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Maple Leafs' rebuild taking shape

Deadline trades, AHL recalls part of Toronto's plan for future

by Shawn Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

TORONTO -- The heavy lifting started Monday for the Toronto Maple Leafs with the passing of the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline.

The tear-down of the team, which hit implosion level in the days leading up to the deadline, was painful for many in the organization. But it also relatively was easy to accomplish.

Since the blockbuster trade of defenseman Dion Phaneuf, the captain, to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 9, the Leafs have deleted six players from their lineup that played regular roles, including No. 1 goalie James Reimer, top-level defenseman Roman Polak and third-line center Nick Spaling.

"What we tried to do is put the organization in a position that we could put together a plan, to use the expression, that once you got that underway you could sustain it because you have the ability and the room to do it within the cap system we have today," general manager Lou Lamoriello said after a quiet Monday that followed a frenzied three weeks of wheeling and dealing.

In the first game of the new era, the Maple Leafs lost, 2-1, to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning are a legitimate threat to reach the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight season. The Maple Leafs had seven players making their debut with the club, and four who were playing first NHL game. Yet the Maple Leafs played an entertaining, if sometimes ragged, game.

Toronto coach Mike Babcock said the team he coached Monday was the youngest he's had since an eight-year stint in the Western Hockey League.

Video: Kasperi Kapanen following NHL debut with Toronto

For Lamoriello and Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, the jettisoning of experienced NHL players was a matter of reading the market correctly and trying to leverage the best possible return for each asset, which generally meant some combination of prospects, draft picks and/or salary-cap flexibility.

The trick, as many perennial sellers in the NHL has learned, is turning the bounty of picks, prospects and cap room into a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup on an annual basis.

"I think we have done a real nice job of acquiring prospects and picks," Babcock said. "This was our plan. We want to set ourselves up for the long run so we are not talking about trading guys at the deadline but who we acquired at the deadline. That's our goal."

In recent memory teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Lightning quickly have navigated the treacherous path from also-ran to Cup contender using a combination of hits with high draft picks and shrewd free-agent signings. Others, like the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes, each currently out of a playoff spot, are laboring to find a way to turn prime pieces into tangible results.

Less than five hours after the deadline passed, the march toward the future began in earnest for the Maple Leafs.

Of the four players recalled Monday from Toronto of the American Hockey League that made their NHL debut were first-round draft picks William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen. They are two of the players the Maple Leafs hope will serve as the foundation of their rebuild. Each looked comfortable among the better players and faster pace of the NHL on Monday.

Toronto chose Nylander with the eighth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. Kapanen was a 2014 first-round pick (No. 22) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and obtained by the Maple Leafs in the trade of forward Phil Kessel last summer that signaled the acceleration of the dismantling process.

They were joined by forwards Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman, providing the first glimpse of what the new-look Maple Leafs could be in the not-too-distant future.

Video: Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello on deadline inactivity

For Babcock, who knew the pain was coming when he was hired as coach in May 2015 and was prepared for it, it is an exciting time.

"I want to know who is a real player," he said. "Just because you did it in the American league doesn't mean you will do it here. I want to know who has upside and who has determination and who lives right and who is going to be a Maple Leaf for a long period of time and who's not."

The evaluation process becomes a much more high-stakes game now in Toronto.

As Babcock mentioned earlier, the Maple Leafs have stockpiled an impressive array of potential high-end talent, and there's a chance to add more.

According to generalfanager.com, they have 28 selections in the next three drafts, the most of any team in the League. With the fewest points in the League entering play Tuesday they have a legitimate shot at the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft and virtually are guaranteed a top-five selection no matter how the final quarter of the season unfolds.

The future does look bright for those that remain behind in Toronto, but they understand it also looks uncertain and is dependent on too many factors to count at this point.

"The page is definitely turning," said center Nazem Kadri, a first-round pick (No. 7) in 2009 and part of the core of the previous rebuild. "It's something that is going to have to happen. It was to be expected and no one is really shocked or surprised by the whole situation.

"I think the core group is going to be looking nice. With the management and the coaching staff we have, we are going to have all the tools we need to be successful in the long run."

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