Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently in a playoff position. Yes, their rebuild is probably ahead of schedule. No, they are not contenders yet.
That, essentially, was Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello’s mantra as he guided the organization through the NHL’s trade deadline on Wednesday.
That’s not to say that if the Maple Leafs get into the playoffs, they couldn’t surprise a team or two. It just means that their unexpected success is a bonus. Unlike the Washington Capitals, who made a big splash on Tuesday by acquiring defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, the Buds are not in win-or-bust mode.
In fighting their way into playoff contention through 62 games, it wouldn’t have been fair to the group to strip away pending unrestricted free agents like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick — minor but vital pieces on this year’s team — in return for a draft pick here or there. In fact, Lamoriello asserted his intention was to reward the group with some reinforcements for the stretch run, so long as it didn’t throw a wrench into the master plan.
Could Toronto have used an upgrade on defence? Yes. Would they have liked to add Shattenkirk? Absolutely. Would the price have been worth it? At this point: not a chance.
But even as teams like the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers — clubs the Maple Leafs are directly competing with in the standings — made moves to upgrade, Toronto was never tempted to waver from its long-term goals.
“Absolutely not,” Lamoriello said, shortly after the trade deadline passed on Wednesday. “We’re not going to get off track on what we’ve set out to do and that is to establish a franchise that has the ability to sustain its competitiveness over a period of time. We did not want to make any transactions that would get in the way of the development of our players.”
Picking up Brian Boyle from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday gave the Leafs some much-needed depth up the middle and filled the role of fourth-line centre, which the team had lacked consistency in for most of the season. Since 2011, nobody has played more playoff games than the 100 Boyle has skated in. The cost was negligible in minor league forward Byron Froese and a second-round pick.
On Wednesday, the Maple Leafs added winger Eric Fehr, who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, minor league defenseman Steve Oleksy and a fourth-round pick in exchange for long-toiling defenseman Frank Corrado, who spent the majority of the last season and a half as a healthy scratch.
The hope is that they will add depth and, more importantly, some much needed playoff experience to a core — Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitchell Marner, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and others — desperately lacking it.
“We did not want to make any transactions that would get in the way of the development of our players,” Lamoriello said. “They will not be taking away from anything of the development and the progress of the future.”
Clearly, President Brendan Shanahan, Lamoriello and the rest of the Maple Leafs brain trust realize that it’s the young core that will ultimately carry the franchise wherever it ends up going. First, though, they need to learn what it takes to win down the stretch.
“If something didn’t happen, we would have been fine,” Lamoriello said. “But we had the opportunity to acquire Brian Boyle and it’s been well-written what he brings to us at this point. [On Wednesday] we picked up Eric Fehr who also is a mature individual who has had the experience of winning and I think the both of them will add something to the young players we have in this lineup.”
Remember: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane didn’t make the playoffs in their rookie seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve since won what feels like all of the Stanley Cups. Sidney Crosby didn’t make the playoffs with the Penguins his first year, either. He’s got two rings on his fingers in 2017.
It takes time to learn to win in the NHL, even for all-time greats. Anytime a team gets as close to the playoffs as the Leafs are and misses, it’s disappointing. Even when you aren’t expected to be there, it hurts. But it wouldn’t be devastating the way it would if the Capitals come up short of a Stanley Cup yet again or if the San Jose Sharks fall shy one more time. For those teams, their window is closing quickly. For the Maple Leafs, they’ve only just pulled up the blinds. They haven’t even opened the window yet.
“[The playoffs are] something we all strive for but I think the most important thing right now is just staying on the course, not thinking about the end result,” Lamoriello said. “Continue to do the things they’ve been doing and let that take care of itself. What we’ve done right here is give them, that is our younger players, an opportunity to be around some people [Fehr and Boyle] who have had the experience and help develop that culture of winning.”
Twenty games left, kids. You’ve got some help. Now let’s see what you can do with it.