TORONTO (Mar. 15) — Lou Lamoriello made it clear last week that he has no qualms about burning through a year of entry–level contractual authority over William Nylander. As such, and though it appears somewhat wasteful, the Toronto Maple Leafs No. 1 prospect will remain in the National Hockey League beyond his nine–game tryout limit, which concludes tonight against Tampa Bay at the Air Canada Centre.
This is hardly a life–and–death issue. It simply indicates that Nylander will remain under an entry–level boundary for the next two years rather than three; the Leafs having to sign him more lucratively as a restricted free agent after the 2017–18 season. Same applies to Nikita Soshnikov. Of course, with the Steven Stamkos conjecture becoming more rampant by the week, who knows how much salary–cap leverage the Leafs may have in three years? Apparently, it isn’t a major concern. Team president Brendan Shanahan, Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock concur that the No. 1 priority — right now — is auditioning the club’s top prospects for the remainder of this season and then returning them to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League for the Calder Cup tournament.
The plan may be sound with respect to jump–starting the NHL careers of Nylander, Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and others — none of whom will feel out of sorts at training camp next September. It could, however, come at quite a cost to the team this summer. As I’ve written here before, there is virtually no logic to supplementing the Leafs roster with enthusiasm and skill for the final quarter of this long–lost season (why not return the top youngsters to the Marlies and fill out the Leafs line–up with second–tier AHL players?). While the elite guys are hardly lighting up the scoreboard, their presence has boosted the club to the tune of five points in the past four games. Just when it appeared the Leafs would continue spiraling into the NHL basement, there is once again the potential to finish above 30th place by season’s end. Which, as we know, will only hinder the team’s percentage–odds of landing the No. 1 pick at the June draft in Buffalo.
WILLIAM NYLANDER ISN’T HELPING THE LEAFS STAY COMFORTABLY IN 30th PLACE IN THE NHL.
In my view, this poses a greater risk than torching a year of entry–level restriction. If the Leafs finish last in the overall standings, they are guaranteed a top–four selection in June — thereby assuring (for argument’s sake) that one of Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi or Matthew Tkachuk (ranked 1–4 by TSN’s Bob McKenzie at mid–season) joins the Blue and White. And, from all I’ve heard, the Leafs would do very well with any of them. Thirtieth place also brings with it a 20 percent lottery chance of landing the No. 1 draft pick. That figure drops to 13.5% for the 29th–place club and 11.5% for the team finishing 28th.
Heading into action tonight, the Leafs trail 29th–place Edmonton by four points (57–61) but have a ridiculous four games in hand on the Oilers. One game will be made up with Tampa here in town and the Oilers idle. But, the margin becomes four again tomorrow night with the Leafs idle and Edmonton hosting St. Louis. Despite a recent surge, the Oilers have proven historically adept at sticking close to that No. 30 position. Calgary and Winnipeg are six points up on the Leafs (with 63 apiece) — Toronto having one game in hand on each. The Flames visit the Air Canada Centre next Monday in a rather atypical “four–pointer.”
The Maple Leaf brain–trust seems content and happy with the youngsters toiling away. Still, it would be an immeasurable waste to move past even one team in the overall standings.
IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO TODAY…
I went through my collection of THE HOCKEY NEWS and fetched the edition from two decades ago — Mar. 15, 1996. The long–rumored trade of Wayne Gretzky from Los Angeles to St. Louis had finally materialized and was all the rage, as you’ll see in these images. Gretzky appeared in only 18 regular–season games with the Blues toward the end of the 1995–96 schedule. He then helped St. Louis eliminate the Maple Leafs (coached by “Nimrod” Nick Beverley) in six games of an opening–round playoff series before losing to Detroit in Round 2 on a rather legendary slap–shot by Steve Yzerman in overtime of Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena. Gretzky had two goals and 16 points in his 13 playoff matches that spring. He signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers for 1996–97 and wound up his unprecedented career at Madison Square Garden (against Pittsburgh) on Apr. 18, 1999. Here, contents from THE HOCKEY NEWS of Mar. 15, 1996: