Historic draft weekend helps Maple Leafs inch closer to goal of 'upper echelon' status
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock watches play during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins in Boston on Feb. 2, 2016. (Charles Krupa/The Canadian Press)
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, June 25, 2016 5:07PM EDT
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Taking part in his second draft as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock couldn't help but notice where his team was forced to sit on the draft floor in Buffalo: up near the front with all the worst teams from the previous season.
He preferred a spot at the back with the winners. Auston Matthews, the Leafs' first No. 1 overall pick in more than three decades, will certainly help in that process.
While the club added a potential No. 1 netminder earlier in the week and 10 other prospects to a growing pool of youthful talent, it was the selection of Matthews that won't soon be forgotten. Babcock described the product of the U.S. National Development Team Program as having the size, drive and ability of a "championship-type centre."
The Leafs haven't had a standout centre since Mats Sundin, who joined Toronto in 1994 and spent 13 seasons with the team. The Leafs also haven't had a Calder Trophy winner in 50 years.
"I think more than anything, what we see when we talk to him is just someone who loves the game of hockey who obviously had to work very hard as a youngster to find hockey," said team president Brendan Shanahan, referring to Matthews' minor hockey background in Arizona.
In a move rife with symbolism, the Leafs also unveiled their reinvented sweater moments after the Matthews pick. It was a fresh take on the older look of a more successful era.
The crest is intentionally larger than past editions, another emphasis on the importance of team over any one individual.
The Leafs have been immersed in a rebuilding process since Shanahan was named president in April 2014. The team added general manager Lou Lamoriello and Babcock last summer, the latter joining the club on a lucrative eight-year deal.
Shanahan's strategy has hinged on the draft and development of prospects. Matthews now fronts a pool of young talent that includes Mitch Marner -- who led all OHL players in post-season scoring -- and William Nylander, who had 13 points in his first 22 NHL games.
Toronto's roster will likely be brimming with speed, skill, youth and also inexperience next season, the early dividends of the so-called "Shana-plan."
"I think we'll be really exciting," Babcock said. "I think you go fast and I think sometimes you go to the wrong places. But that's a way better group than we started with last year. To me that's what it's about, it's about progress."
Unlike last year, when the Leafs drafted a number of small, skilled types, this year's crop of prospects had plenty of size.
Beyond the six-foot-two Matthews, Toronto selected six-foot-four Russian winger Yegor Korshkov, six-foot-three American goaltender Joseph Woll, six-foot-four defenceman J.D. Greenway as well as Keaton Middleton, a six-foot-six 235-pound defender from the Saginaw Spirit, and six-foot-five blue-liner Nicolas Mattinen of the London Knights.
Korshkov, the 31st overall pick, came at the recommendation of Evgeni Namestikov, a Russian coach and occasional scout of the Leafs responsible for pushing Toronto to sign impressive rookie Nikita Soshnikov last March.
"To me, it was no-brainer," said director of player of personnel Mark Hunter. "He's got to get better of course, got to get stronger, (but) we think he's got a good upside."
Hunter described him as a big, strong talent with skill, someone who impressed at the world junior championship.
The Leafs also selected Regina centre Adam Brooks -- the WHL's leading scorer last season -- along with American defenceman Jack Walker and Russian wingers Vladimir Bobylev and Nikolai Chebykin.
Brooks, a 20-year-old centre, lands with an NHL team after being passed over at the draft twice before. He led the Pats with 120 points in 78 games.
Another intriguing talent was Toronto's other second-round pick, Carl Grundstrom, a 17-year-old Swede whom Hunter compared to feisty winger Leo Komarov.
The Leafs rounded out a memorable weekend by acquiring former first-round pick Kerby Rychel from Columbus for defenceman Scott Harrington and a conditional 2017 pick. Rychel, a 40-goal scorer at the junior level, bounced between the AHL and NHL this past season and often clashed with the Blue Jackets' brass.
Toronto swung a trade for 26-year-old Frederik Andersen earlier in the week, betting on his future as No. 1 goaltender.
However, this week will be remembered for the selection of Matthews. He should help the Leafs inch closer to their goal of becoming an "upper echelon" team, as Babcock described it.
And, of course, he may help them get a seat at the back of the draft too.