ESPN’s 2012 Ultimate Standings ranked the Toronto Maple Leafs as the worst franchise in sports. No matter how much validity there is to that claim, it’s certain that the Maple Leafs have been struggling for some time now.
It’s been 45 years since the Leafs have hoisted the Stanley Cup. They currently hold the longest championship drought in the NHL. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2004.
Everyone’s well aware that things have to change.
The Leafs seem to be taking steps in the right direction, though. They’ve been slowly acquiring some great young players that will carry the team in the future. They may have even snagged a franchise player somewhere along the way.
To have a chance at turning things around, the Leafs need to hang on to their elite youth.
Here are seven young players the Toronto Maple Leafs can’t afford to lose.
The Maple Leafs drafted Matt Finn in the second round—35th overall—in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
At only 18-years-old, Finn already plays a sound defensive game. In his rookie season in the OHL, Finn played for the Guelph Storm. That season, the Storm had 249 goals for and 258 goals against. Despite that, Finn finished the season with an even plus-minus. This is a decent testament to his defensive abilities.
With plenty of time to spend in the OHL and AHL before he finds himself in the NHL, Finn may even develop a better offensive presence. He’s already a pretty well-rounded player, but contributing more to scoring will make him an invaluable top-four defenseman.
The Maple Leafs selected right wing Tyler Biggs with the 22nd overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He has yet to make his debut for the franchise’s AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies.
In five games this season with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, Biggs has four goals and two assists and has a plus-six rating.
His scoring numbers are impressive thus far, especially because Biggs was never pegged as a high scoring player. At 6’2 and 200 pounds, Biggs is a sizeable player more than willing to grind it out against the opposing team’s defense.
After a season in the OHL and a few seasons in the AHL, Biggs will be more than ready for a spot on the Maple Leafs roster. He will be integral in holding off the opposition and allowing his line mates to score. Also, if he continues to grow as a scorer, he should become a good offensive contributor to the Maple Leafs.
Jesse Blacker was drafted 58th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2009.
Blacker is one of the most versatile defensemen in hockey. His style meshes offensive and defensive traits very effectively. In his 2008-09 season with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, he recorded 21 points in 67 games and finished the season with an unprecedented plus-46.
And that was only his sophomore season. Blacker is certainly reliable in the defensive zone, and has proven time and time again that he can carry his own weight when it comes to offensive production.
Blacker has all the tools to become a great two-way defender. At 21, he still has plenty time to ease into the professional style. He will definitely be a player the Leafs want to hang on to.
Joe Colborne was a first-round pick for the Boston Bruins in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He was traded to the Leafs in February 2011.
Colborne made quite an impact with the Marlies in the 2011-12 season. In 65 games with the club, Colborne tallied 16 goals and 23 assists.
Colborne has even had a few chances to shine in the NHL. He made his NHL debut as a Maple Leaf on April 9, 2011 and recorded an assist for his first NHL point. In the 10 games he played in the 2011-12 season, he recorded five points.
Another year or two with the Marlies should help Colborne tie up some loose ends with his play. His biggest problem is his lack of consistency, even at the AHL level. Other than that, Colborne has the makings of a quality second-line center. He just needs to show he can consistently deliver the big scoring numbers he is capable of.
Center Nazem Kadri was the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Each of his two seasons with the franchise have been split between the Maple Leafs and Marlies.
Among all the Leafs’ prospects, Kadri has arguably the largest offensive upside. This past season, Kadri tallied 18 goals and 22 assists in 48 regular season games. He went on to score three goals and assist on seven more during 11 playoff games.
Another season with the Marlies will allow Kadri to build on his impressive 2011-12 season. At 21-years-old, Kadri still has plenty of time to develop into an all-star scorer.
Kadri’s only detraction is his physical shape. In a recent article on TheStar.com, Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins is quoted as saying “His body fat today is probably in the bottom three to five guys in our whole camp. That’s unacceptable.”
Toronto drafted standout blueliner Morgan Rielly fifth overall in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. By doing so, the Maple Leafs have added a phenomenal offensive defenseman to their franchise.
Because of injury, Rielly lost much of the 2011-12 season. He managed to maintain a point-per-game pace with the three goals and 15 assists he recorded in 18 games. While he excels at setting his teammates up for goals, Rielly has also proved he is able to score big goals himself. He also finished the season with a plus-six rating.
Rielly’s skating proficiency makes him valuable in both the offensive and defensive zones. His offensive prowess makes him a standout player, but he is also a very capable defender.
The Maple Leafs acquired 23-year-old center James van Riemsdyk during the 2012 off-season. The Leafs should find van Riemsdyk to be an invaluable second-line center this season.
JVR debuted with the Philadelphia Flyers with no junior league experience. In his three seasons with the team, he recorded 99 points.
Van Riemsdyk missed part of this past season due to various injuries. Despite that, van Riemsdyk should continue to grow and put up big offensive marks. He’s been consistently growing throughout his career in the NHL.
The lockout cutting into the regular season may actually be beneficial for JVR. The former Flyer suffered a broken foot near the end of this past season. Some additional time to recover will ensure that van Riemsdyk is ready to get back on pace with his rise to the top.
Michael Prunka is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist and Sports Writing Intern. To stay up to date with his WWE and NHL commentary, you can like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter and follow him on Tout.