Why Toronto Winning the First Pick In the NHL Draft Is So Important

As the NHL playoffs move through the second round, the absence of the seven Canadian teams has been palpable. Sure, it's exciting to watch Ovi and Sid the Kid square off against each other, and seeing John Tavares carry the New York Islanders to their first playoff series victory in 23 years was nothing short of astounding. But, in the background, there are 14 general managers who are looking ahead to June 24, when the NHL Draft will take place at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY. None of them are more anxious to get their team back on a winning track than the Toronto Maple Leafs' Lou Lamoriello and  team president Brendan Shanahan. After all, as the Leafs go, so does the rest of Canadian hockey.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, after 49 Stanley Cup-less years, and 31 years removed from a number one pick (left winger/defenseman Wendel Clark in 1985), were lucky enough to snag the first pick in this year's draft, as if finishing with the league's worst record was going to preclude them from getting their hands on a top player. I won't pretend to understand the convoluted lottery system the NHL employs to choose the drafting order, but I do know that if the Leafs didn't wind up in the top spot, there would have been a reckoning so profound that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would have likely had to declare martial law in Ontario.

The reason why the Leafs are poised to cash in and finally turn a corner is because this year's top prospect, 18-year-old Scottsdale, AZ native Auston Matthews is thought to be a centerman with tremendous potential. I'll skip the comparisons to existing players and instead point out that he fits the bill in terms of size, quickness, and offensive ability. At 6'2", 194 lbs., he's been playing in Switzerland for the Swiss National League's ZSC Lions. He finished the 2015-16 season with 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games. Before that, he spent two years on the U.S. National Development team, where he racked up a total of 166 points (79 goals and 87 assists) in 104 games. Pretty impressive for a kid who has never skated on a sheet of Canadian junior league ice.

It is all but a foregone conclusion that the Leafs will pin their hopes for the future on Matthews, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on an American kid who likely has no idea what he's getting into. He will probably be in the starting lineup come October, and heralded as the foundation for a new era of winning in a city where the majority of fans who remember the team's last championship are either already collecting, or close to qualifying for their old age pensions from the Canadian government.

On July 1, a mere seven days after the draft, there will be a rather juicy crop of unrestricted free agents available for the picking. At the top of the pile sits Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who, if he doesn't sign a contract with the Bolts, stands to be courted heavily by the Leafs. Some hockey writers believe Stamkos, 26, will now have little to no interest in playing for his hometown team (Stamkos is from Markham ON, a town just north of Toronto) now that the Leafs have the ability to draft Matthews. Moreover, Stamkos has an extended recovery ahead of him after he underwent surgery last month for a blood clot that formed in his right arm. Barring further complications, Stamkos can still have at least a decade left as a number one center, but he might not want to share the spotlight with an 18-year-old who has his whole career ahead of him.

Perhaps the Leafs' two biggest aces in the hole are general manager Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock. As he had for years with the New Jersey Devils, Lamoriello has shown he can gather the right pieces and build teams that are capable of consistent success, and perhaps a championship or three. Babcock has the market cornered on consistency: he took the Detroit Red Wings to the playoffs for ten straight seasons, winning the Cup with them in 2008. He also has two Olympic gold medals to his credit, coaching Team Canada to victory in 2010 and 2014. If team president Shanahan can stay out of the way of these two talented gentlemen, the Leafs might indeed finally be turning a corner.

I think I speak for all Leafs fans when I say that right now, their team's future looks to be the brightest of all of Canada's NHL teams. It might take a few seasons to get there, but when they get there, it's gonna be YUGE!

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