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The Official Site of the Toronto Maple Leafs Inside look at the Toronto Maple Leafs

by Mike Brophy / Toronto Maple Leafs

When Mike Babcock took over as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to last season, he said there would be pain in the coming years.

The Maple Leafs finished 29-42-11, the worst record in the NHL, but a funny thing happened on the way to getting the No. 1 pick in 2016 NHL Draft: Leafs Nation appeared to endorse the careful rebuilding of an organization that has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967.

Toronto fans accepted the last-place finish because it gave the Maple Leafs the best odds of winning the NHL Draft Lottery, which they did, and allowed them to choose center Auston Matthews.

"We got a lot better (adding Matthews)," Babcock told the Maple Leafs website. "Lou [Lamoriello] is a better general manager, I am a better coach and the team is way better ... [Matthews is] going to be a dominant center for the [Maple] Leafs with and without the puck. He's going to be a championship-type center."

Matthews, 19 on Sept. 17, is the Maple Leafs' first legitimate No. 1 center since Mats Sundin left in 2008, and they have a dependable No. 1 goalie, Frederik Andersen, who was acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for the 30th pick in the 2016 draft and a second-round pick in 2017.

"Whenever you have a goaltender of this magnitude, of this success, it breeds confidence from the defense through the forwards and from the forwards through the defense," Lamoriello said. "We feel that it's a necessity with the growth and where we're at."

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Lamoriello have vowed to patiently construct a team that, once it gets good, will be good for a long time, and there is every reason to believe the additions of Matthews and Andersen helped set the stage for a Stanley Cup Playoff push. Toronto has made the playoffs once in the past 11 years.

This will be the Maple Leafs' third season under Shanahan, who has made significant changes to the culture of the organization. He hired Babcock and signed him to an eight-year contract reportedly worth $50 million. Shanahan also brought in Lamoriello, who helped the New Jersey Devils win three Stanley Cup championships.

"Our goal is to really just be the best that we can be," Shanahan told The Canadian Press this offseason. "... We had a lot of good things last year obviously, and I think that we're pointing [in] the right direction with a lot of the work from Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello. And now it's just a matter of growing and growing together."

Shanahan, who won the Stanley Cup three times as a player and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013, spent his first year on the job analyzing what Toronto had and then made significant transactions that have reshaped the Maple Leafs.

In the past couple of years, Toronto traded forward David Clarkson, captain Dion Phaneuf and right wing Phil Kessel, who led the Maple Leafs in scoring in each of his six seasons. This summer, Toronto traded goalie Jonathan Bernier to Anaheim.

Prior to the past two seasons, the Maple Leafs signed a number of veterans they ultimately moved before the NHL Trade Deadline, mostly for draft picks.

The Maple Leafs' newest additions now will come from within; Matthews and forwards William Nylander and Mitchell Marner are expected to make the team this season.

Nylander, 20, was the No. 8 pick in the 2014 draft and was leading the American Hockey League in scoring last season when he left to play for Sweden at the IIHF World Junior Championship. Nylander was injured in that tournament but wound up joining the Maple Leafs for 22 games, when he had six goals and seven assists.

Marner, 19, was chosen No. 4 in the 2015 draft and has one year of junior eligibility remaining. He was the Ontario Hockey League most valuable player, the Canadian Hockey League player of the year, and MVP of the Memorial Cup for victorious London. He likely has outgrown junior hockey.

"We're going the right way," Babcock said. "We're not trying to maintain. That maintain part is what kills you. It's not easy to win in this League. But now, and this is no word of a lie, we're loaded with kids. Real kids. There's five or six who are going to score big-time in the NHL."

One of the players Toronto traded, rugged defenseman Roman Polak, re-signed with the Maple Leafs, and they signed 24-year-old defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who played the past seven seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.

After a few years of concentrating on acquiring skill, Toronto took aim at adding size and signed free agent left wing Matt Martin from the New York Islanders. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Martin brings an abrasive style and led the NHL with 365 hits (4.6 per game) last season.

The Maple Leafs auditioned a number of prospects last season, including forwards Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Josh Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov, Kasperi Kapanen and Frederik Gauthier, the No. 21 pick of the 2013 draft; defensemen Connor Carrick, Viktor Loov, Rinat Valiev; and goaltender Garret Sparks. Each is expected to push some of the veterans for a job next season.

Pain, it seems in Toronto, has been replaced by light at the end of the tunnel.

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