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Leafs Fans see “What Could Have Been” as Edmonton visits Toronto

The Toronto Maple Leafs have built sustained playoff appearances around their draft lottery win. Visiting Edmonton show the negative "what could have been."

The Edmonton Oilers got a year head start on their rebuild, but have continously failed to take the next step towards success. Maple Leaf fans, on the other hand, have felt progressive success and with the Oilers in town tonight will be reminded that the rebuild could have gone much worse.

It felt like the Leafs missed the boat when the Edmonton Oilers card was pulled in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. A year later they would get their long-term superstar center in Auston Matthews and the race was on; who would win the battle of the rebuilds, Toronto vs. Edmonton.

Since then, the Leafs have made the NHL playoffs in two consecutive seasons, both first-round exits, with a third all but confirmed for this season. Edmonton? Well, they lost out in the second round in 2016/17 and haven’t been back, with the 2018/19 playoffs a long shot.

What’s happened and what’s been the difference? Two organizational systems show the different, one built for the long term and the other a simplistic and idealist system destined for failure.

Why Toronto Succeeded Organizationally

The Leafs were ready to take everything down to the studs and start over, the foreman for the project? Brenden Shanahan. The Leafs brought in the NHL Hall of Famer to run their team as the President, overseeing all hockey operations moving forward. He brought with him NHL experience on both the playing and business side.

Immediately, Kyle Dubas was hired as assistant GM, Mark Hunter was brought in to lead the scouting team, Brandon Pridham was hired as a cap specialist, Lou Lamoriello was brought in as the GM, and eventually, Mike Babcock was wooed to be the coach.

Shanahan had a precise plan-of-action and he executed it well from the start. He built an organizational base that includes the successors of each position within it, and focused on drafting new talent and developing existing and incumbent players correctly.

In 2016 Auston Matthews was drafted and the wheels were in motion. Toronto had previously drafted William Nylander and Mitch Marner as well, so Matthews wasn’t forced to pull the wagon alone. With strategic and reasonable dipping into the free agent market and internal promotion through a revamped minors system, Shanahan’s plan for a deep and directed team were well underway.

Edmonton on the other hand…

Listen, I’m not going to tell you that I know everything about the Edmonton Oilers and their organizational depth and structure. What I, and just about every other hockey fan in the world knows, is that the owner is the problem with Edmonton and shit rolls downhill.

His influence on the board of directors has had a hand in the appointing of Todd McLellan, who alone is a terrific coach, as well as Peter Chiarelli as the GM. Both men have winning pedigree’s in the NHL so in the surface they were good hires, but McLellans success was through managing experienced talent, and Chiarelli’s was through an aging hockey mindset.

Where Edmonton went wrong was in their building of the system before Connor McDavid was drafted. There were plenty of prospects and young players in the system – Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Eberle, to name a few, but all are/were undervalued by the team’s front office.

Rather than deciding how players fit into the long-term plans for the team, they gambled some of their best talents (Hall and Eberle specifically) for whatever return they could get. The sacrifice of stability for lucky success did not pay off. As we now know Hall has set New Jersey on fire while his return Adam Larsson has struggled to show his elite status. Oh, and Eberle was turned into Sam Gagner (who was on the Marlies via an AHL loan this season). Enough said.

The result?

Toronto boasts a deep lineup built on speed and skill opposed to Edmonton who boasts a skillful and speedy player who drags a sluggish and ill-conceived lineup with him.

Originally, the bite of missing hometown McDavid was brutal. Leafs fans, myself included, were preparing for the incredible with him and were heartbroken when Edmonton was seemingly rewarded for their perennial failure.

The most prized player in the NHL since Sidney Crosby would report to the team where prospects seem to stagnate. A year later, however, the Leafs happily accepted their “consolation” prize as Auston Matthews was drafted. He’s brought him McDavid level of play and excitement ever since.

Unlike Edmonton, Toronto’s rebuild didn’t start when their generational talent was draft, but years prior. There was a foundation and plan in motion when Matthews put on the Blue and White for the first time. He is a cog in the machine that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not the only piece to the puzzle, just the biggest and most important one.

His presence has directly contributed to John Tavares signing here, William Nylander signing long-term, and Mitch Marner having so much success early on in his career (that goes both ways). Indirectly, the likes of Nazem Kadri, Morgan Reilly, and Frederick Anderson all committing long term to the Leafs also committed to this team after decades of failure due to the Matthews forecast.

Larry Tanenbaum, the owner of the MLSE and the Leafs ownership group made the important decision to empower Brenden Shanahan to kick-start this franchise, and he’s done just that.

The two teams who paralleled each other for so long have taken vastly different approaches to the rebuild and thus have had differing results. Rejoice, Toronto fans, your team made the right decision and are years ahead of where Edmonton currently are.

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