The Toronto Maple Leafs’ path toward the Stanley Cup might be a little ahead of schedule, but that doesn’t mean Brendan Shanahan and Co. should mortgage any part of the team’s future to win right now.
Sure, making the playoffs and earning that experience would be nice, but the Leafs must stay the course in what has been a successful rebuild thus far.
Auston Matthews, the 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick, is on his way to the Calder Trophy with a rookie-leading 30 goals. Mitch Marner, the fourth overall pick in 2015, is having a fantastic rookie campaign, too. Former first-round picks Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner also are blossoming nicely on the blue line.
The Leafs have built a talented foundation of young players that’s already putting the team in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference — Toronto owns the second wild-card spot entering Tuesday — and it would be a mistake to make a move that could jeopardize the progress that’s being made.
That said, Toronto still has the assets to make a move for a short-term improvement that could help it earn a playoff spot this season.
The Leafs own all of their first-round picks, in addition to having multiple second-round selections this year and next year. This kind of ammo could help the Leafs add another player before Wednesday.
A blue-line upgrade would ideal, especially after the Leafs acquired veteran forward Brian Boyle from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.
The top rentals available are Dallas Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. Any of these three players would provide defensive depth and veteran leadership to a relatively young Leafs blue line.
The Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and their 48-year title drought is tied for the longest in the league. But there’s more optimism surrounding the “center of the hockey universe” than any point this century, and making a shortsighted move at this trade deadline could do permanent damage to what’s already been built.
The best move for the Leafs before Wednesday is to make a deal for a mid-tier rental, preferably a defenseman, or to do nothing at all.
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