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Hockey Mirtle: Leafs preaching patience as the rebuild begins in earnest

Mike Babcock told you there would be pain.

You believed him, of course. Then again you wanted the kind of pain the respected coach seemed to be talking about – the kind that would see all those underperforming, no-good Toronto Maple Leafs punted out the door of the Air Canada Centre with nothing but a "Will Play for Food" sign.

It hasn't happened.

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It may not – not in the near future, anyway.

And that, in its own weird way, may be its own kind of pain for Leafs fans who are tired of this group of players.

The Leafs head into free agency on Wednesday without much turnover on a roster that finished fourth from the bottom in the NHL last season. They have nine forwards, seven defencemen and two goalies that were there a year ago, provided they get the three restricted free agents signed.

That means $25-million (U.S.) in salary – more than a third of their cap space – dedicated to captain Dion Phaneuf, leading scorer Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak, the veteran core that many in Toronto believed would be dynamited well before July 1.

Two weeks after the Stanley Cup was given out in Chicago, they're still there. The rumour is most will be staying, with interest on the trade market tepid at best.

As a result, other teams around the league, and fans in the Greater Toronto Area, are wondering what on earth the Maple Leafs are doing. Where is the deconstruction that was promised? Where's the pain?

President Brendan Shanahan has cautioned again and again that it is going to take incredible patience to rebuild the Leafs, especially in this market, which has the attention span of a gnat.

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At the moment, the Leafs are trying to wait out the market, watching as big pieces such as Brandon Saad are moved in massive deals (as he was to Columbus late Tuesday) and hoping they benefit from the fallout.

The fallout in this case? The Penguins missed out on Saad, their preferred option for help on Sidney Crosby's wing, so they move on. Potentially on to someone like Kessel.

The Leafs are not going to be good next season, but in a sense that buys them some freedom.

They can take back junk salary in a deal such as the rumoured one with Pittsburgh, gladly accepting Chris Kunitz and Rob Scuderi as long as a talented young player comes with them.

They can also experiment in the free-agent market. The Leafs appear to have two strategies there.

  1. Look at young players – primarily forwards, given how many bodies they have on defence after adding Martin Marincin – who can be signed for a reasonable dollar value for three to five years and be part of the solution, taking the roles of Kessel, Lupul and others whenever the bloodletting does begin. Michael Frolik is a potential option in this category, although the Leafs could get priced out there. Players such as Cody Hodgson, Shawn Matthias and Erik Condra could be as well.
  2. Look at stopgaps, like they did with Dan Winnik and Mike Santorelli last year, bringing in value players on one-year deals and flipping them for picks at the trade deadline. Those likely come after waiting out the July 1 frenzy.

The rebuild is in that. It was in what the Leafs did at the draft, acquiring extra picks and a young defenceman (Marincin) who can play in their top six next season.

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What it likely will not look like is the scorched-earth scenarios that Buffalo and Edmonton went through. This isn't going to be a 50-point team next season.

Leafs management won't come out and say it, but they believe the pain Babcock is talking about doesn't have to be nearly that absolute for the team to become a contender. They believe that Mark Hunter is a good enough bird dog and Kyle Dubas (aided by his team) is a good enough analytical mind that they'll find their share of hidden gems and win their share of trades.

The Leafs will probably move Kessel in the coming months for a package that includes a good young player. They can also easily dump a Lupul or a Bozak without much in return.

But they've picked high in three of the past four drafts – fifth, eighth and fourth over all – and have a minor-league franchise that appears to be on the rise. The prospect cupboard isn't as bare as it was two or three years ago; there's the start of a foundation there.

The Leafs still intend to get very young. They still intend to be a team built through drafting and development. And patience still applies.

Especially when it comes to the more difficult aspects of the teardown, which is the phase the Leafs are working their way through now. What they get back is more important than when they pull the trigger, even if the audience is growing restless.

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Next year, after all, is a writeoff, a season entirely in service to 2017-18 and beyond.

So there's going to be pain, all right. It'll be in the waiting. And in the hoping that doing things a little bit differently – in the front office and in the rebuild – pays off.

It's already started.

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