As the 2008-2009 NHL regular season is about to dawn on the Toronto Maple Leafs' first rebuilding season in decades, it's time to get excited. There is a mysterious aspect to this team that hasn't been present for many years. The mystery, however, isn't where the Leafs will finish in the standings - you can definitively say they will finish in the bottom 6 (an envious place given the players projected to go in the top 6 of the upcoming draft). No, the mystery comes in the potential the team has. Players such as Grabovski, Stralman, Tlusty, Kulemin, and Schenn have a chance to become legitimate NHL players and contributors to the Leafs, though who knows whether they will end up scraping the bottom of the barrel for their careers or flourish into NHL all-stars - and that is what excites me.
However, to think that this is a sufficient core to move forward is naive. Of those players only Schenn is at all guaranteed to be a superstar, with the others hopefully being sufficient 2nd liners. This Leafs team has only had one top shelf draft pick (Schenn), while teams like Los Angelos and Columbus have had numerous top 10 picks for years and are just now starting to show some of them off. To think the Leafs can do it once or twice and soon after become Cup contenders is simply unfair - if that was all it took, why isn't Los Angelos a contender yet?
The Leafs can, however, fast-track their rebuild by dealing away significant assets to bring in multiple top 10 draft picks (or the equivalent in a prospect) without having to bomb every year and only get 1 per year.
Let's take a look at what could have been at the trade deadline last year (this list combines facts/rumours from legitimate sources, with some conservative creative liberties taken in some cases):
-Trade Kubina to San Jose for 1st (#26) and Steve Bernier
-Trade Sundin to Anaheim for Edmonton's 1st (#12) and Bobby Ryan
-Trade Kaberle to Philidelphia for 1st (#27) and Jeff Carter
Assuming we would have finished in the same spot and gotten the 7th pick (though in reality we would have gotten a higher pick due to having a worse team), we could have packaged the #26th and #27th picks, along with the #68 pick and 2009 2nd rounder (and perhaps another 2nd round or lower pick), to get the 5th overall pick from the Islanders.
Now we have Schenn (5th pick), Boedker (7th pick), Tyler Myers (12th pick) from this drafts 1st round.
Our core would now look like this:
Forwards: Boedker, Ryan, Bernier, Carter, Tlusty, Antropov, Grabovski, Kulemin, Steen, Stajan, Hagman
Defencemen: Schenn, Myers, Stralman, Coliacovo, Finger, Frogren.
Goalies: Toskala, Pogge
Extras: later-round picks like Hayes and Stefanovich could turn out good
That's not even just a young core to work around, that's a fantastic, young, talented team. Add in a top 6 pick from this coming year (say Brayden Schenn), and a big free-agent signing along with some strong roleplayers, and you have the makings of something special. Dare to dream.
But alas, that is not to be. There is still potential (Kubina, Kaberle, and Toskala are all potential trade bait this deadline/summer, and are likely much more willing to waive this deadline as compared to last, and none will have NTC's during the summer), though it is unknown if the same caliber of deals will be around.
To answer the question posed in the topic of this thread, yes, this is a rebuild. But it is not a rebuild that will produce a Pittsburgh - a team that has such an unbelievably talented and young core that it will ensure they are contenders for many years. It is a rebuild that will return the Leafs to the playoffs in 3-4 years, but will by no means ensure a Stanley Cup is coming home, and will not guarantee they stay competitive.
This coming year will determine the extent that this rebuild goes to, as neither fans nor management will be so keen on bottoming out in the 2009-2010 season or beyond, and will start attempting to add free-agents in an attempt to climb back into the playoffs. So, it's now or never Cliff - this season must end in a firesale that gives the Leafs 3-5 top prospects/picks (as what almost happened last year).