Leafs Still Bucking Convention

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.

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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.

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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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11 comments on “Leafs Still Bucking Convention

  1. Marner is a transformitive pick for this team Howard. I’ve watched him closely for years. Known him since he was a little tyke shooting pucks around at his father’s hockey school. He plays the full 200 feet of the ice and his ability to see the game 3 steps ahead is second to none. The Leafs haven’t gotten their hands on a pick like this in decades.

  2. Has anybody on here actually watched this kid play? I have and all I will say is this. Imagine if the Leafs had drafted Doug Gilmour as an 18 year old, but Dougie was already close to the level he was at in his heyday. That’s what the Leafs got Friday night!

  3. I have a feeling this won’t be the only draft in the next couple of years where the Leafs have a high draft pick. Perhaps they find their next defensive building block next year. If they felt they’ve drafted the best player available, then good on them.

    Howard, any thought on whether the NYR would entertain a trade of Kessel for Nash? Nash has been a dog in the playoffs and I’m wondering if Sather would like to mix it up by seeing if another elite sniper might be able to put them over the top and change the Rangers fortunes.

    1. George: I don’t think the Leafs are looking for a player like Nash right now. If they trade Kessel, they’ll ask for a first-round pick and a good prospect. Nash is better for a team further ahead in development.

  4. I have to say this: D-men don’t always work out as projected, for whatever reason. Many example of that in the past, Luke Schenn the most recent LEAFS past. Sometimes they just don’t develop into high quality d-men, and perhaps they weighed the pro’s and con’s, and it came down to not skill or familiarity but rather CHARACTER. They do those interviews and the Leafs really want the right people (competitors and character) on their team moving forward. Maybe Marner fits that bill more than Hanifin.

  5. Talking about defensemen, I was surprised to learn that Boston traded Dougie Hamilton to Calgary. Now, if the Leafs wanted to really buck convention, why didn’t they pull off this deal?? A top 4 defense of Phaneuf, Hamilton, Gardiner, and Rielly would be a championship-contender caliber defensive corps. Hamilton can take over the offensive duties and Dion could concentrate on being a “shutdown” guy. By the way do you think the Leafs might go after Mike Ribeiro?

  6. What is more valuable the 4th best rated forward in draft or the #1 rated Defenceman? I hope he works out but I was afraid they were going to screw this up as they unfortunately have.

  7. Solid points made here, and though I can see why your points should be taken into consideration I think you forgot to discuss one thing.

    Can Morgan Reilly develop into a number-1 d man?

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