By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 26) — The Toronto Maple Leafs have promised to become traditional with respect to building a Stanley Cup–caliber team. No more quick fixes. No more first–rounders traded. But, there is still much about the Maple Leafs that is un–traditional. The club repeatedly hires from the bottom up — first a coach; then a general manager; later, a chief executive officer. And, now, it has chosen to buck the traditional mode of hockey construction — from the goal outward.
It is difficult to criticize the Leafs for choosing Mitch Marner with the No. 4 selection in this year’s draft. Marner was the fourth–rated forward and the opening picks went as scripted: Edmonton taking Connor McDavid, Buffalo, Jack Eichel and Arizona, Dylan Strome. The Leafs followed suit with Marner, who is expected to be an elite point–producer in the National Hockey League. In making the move, however, Toronto passed on the top–rated defenfeman in the draft. And only time will tell if the club rues the day it overlooked Boston College blue–liner Noah Hanifin.
It seems rather clear the Leafs were comfortable with the choice of Marner — from London of the Ontario Hockey League. In the moments leading to their selection, co–GM’s Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas were shown on Sportsnet sharing a laugh around the Leafs table — like a couple of beer–leaguers at a saloon. There were no last–minute debates or conferencing among Hunter, Dubas or president Brendan Shanahan.
Without question, it was Marner all the way.
LONG–SUFFERING FANS OF THE MAPLE LEAFS ARE HOPING THAT MITCH MARNER AND MIKE BABCOCK CAN POINT THEIR TEAM IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES
And, it could turn out to be a brilliant selection.
The Maple Leafs haven’t chosen such a highly–rated forward since ushering Wendel Clark out of Saskatoon, first overall in 1985, though Clark was primarily a defenceman in junior. Before that, it was Darryl Sittler from — yes, London — of the OHA in 1970. Clark developed into one of the most beloved players in franchise history with his combination of scoring and brawn. Sittler went on to become the leading point–man in team history before getting leapfrogged by Mats Sundin. Marner will arrive at Air Canada Centre with similar encumbrance; bearing the hope and faith of the NHL’s most resilient fans.
Potentially, there are two red flags.
The first involves drafting a smallish shooter ahead of a big, minutes–eating defenceman. The traditional hockey blueprint would have suggested otherwise. The second is more ominous: That Hunter favored Marner over Hanifin out of inescapable loyalty and familiarity, having grown with the player during their years together in London. If this was, before all else, a form of hockey nepotism — and Hanifin becomes more of an impact player in Carolina than Marner in Toronto — June 26, 2015 will not be the nearly such a watershed moment for the Blue and White.
On the flip–side, Mike Babcock has been blessed with elite, gifted forwards during his NHL coaching career — mainly Paul Kariya in Anaheim; Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit. Marner could become his Toronto ace. Babcock also, you might recall, had the greatest European player of all–time on the blue–line: Nicklas Lidstrom. So, I’m not convinced ol’ Mike was enthralled with the choice of Marner over Hanifin. But, he’ll likely enjoy coaching the young forward’s skill.
Let’s re–visit this moment three years from now.
THE SKY OVER MID–TOWN TORONTO ON NHL DRAFT NIGHT 2015: DIVIDED — AS MANY LEAF FANS LIKELY ARE OVER THE SELECTION OF MITCH MARNER AHEAD OF NOAH HANIFIN.
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