need to do.”

Next year’s Leafs will be younger, but it’s up for debate how much better they’ll be. The pain Babcock so famously talked about when he was hired will probably last another 100 games or so, at which point management will have close to a blank roster to work with.

The Leafs are hoping all those picks and prospects added in February are part of what fills it.

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