With a far more successful than expected 2016-17 season behind them, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock set about putting the brakes on Leafs Nation’s expectations.
“We want to make the playoffs,” was Babcock’s answer on Tuesday at the team’s farewell media session when asked about the Leafs’ goal for next season.
“I look at the teams that missed [the playoffs] this year that are really good teams that plan on being in next year, and it’s going to be a battle for us,” Babcock said. “To think we’re at the level where it’s automatic for us, it’s not for us.”
Both Babcock and Lamoriello have now been in Toronto long enough to know the fan base that embraced Leafs president Brendan Shanahan’s teardown of the roster is now so fired up by the Leafs’ quick progress – from last place overall in the NHL one year ago to almost knocking off the best team in the league in the playoffs – that it is now thinking conference final or else for next season. The trouble is, building a perennial contender in the NHL is not a straight line upward.
The Leafs quickly managed the easy part of any rebuild, going from doormat to playoff contender. But now the hard part begins, going from playoff contender to Stanley Cup contender.
So, while both Lamoriello and Babcock stressed the Leafs need to get better, they also said they have to stick to the slow-but-sure progress called for in the Shanaplan.
“It’s a step,” Lamoriello said of making the playoffs and almost knocking off the Washington Capitals. “It’s going to get more difficult. Teams are going to look at you a little different – the way they approach you. Teams are going to know your tendencies as a player and how they can stop you. So there’s a lot that has to transpire. That’s why it’s just a step.”
Also complicating matters are the position the Leafs need to upgrade the most and the expansion draft in mid-June to stock the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Lamoriello referred to the expansion draft as a “wild card” in his plans to upgrade the roster.
The top priority for the Leafs is getting a top-four defenceman. The trouble is, there are at least a dozen other teams looking for the same thing and only three, perhaps four, sure sellers. The free-agent market has slim pickings. And chances are the teams deepest in defencemen, the Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild, will be more interested in making side deals with Knights GM George McPhee to keep him from taking a prize prospect.
With that many buyers and that few sellers, it’s a sure thing the price for a top-four defenceman will at least be equal to the one paid last year by the Edmonton Oilers for Adam Larsson: forward Taylor Hall, the first overall pick in the 2010 entry draft.
While there was an acceleration in the plan in late February when Lamoriello traded a second-round draft pick to get veteran centre Brian Boyle for a playoff push, caution remains the watchword.
“I think we created expectations amongst our fans and our city, I understand that,” Babcock said. “But [Shanahan], Lou [Lamoriello] and myself have a plan here to build a program. That’s what we’re going to do.
“This isn’t going to deviate from anything we’re doing whatsoever. We’re just going to keep building the program.”
Lamoriello stressed getting better from within. On defence, that means veteran Roman Polak, who sustained a broken foot in Game 2 of the Capitals series and becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, might have played his way to a contract offer. That is less certain for Matt Hunwick, also a pending free agent.
Boyle said he would like to come back but “I’m not sure where everybody stands.”
For the few veterans on the team who were around for the destruction of the previous version of the Leafs, it is nice just to know most players will be back.
“That’s the thing, the sense of security knowing guys are going to be sticking around, knowing they’re not going to be unloading everybody,” centre Nazem Kari said. “That sense of comfort is huge among players. That’s the worst thing about the game, personally making friends with somebody, seeing him every day and then at the drop of a hat he’s gone.”
Some of the Leafs may be headed to the world championship to play for their countries – defenceman Morgan Rielly and forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander – but not all. Auston Matthews said he is too “exhausted” from a long season that started with the World Cup of Hockey to play for Team USA, while defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who came back from a concussion to play against the Caps, was told by Leafs’ doctors they would not clear him to play for Russia. Goaltender Frederik Andersen (Denmark) is also taking a pass.Report Typo/Error