When a team has a rich history of success followed by decades of disappointment, they become the league’s punchline. A joke so easy to make, some even start to sympathize with their plight – just see the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox, who fans cheered for to dethrone the mighty Yankees and get back to their previous glory.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of these teams. Almost universally hated at one point, they’re now just one of the bottom-feeders, and an afterthought in many fan’s minds. But since Brendan Shanahan took over in April of 2014, the team has had a clear (if sometimes ineffective) plan to tear down the culture and history of the last fifty years, and replace it with a new mentality.
The Leafs ended up at the very bottom of the standings last year, but many believe this was part of the plan. Auston Matthews was the prize, and the team can now start to head back in the right direction, with an ultimate goal of raising the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967, and 14th in team history.
Now, as they head into their centennial season and celebrate the past greats that have donned the blue and white, the team will look for even a modicum of improvement. Matthews will help, as he looks like a lock to be a star forward in the NHL as soon as next year. He’s already playing on team North America despite never hitting the ice as a professional in NA.
They’ve built an elite prospect pool, that includes Mitch Marner and William Nylander, two blue-chippers that can support Matthews and fellow star Morgan Rielly in the resurrection of one of the leagues worst current franchises.
But in what might be their greatest accomplishment, the Shanahan-led front office has convinced a Toronto market – that is usually one of the harshest in the league – to buy into a rebuild in a way never seen before. When nine players made their debut all at once for the Maple Leafs last year, instead of disgust, fans embraced the rookie mistakes and pointed out the encouraging moments.
One of the problems, however, is that they’re not the only team in the Atlantic division to be “doing it the right way”. Buffalo, one of Toronto’s biggest rivals due to their geographic proximity, is following almost the same blueprint to turn around a once proud franchise. Their team has just as many (if not more) elite level prospects/young players, and is trying to create the same winning mentality.
For the Maple Leafs, this may sound like a broken record. They’ve tried rebuilds before, at least for a little while. What they haven’t had, since the Pat Quinn-led, pre-salary cap powerhouses (that still never got all that close to a Stanley Cup), is this level of talent. Matthews, Rielly, Marner, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk all represent all-star level talent. It’ll be up to Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock to keep the team on this path, and really complete the rebuild.