They’re big. They’re fast. And, over their previous 40 games, they had been the best team in the NHL, fitting right in with a bruising Western Conference.
The Anaheim Ducks had an awful start to the season, but they erased that over a nice three-month run since Christmas, piling up wins on the strength of good goaltending and an impressive, homegrown back end. A lot of nights they still resemble the team that came within a win of making the Stanley Cup final a year ago, dangerous to all.
So when they rolled into Toronto on Thursday, they did so as a great litmus test for a green Maple Leafs team that has been surprising everyone in the NHL of late.
And they lost.
Toronto beat the powerhouse Ducks 6-5 in overtime to improve to 6-2-1 in their past nine games. It’s been arguably their best stretch of the season, and it’s been fuelled by Marlies, with Connor Brown the latest kid to net his first NHL goal in dramatic fashion.
The Ducks are what Toronto aspires to be, and they showed why in this one in scoring four unanswered goals to rally late. But they are impressed with this plucky group.
“I watch a lot of the Leaf games,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, a Toronto kid turned Leafs prospect back in the 1970s. “They work you to death.”
What the Leafs are really working for – on and off the ice – is to get what the Ducks have built, that run of sustained success over many years fuelled by good player procurement. Before the matchup, Leafs rookie William Nylander remarked how he was looking forward to being on the ice with someone such as Ryan Getzlaf to watch and learn, up close, how elite players play.
But there were lessons for the folks in Toronto’s management suite, too.
Despite all the talk of tanking and needing a pile of top-five picks to win, Anaheim has defied that wisdom, making only one pick higher than 10th in the past 10 years (Hampus Lindholm at sixth in 2012). Over that decade, they have been one of the NHL’s top franchises, with more regular-season wins than all but three others (Pittsburgh, San Jose and Detroit) and a Stanley Cup back in 2007.
They are one of a handful of teams that has a great shot at another one this year.
Of late, what’s kept the Ducks competitive – despite a bottom-10 payroll – has been their scouts. Including two current Leafs (Jake Gardiner and Peter Holland), Anaheim dug up 15-plus regular NHLers between the 2008 and 2013 drafts, which is likely the biggest haul in the league despite the fact they were typically picking in the mid-to late portion of the first round.
That sharp scouting is what has separated the Ducks from other declining teams with older stars (Getzlaf and Corey Perry). It’s given them both goaltenders and most of their blueline, as well as centre Rickard Rakell, who has broken out with a 40-point campaign this year.
The cupboard keeps getting stocked, and they keep winning.
“They’re set up pretty good,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “Their back end can move, and they’ve got good goaltending. They’ve got a good hockey club. They’ve been building it for a while, and it looks like a real team.”
It’s a team that offers evidence that, if done properly, the Leafs rebuilding doesn’t need to leave them mired in the league’s basement much longer. Toronto already has far more top 10 picks than the Ducks ever did in Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and whoever they draft this June.
If even two of them can be stars in this league, that’s a solid starting point.
The real key for top scout Mark Hunter and Toronto’s other eyes in the sky will be unearthing gems such as Sami Vatanen (fourth round in 2009) and John Gibson (second round in 2011) late in the draft and making good on picks deeper in the first round, such as the Penguins pick they’ll get from the Phil Kessel trade as long as Pittsburgh makes the postseason.
If Toronto’s late-season rookie auditions have shown anything, it’s that there is also plenty of talent to be found elsewhere, whether that’s in European free agents such as Nikita Soshnikov or cheap-trade pickups such as Zach Hyman.
The Leafs have many advantages over a team like Anaheim, too. Their wealth means they can pay more front office staff and more scouts, have more development staff and strength and conditioning people to build up their prospects, and more investment in analytics to scour every league for hidden talents.
The Leafs should be able to be better than the Ducks, once Brendan Shanahan’s rebuild hits Years 2 and 3 and Anaheim’s big guns begin to decline.
There’s no reason the Leafs need to be bad for much longer to get there. And, given their play of late, maybe they won’t be.Report Typo/Error