With the NHL’s trade deadline on the horizon, the Toronto Maple Leafs have begun the process of moving anything and everything of value, usually getting draft picks in return. Yesterday it was Shawn Matthias being sent to Colorado for and AHL player and a fourth round pick in 2016. Today it was Roman Polak and Nick Spaling going to San Jose for Raffi Torres (who will be sent to the AHL) and second round picks in the 2017 and 2018 drafts. I would say that both moves are very good for a team in the process of rebuilding. They’re also causing me to have flashbacks of the early days of the Oilers rebuild.
With the Matthias trade the Leafs now have an extra pick in the first, third, fourth, fifth, and six rounds of the draft this summer, and they still have all seven of their picks as well. That’s twelve picks in total, this just a year after they selected nine players in the draft. Looking back a couple years, the Oilers kicked of their rebuild by taking eleven players in the 2010 draft, including Taylor Hall, and then nine more the following year, beginning with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Leafs obviously won’t have back-to-back first overall picks but they do still have a very good chance of coming away with one, and even without a first overall selection the path taken by the two teams is still quite similar.
The Oilers rebuild hasn’t exactly gone according to plan though, and six years later the team is still in the NHL’s basement. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the quick summary is this: They’ve done a terrible job of acquiring NHL level talent to address immediate roster needs, and at the draft they’ve made a number of very poor decisions which were followed by even worse player development. Of the 20 players that the Oilers took in those first two years half have played in the NHL but three - David Musil, Tyler Bunz, and Curtis Hamilton - were only here for a cup of coffee, combining to play just six games with the Oilers. These are the other seven:
- Taylor Hall - 359 games played
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - 304 games played
- Tobias Rieder - 130 games played (was traded to Phoenix for Kale Kessy)
- Martin Marincin - 125 games played (was traded to Toronto for a pick that was then flipped for Eric Gryba)
- Oscar Klefbom - 107 games played
- Brandon Davidson - 55 games played
- Tyler Pitlick - 27 games played
20 picks, including seven in the first two rounds of the draft, and the Oilers managed to turn that into four NHL players and a 6/7 defenceman. Wow. Just wow. Short of drafting a dead guy, or Taro Tsujimoto’s kid, it would have been tough to do worse. There’s really no nice way to put it, that is simply a god awful draft record. And it’s a record that should serve as a warning to other teams, acquiring all the draft picks (remember "bullets for Stu"?) doesn’t guarantee a rosy future, building an NHL team is just a wee bit more complicated than that.
The good news for Leafs fans is that there is no reason to expect their team’s management to do as poorly as the Oilers did at the draft table or when it comes to developing those players in the years that follow. So already they’re a step ahead of the Oilers. And as crazy as it might sound, I’m happy for them. After the last decade of Oilers hockey I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. That’s not to say that I want the Leafs to win a Stanley Cup anytime soon, in fact I’d be very happy to die, many years from now, having never seen the Leafs win a Cup. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they were a competitive team, one that’s worth watching more often than not. Their fans deserve at least that much.
So which team will make the transition from basement dweller to actual NHL team first? With the Leafs in the early stages of their rebuild and the Oilers just barely out of the starting blocks it’s an interesting question. The answer should be the Oilers. They’ve already acquired a significant amount of NHL talent including Connor McDavid, and the move into a new arena next year should finally put pressure on the team’s management to make winning now a priority. But the Oilers also have very little prospect depth which will limit Peter Chiarelli’s options as he tries to round out the Oilers roster.
I hate to say it, but if the Leafs do this right they could beat the Oilers to competitive. With no terrible contracts on the books today, they’ve put themselves in a great spot to take advantage of teams pinched by a flat or even shrinking cap. And given their financial resources they’ll be able to get very creative when making trades, something that they’ve already been doing. Throw in a potentially deep prospect pool and suddenly the light at the end of their tunnel doesn’t look so far away. It’s amazing what a couple smart people in the right positions can do.
In the end, this race to competitive will probably come down to which team ices a roster with a legitimate top pairing defenceman first. That’s the single biggest piece missing from the Oilers roster and something the Leafs are lacking right now as well; it’s also the piece that would have the biggest impact on each team’s on ice performance. All the draft picks, all the trades, it’ll probably come down to a single roster position. For the sake of my sanity, I hope that whoever that player is, that it isn’t someone the Leafs draft with one of their twelve picks this year, because that guy is still five years away and I can’t handle another five years of wandering the desert like this.