Maybe it was indicative of how fragile the Leafs psyche had become after relinquishing such an unexpectedly high draft pick to the Bruins, or maybe it was just a reaction to the mid-summer boredom brought upon as the Kovalchuk saga stop-gaped the NHL trade wires, but the recent trade rumours surrounding Luke Schenn suggests a seismic shift has taken place in Leafs Nation with regards to the future and how to obtain long sought after success.
One that seems to have embraced a cap defiant means of rebuilding in an age of tank-to-win.
Indeed, prior to the hiring of Brian Burke, Leafs Nation appeared for maybe the first time in its history, to be ready for a long overhaul. Be it a troubling necessity in the cap era, the 29 teams that don’t boast the Red Wings scouting staff have largely had to fail before they could succeed. Building through the draft has subsequently becoming a byword in commentators’ circles and certainly helped secure championships in Pittsburgh and Chicago, both an early barometer to the ultimate effects of a prolonged revenue based cap.
Foregoing months of argument, the virtues of Kessel over draft picks and whatever merits he may bring, the building through the draft avenue appears closed for now in Leafland and while there is no need for panic yet; placing a sophomore, 5th overall defenseman on the fantasy trading block is a troubling end result.
Call it buying in by necessity; while many accepted Burke wanted a quick turnaround in Toronto, few anticipated the cost would be first round draft picks, yet be it on name or reputation, Burke has done a stellar job weathering a year of criticism that rained down when expectation met dreadful performance.
Termed a retool as opposed to a rebuild (read: lose, rinse-and-repeat), the Kessel trade has implemented a line of thinking deemed unimaginable when belts were buckled for a few torrid seasons in the leagues basement. A back-to-the-future approach to building a winner; trading out potential for proven talent.
And in one respect it is easy to buy-in, after all Phil Kessel does not represent previous Leafs GM’s attitude of trading away picks and potential for veterans, circling the coil on their careers. Kessel is 22 and already has two 30 goal seasons to his name.
But recent whispers surrounding Schenn are different; Tyler Seguin was never a hero in Toronto, while amidst the number 17’s, number 93’s and number 13’s there is an ever growing contingency of number 2’s adorning paying fans backs. Schenn is one of the faces of the new age of the Leafs; an ingrained symbol of the franchises rebirth and you would think untouchable as a result.
But every player has his price. The Leafs are in tough for scoring and need another top line big body to fill the void of pugnacity up front. Schenn for Ryan or Schenn for Neal? While the improbability of both has quietened the initial speculation, the former would make sense.
Having traded away Pronger on draft day 2009 and Scott Niedermayer calling time on his storied career this summer, Schenn would make a good fit in Anaheim and alongside Luca Sbisa the Ducks would have one of the finest young-defensive tandems in the game. Meanwhile the Leafs would gain another proven scorer, one who teamed up with Wilson, Kessel and Burke en route to a silver medal in Vancouver and who could provide a hardened foil on a previously soft frontend.
On the face of it, the Leafs would win a coup. Schenn was a shadow of his former self last year while Ryan appears on the up and up.
But is Luke Schenn that disposable considering the developmental curve for a shutdown defenseman is glacial compared to a player such as Bobby Ryan?
As the old football adage goes offense wins you games, defence wins you championships and while teams such as Pittsburgh and Chicago have recently scrubbed that ideal from hockey, the principle remains.
Last season Schenn was the victim of a deeply rooted ideology that you always have to work on your strength as well as your conditioning. There is no doubt you have to keep elite-level fit to remain competitive at the top, but the idea that you have to keep adding to your strength is somewhat redundant when you enter the league at 6-2, 215lbs. Over bulked and still suffering from the knee injury that plagued him at the end of his rookie campaign, Schenn suffered a sophomore slump that was not helped by those around him.
Regardless of his struggles, the sentiment remained largely the same. Fletcher worked his tail off to secure this kid who can hit and fight and block with the best of them and still only 20. In a team largely devoid of personality, Schenn is a humble Canadian kid far removed from many of the leagues young prima donnas and thoroughly likeable both on and off the ice, Many, if not most, Leafs fan’s favourite players.
Even those who dare to suggest trading Schenn seem to hate the idea, but the concept is also indicative of another shift in the fan base. One that has begun to question what return, if any, previous blue chip commodity Tomas Kaberle will yield.
With a waning contract and a stagnant trade pool exacerbated by numerous clubs cap struggles, many anticipate Kaberle’s value has grossly reduced on the market and is unlikely to return a bona-fide top 6 forward.
And subsequently the focus shifts to younger Leafs and a pattern; trading away prospects alongside picks, a well trodden and questionable tactic even if the return is youth in kind.
So does speculation amount to a return to the days of trading away draft picks and youngsters for immediate success?
Not in the manner one could attribute to JFJ, or any of Brian Burke’s predecessors for that matter considering the return is comparable both in talent and age. But the irksome thing about Schenn is he represents something far greater at this point in Burke’s era. A conscience for a younger, unproven team still grappling with its identity, a player much adored both within the hardcore and casual fan base.
Many may deny it, but much of the good faith Brian Burke rode into town on was eroded by the Kessel trade, and continued to be so as the team peaked and troughed its way to a 29th place finish. Trading away Schenn, for whatever return, would only serve to alienate certain corners of Leafs Nation further still and in particular those that never gave up on the full scale rebuild to which Schenn and Kadri represent a fork in the road.
But this is all rhetoric. Burke, who drafted Chris Pronger in 1993, is a known fan of Schenn while Ducks GM Bob Murray has unequivocally iced rumours concerning Bobby Ryan. Therefore it is the stuff of fantasy, but what it stands for is perhaps more significant; that Leafs Nation has dropped the notion of building through the draft and has reluctantly bought into the necessities of Burke’s old school approach, even if it is an approach many thought unthinkable prior to the Kessel trade and even if it’s an approach that has the potential to leave a bad taste in the mouth for supporters and detractors alike.
Originally written for the Maple Leaf Hot Stove.