• By: Dave Gross

Leafs visit supplies shining example

Photo courtesy of NHLI via Getty Images

Finally the day arrives.

For the first time (for some reason) this season the thousands of Toronto Maple Leaf fans in the capital region (cough if you’d like to at this point) get satiated with a taste of their team.

Saturday night, the Leafs visit the Canadian Tire Centre in what – (turning inward here) for Ottawa Senator fans – supplies a sample of what they hope is an indicator of what lies ahead for the home team.

You might not like to hear it, but the Leafs have done it right and supply Ottawa with a blueprint on how to do a rebuild correctly.

A few years ago, you might remember that Toronto was parading down the same neighbourhood as Ottawa is at the present time.

The Leafs were bad. Not AS bad as Ottawa is this season, but bad, nonetheless.

The decision was to empty the tank, clear out the garage, and embark on a full rebuild.

(As some context, that Boston Bruins come-from-behind playoff miracle in 2013 where Toronto held a 4-1 lead halfway through the third period and choked in Game 7 pushed the Leafs towards the notion that a Cup run with the likes of Phil Kessel et all wasn’t in the works. And thus ends the longest sentence you’ll see this week).

Following that apocalyptic gut-buster loss to the B’s, the Leafs got to work.

In the summer of 2014, Toronto used its relatively early first-rounder to take William Nylander.

Building through the draft had become a long-dead trend with Toronto to that point.

The next NHL draft – using the smart, sage mind of assistant GM Mark Hunter who knew the kid from junior – Toronto luckily was passed over by Phoenix who took highly-touted prospect Dylan Strome at No. 3. At No. 4, Toronto nabbed Mitch Marner, a slight but shifty forward who skated for Hunter with the London Knights.

Marner’s been a phenom; that’s clear.

Then it was 2016, a year remembered for the wisest tank job in the 2000s. The Leafs continued on with the program and lucked out in the lottery after finishing dead last (after said-tank) and took home the golden nugget in Auston Matthews, arguably the face of the franchise for the next 10 years-plus.

We should mention that the Leafs, during the cover-your-eyes era of thinking Kessel and Dion Phaneuf would take the team to the promised land, made a brilliant pick in 2012, taking Norris candidate Morgan Rielly with the 5th-overall selection.

Toronto also settled on a significant trade during the rebuild era in acquiring young goalie Freddie Andersen and surrendering picks in the process.

So, over the course of seven years, Toronto landed cornerstones in Matthews, Marner and Nylander up front, Rielly on the blueline and Andersen in goal.

What can Ottawa take away from this blueprint?

Well, the franchise is seemingly already well on its way with picks like Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Christian Jaros and potentially Logan Brown, Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton.

Comparatively, if it all shakes out, the Senators appear ahead of schedule.

Have they harvested as much top-end quality as Toronto during its rebuild? Unlikely, but the quantity is better.

There are still enormous holes for the local organization to fill, mainly a top-end young netminder. The defence also needs a whole heck of a lot of work. Outside of Chabot and Jaros and perhaps Christian Wolanin, it’s slim pickings (mind you, Toronto’s gang of defenders isn’t top-end either).

But when the visitors step on to the CTC ice Saturday night (undoubtedly to huge roars), they bring with them a sense of optimism for Ottawa’s faithful.

The rebuild is surely on, but with it comes hope (. . . and thank you Toronto).

Senators week ahead:

Monday, March 11: Ottawa at Philadelphia (7 p.m.)

Thursday, March 14: St. Louis at Ottawa (7:30 p.m.)

Saturday, March 16: Toronto at Ottawa (7 p.m.)