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Waiting for the great leap forward

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Does one more star player launch the Leafs on their way, or is the transformation from bad team to great team more complex than that?

NHL: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It is normal for fans to yearn for the big splash in the summer. If you don't get it from playoff trophies then at least you want a big free agent signing or a trade. You want new blood — the bright shiny new toy to love with your whole heart, now that you know too well the flaws in the old ones in the back of the cupboard.

But is it reasonable?

Is there enough currency for the Leafs to buy a Mercedes for the garage to park next to the zippy Ferraris they got in the draft? Can they make a great leap forward from decades of futility to a bona fide quality team in the next three weeks?

The Leafs have one draft pick with a number so high it's almost Auston Matthews’ age, and one elite winger almost 30 in James van Riemsdyk. There is also one super-powered defensive forward, over 30, who never shoots the puck (Leo Komarov). Add on the club pack of wingers of varying levels of talent, and you have your saleable assets.

That's not a lot of cash to go shopping with.

There's cap space. That's the other thing the Leafs have that is spendable. That seems to indicate a big free agent signing is more probable than a big trade, but the thing about free agents is they are free. They go where they want, and you can't count on the one you want wanting the Leafs.

A trade that leaves a hole where one of those assets used to be is possible. But that just shifts the problem from here to there.

What if this summer’s great leap is just a short hop to Cody Franson, those European depth signings, and maybe a swap of AHL wingers for a defensive prospect. What if the leap is just a step?

This is the dilemma faced by many teams in the age of Gary’s parity, where you are punished for doing well in the standings and the salary cap is kept flat. Parity has its value. Competitive playoff races are a lot of fun, but there are teams out there stuck in this bubble land, turning over their old players for new ones and not going anywhere fast. Or slowly, for that matter.

Carolina has been at it for years. Philadelphia can’t break out of the zone. Calgary’s mired in it. Winnipeg won a draft lottery and is still stalled. New Jersey isn’t going to ride the coattails of their draft pick to the finals next year.

A hoard all picks approach gets you the long, slow Carolina climb out of the basement; their progress is at the pace of an afternoon stroll in Raleigh in the summer. The Flyers keep being smart, and Calgary fleeced the Bruins in a trade, and yet, none of them are in the playoffs right now.

What are the Leafs to do?

Go to Vegas, bet it all on red? Maybe. Spend some picks? Almost certainly. Keep looking for freebies in Europe. Pry something out of Chicago, maybe. Surely it’s their turn at that trick, even if the rumour mill says Vegas has already gotten Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk from the Blackhawks.

Or maybe you don’t think the Leafs need a major upgrade? Are they already good enough, and they just need to bolster the depth and the support players? I’ve heard that song before, and it makes me nervous because that’s exactly the line of bull, er, reasoning that led the Colorado Avalanche and a handful of really hot young players from the heights of one PDO fuelled regular season into a slow decline into hell.

The Leafs needed luck of various kinds to sneak into the playoffs this season. Counting on the big three being better and fuelling a rise up the standings is fine, but those chickens aren’t hatched yet. And the foundation they worked their magic on was built out of career years from a lot of players who shouldn’t be just hitting their peak now (Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, and van Riemsdyk).

The stars aligned for the Leafs, and it’s as dangerous to believe that is repeatable as it is to fall for a shooting percentage spike and give out a big contract.

But okay, the Avs management did the tinkering around the edges about as badly as you can and mysteriously not end up fired. The Leafs will do it intelligently. I should relax.

To stay relaxed, I should not ever look at that depth chart we made. You know, the one that shows that, without additions of more than just one unicorn defender who shoots right and is perfect in every way, the Leafs are one Tyler Bozak head cold away from Ben Smith playing 15 minutes a night. And one defender injury away from Alexey Marchenko doing the same thing again.

The great leap forward is about revolutionary change. And maybe you just don’t get that from one star signing. Maybe you have to take all the intermediate steps one at a time.

Brendan Shanahan took over the Leafs and absolutely nothing changed at first. The story goes that the Leafs, with Shanahan in charge, were going to offer Dave Bolland five years at just under five million each.

A hockey team has a big turning radius. Eventually, the Leafs took a long, slow sweeping turn in a new direction, and just barely avoided having Bolland on board.

Now that they are turned, what’s the cruising speed? Perhaps the Leafs can move at the pace of a brisk walk on a November day in Toronto, but not just leap over all the intervening steps to greatness. Maybe the revolution has already happened inside each player, and it’s what made all those career years show up all at once.

A leap of any kind might be exactly the wrong tactic.

It takes a very strong will to sit and wait, do nothing, and watch everyone else fall into a frenzy of overpayment for defencemen and panic buying and selling with Las Vegas. Maybe the revolution happens for the Leafs by some well-timed sitting still and finding the change within.

Let’s meet on July 3 and talk over how far they’ve come, and what we think is just around the corner.