Times are tough indeed when the Florida Panthers are showing you the way.
But that's how it looks these days for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Panthers may be last in the NHL in attendance, and they may have as-yet-unresolved financial issues to resolve, with a half-empty building next to a gator-filled swamp in suburban Sunrise. They also have a terrific collection of talent, however, thanks to finishing in the league's basement so frequently of late.
Florida dusted off the Leafs 4-1 on Thursday at the Air Canada Centre, handing the woebegone home side its 36th loss in its past 44 games thanks in part to some impressive contributions from the kids.
The Panthers have had four top three picks in the past five drafts – a total matched by only Edmonton – and the fruits of all those losses are finally starting to show on the ice.
A 66-point team a year ago, Florida is on pace for 92 this season, right bang on the NHL average. More important, the progression of some of its young future stars has been ahead of schedule.
Especially when it comes to defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
Only 18 years old for the season's first four months, the first overall pick from last summer's draft has been nothing short of unbelievable. A question mark to make the team in the fall, Ekblad has been a top pair defenceman all season, logging more than 22 minutes a night and putting up 35 points in 73 games.
The only other defencemen in NHL history to put up more points in a season in which they were 18 for the bulk of it?
One was Phil Housley, in 1983.
The other was Bobby Orr.
Ekblad appears, in other words, to be the next Drew Doughty or P.K. Subban, an all-around superstar at a position where players are increasingly paid $4.5-million plus to simply play in the top four. You can't find talent like that – ever – outside of the draft any more, a single player who can play half a game, have a transformative effect and contend for the Norris Trophy annually.
Florida now has it, for years to come, in Ekblad.
Add in the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau (who opened the scoring Thursday with a beautiful goal) and Aleksander Barkov (who added two assists) and there's three giant pillars – all 21 and under – to build on.
The Leafs aren't there. But they're trying.
The Panthers are hardly a model franchise. They've made the playoffs once in the past 13 years, and it'll take an unlikely hot streak to prevent that from becoming 14 in a couple weeks. They haven't been well run in an era when being well managed is much of the battle.
What they do have is the kind of young core you can lean on, and their upward trajectory has obviously already started with this year's big leap.
It's getting noticed around the league.
"Next year or the year after that, this team is going to surprise a lot," said Panthers newcomer Jaromir Jagr, who has seen some young stars in his days and marvels at the teenagers he's spending time with on the power play. "A lot of teams."
The Leafs need some of that. Yes, they have Morgan Rielly, picked fifth a couple years ago, but he's been the only prospect of note under the age of 24 on the roster all season. William Nylander is coming along in the minors, and this June's pick – likely to be fourth overall – will help, too.
But one of the questions that Toronto's brass will face is this: How long do you have to be bad for before you start the ascent? How many high picks is enough to have the right base of talent to make a go in the other direction?
In Edmonton, the Oilers have missed that window, and the rebuild has become toxic and never-ending. In Florida, it's only now, after four top three picks, becoming something.
Elsewhere around the league, meanwhile, teams such as the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings are finding ways to contend without having ever really bottomed out.
There isn't only one way to go.
It's also worth keeping in mind that tearing down and getting the Ekblads and Taylor Halls is actually the easy part. Timing the bounce back up – and not getting mired in the basement – is what ultimately matters.