With sweeping summer changes almost finished and training camp just around the corner, it's clear that Cliff Fletcher has done what he promised to do: get off to a good start rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Gone are Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood, Andrew Raycroft, Chad Kilger, Hal Gill, Wade Belak, and probably Mats Sundin. Next week, we should be able to add Bryan McCabe to the list. Fresh faces include Jamal Mayers, Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Jeff Finger, Jonas Frogren, and Curtis Joseph. The Leafs have gotten considerably younger, faster and, Ron Wilson hopes, tougher.
Which leads us to the next question: what next? What goals should Leafs management set heading into the first year of the rebuild? In short, what would constitute a successful 2008-09 season? It's a difficult question.
Only the most delusional of Leaf fans would expect the squad to make the playoffs this season. Despite their big contracts and inconsistent play, the Buds have lost a great deal of talent in Tucker, Wellwood, and McCabe, and the captain will be missed greatly if he chooses not to return. The new players have the potential to be great additions to the roster, but aside from Mayers, Hagman and Joseph, they are very much unproven.
Obviously, a playoff berth is an unreasonable goal for this team, and that makes it a heck of a lot harder to set a tangible benchmark. Complicating things is the opportunity to nab a high pick in the 2009 draft, which features teenage wunderkinds John Tavares and Victor Hedman.
Not surprisingly, this has divided Leafs Nation into two camps: those who want to make a strong push for the playoffs and those who want to tank and land a franchise player in the draft. That means Leaf fans have two completely different barometers for success. One group would be satisfied with a playoff berth or a 90-point season, while the other would only be happy with Tavares or Hedman.
Then there are those who find themselves somewhere in the middle, and perhaps not surprisingly, I'm one of them. A ninth- or 10th-place finish would be very disappointing for me. I'm sick of getting the worst of both worlds: missing out on the playoffs and a decent pick.
At the same time, I don't believe in tanking. Which is not to say I'd be unhappy with a last-place finish; it's slightly more complex. I don't want our players entering games with a losing attitude. I want them to go out there and give it their all every night.
It's crucial that they develop the mindset of a champion, and that means coming to play every night and always doing the little things right, even if you're trailing by five goals. It's also very important that our young guys develop as players. That's less likely to happen if they're losing every game, because confidence is key in reaching your potential, especially in a market like Toronto.
I lean toward getting a high pick, but it shouldn't happen by tanking. If the Leafs go out and put it all on the line every night and lose most of their games, that's fine by me. However, it would be unacceptable and very damaging to our future to wind up with Tavares or Hedman through a lack of effort.
So, how do I define a successful season for the Leafs? Player development. If youngsters like Kulemin, Grabovski, Jiri Tlusty, and Anton Stralman take big steps toward reaching their potential, regardless of their production, I'll be happy. If Nik Antropov can handle the pressure of being the team's top forward, I'll be pleased. If Alex Steen and Matt Stajan carry the team on their backs and display strong leadership traits, I'll be ecstatic.
At the same time, the importance of getting a high draft pick cannot be ignored. The Leafs have done well in restocking their prospect cupboard this summer, but they have a long way to go. The organization still lacks a franchise player up front, and the 2009 draft will be its best chance to land one.
If, when the dust settles in April, Toronto has gotten strong seasons from its youngsters and is holding a top-five pick, everyone in Leafs Nation should be happy.