Maple Leafs’ rebuild outpacing that of rival Sabres

TORONTOOn April 11th 2015, things didn’t look promising for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres. Separated by a 100-mile stretch along the Queen Elizabeth Way, the two organizations lost their final game of the 2014-15 season and finished 27th and 30th in the league respectively. Without a ton of high-level prospects to provide hope for the future, the idea of a renewed Leafs-Sabres rivalry from the late 90’s seemed impossible.

In the span of just over a week, fortunes turned as the Leafs hired Mike Babcock and the Sabres brought on Dan Bylsma to be their head coaches for the foreseeable future. Then, in late June of that year, each team added young blue chip talent through the draft in Jack Eichel and Mitch Marner. Each team’s rebuild was in full swing and it appeared that the Sabres-Leafs rivalry of old would again gain steam.

A year and a half since, one team is holding up its end of the bargain while the other is not: after defeating the Sabres 4-3 at the Air Canada Centre Tuesday night, the Leafs moved within one point of the Boston Bruins and second place in the Atlantic Division while the Sabres find themselves just one point up on the New York Islanders for last place in the Eastern Conference.

Though the Sabres jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, an Auston Matthews snipe from the slot capped three goals in just over nine minutes the second period to take the lead back. Matthews’ goal was enough for Bylsma to pull a frustrated Robin Lehner.

“That was huge,” Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner said of the way the Leafs stormed back for the lead. “It seems like a lot of times it’s been going the other way when we have the leads and it was good to tilt it the other way.”

“Just an unfortunate turn of events with how that second period played out in the first ten minutes,” said Bylsma.

The Leafs got six points from their rookies, which was the difference: the young Leafs have so far made good on their promise for the future and are now 9-1-1 in their last 11. Meanwhile, barring a second-half revival, the Sabres look destined for another lottery pick in 2017. They’ve now lost three of their last four.

“Standings wise, I don’t think we really like where we’re at,” said Eichel before the game. “There’s too much inconsistency in our game.”

That inconsistency was evident through the second period and stands to hold the Sabres back through the latter half of the season. There were some key additions in the off-season including leading scorer Kyle Okposo but this is still a bottom-five team in terms of 5-on-5 possession. In a league where speed makes all the difference, the Leafs appear to be racing towards contention thanks to their youth much quicker than the Sabres are. 

Tuesday night showed that regardless of how easy it is to tear a team down and start a rebuild, making good on a team’s plan for success is the difficult part.

The consistency with which the Leafs youth have performed this season, with three of the top four rookie scorers wearing the blue and white, is a big reason why the Leafs rebuild has progressed that much quicker than the Sabres has. Rookies Nikita Zaitsev, Zach Hyman, William Nylander, Connor Brown and Mitch Marner chipped in with assists while Zaitsev also stepped up big time after Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly left the game with a lower body injury. Zaitsev, another rookie, was named the game’s 3rd Star.

“We have a lot of depth up front and a lot of balance throughout the lineup,” said Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk. He also addressed the Leafs going down early in the game: “When we get in those situations we’ve just got to stick with our game plan and stick with what works.”

Back at the end of the 2014-15 season, nothing more than a coin-flip could have dictated which of these two cross-border rivals’ planned rebuild would have developed quicker. New coaches and a new direction meant that 100-mile stretch was one that was sure to be traveled even more frequently by fans of each team looking to give an old rivalry new life. Halfway through the 2017, just one of those teams is providing fans with reason to make that drive.


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