TORONTO – Only a couple of years ago, many viewed the Maple Leafs’ situation as hopeless.
In what is considered hockey’s biggest and most demanding market, the Stanley Cup drought was growing, spectators started tossing team jerseys onto the ice in frustration and the biggest stars, Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf, bore the brunt of criticism.
Management had fed the fire, rushing into short-term fixes, believing the long-suffering fans were too impatient to tolerate a rebuild. Top free agents stayed away and, when they finally landed a big one in David Clarkson, the results quickly turned sour.
Then, like a page from the past, the stage seemed too big, the spotlight too bright for promising prospect Nazem Kadri, who showed discipline problems and was suspended.
Those threads – that the fans wouldn’t abide a rebuild, that top free agents would rather go elsewhere, and that young stars can’t handle the pressure – wove themselves into a shroud that cloaked any optimism around the franchise. Then the 2016-17 Maple Leafs surged into the playoffs, pushed the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals to six games in a first-round series and shredded the narrative, revealing it as nothing more than myth.
This myth-busting has all been brilliantly choreographed by the steady management team of president Brendan Shanahan, 48, general manager Lou Lamoriello, 74, and coach Mike Babcock, 54, who have all come aboard in the past three years. Of course, Lamoriello never bought into that line of thinking in the first place.
“I don’t believe in myths,” the straight-talking GM said. “How far we can go or what success we have, only time will tell and it really will be determined by the players and how we mold together. We’re going to determine that. No media is going to determine that, nor will the fans determine that.”
Since 2015, the Leafs have overhauled management, shipped out Clarkson, Kessel, Phaneuf and others, allowed Kadri to grow and mature, and opened up roster spots for untested players. Last season they were rewarded when first-year players combined for 304 points, paced by 69 from rookie of the year Auston Matthews, en route to the team’s second playoff appearance in the past 12 seasons.
The Leafs have now become a magnet to free agents, such as center Dominic Moore; defenseman Ron Hainsey, fresh off a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh; and forward Patrick Marleau, who left the San Jose Sharks after 19 seasons because he believed he could win his first Stanley Cup in Toronto.
“We’ve shown with the strides we’ve taken last year that we’re kind of on the upswing and people want to be a part of that,” veteran James van Riemsdyk said.
Babcock promised there would be pain when he arrived in 2015 and fans listened, trusting in hockey’s most acclaimed coach. The Leafs went on to finish dead last. Yet fans sat on their hands and waited.
With the best draft-lottery odds, the Leafs’ number came up and they snagged Matthews at No. 1, and it didn’t take long to show he was special. At 19, he led the team with 40 goals as part of his 69 points and captured the Calder Trophy.
Meanwhile, fledging stars Mitch Marner and William Nylander developed faster than anyone expected and, along with Matthews, gave the Leafs three of the top four rookie scorers in the league.
Overall, the Leafs improved by 26 points, although they suffered a league-high 15 overtime or shootout losses. Yet they made the postseason for only the second time since 2003-04 and gave the Washington Capitals a scare in the first round before falling in six games, five of which went to overtime.
Defense remains a concern in 2017-18 after the Leafs finished in the bottom third of the league in goals against average for two straight seasons under Babcock. Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitsev remain the anchors of the blue line while Frederik Andersen carries the load in goal.
“We came off a pretty encouraging season last year, the way our younger players developed and how they melded in with the veterans,” Lamoriello said. “We feel very good about this team.”
The window is open now before the entry-level deals for Nylander, Matthews, Marner expire and require salary-cap challenges.
Matthews worked hard in the offseason, and Babcock has noticed the improvement.
“His skating through the neutral zone from a year ago to now is night and day,” the coach said.
Yet the so-called sophomore jinx lurks in the background. Evgeni Malkin has been the only rookie of the year since 2007 to improve his point production the following season. With five goals in four preseason games, Matthews announced he’s not going to take a step back.
“He looks super-poised to take a run at anybody in terms of what his ceiling is,” defenseman Connor Carrick said. “Matts is hungry and it’s super-contagious. He’s kind of less looking for permission to be that player that he is. He’s just going out and doing it.”
In the preseason, the Matthews-Nylander-Zach Hyman unit remained intact, as well as the Tyler Bozak line with van Riemsdyk and Marner. Kadri was often between Marleau and Leo Komarov.
Lamoriello is a man of perspective. He points out that the Leafs haven’t really accomplished anything. They didn’t make the postseason until Game 81 of the regular season and, despite pushing the Capitals, still lost in the first round.
“There’s no question we’re a little ahead of where we were three years ago, but we’re not there yet,” Lamoriello said.
Babcock is holding to his mantra that there will be more pain, using as an example the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings that he coached in 2005-06.
“We had 124 points and we lost [to Edmonton] in the first round,” he recalled. “There’s going to be lots of ups and downs. But the sun’s going to get up and we’re going to keep working.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins are preseason favorites to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, with several other teams, including the Edmonton Oilers and Capitals, rated as legitimate threats ahead of Toronto.
Toronto hasn’t won a Cup since 1967, a 50-year drought that is the longest in the NHL, not counting the expansion St. Louis Blues.
Winning a title is a daunting task made heavier by this half-century of failure, leaving a generation of fans wondering if they will be alive to see the Cup return.
Despite the accelerated pace with which Toronto has emerged as a threat in the East, this remains just the third season of a rebuilding process under Babcock, Lamoriello and Shanahan. Perhaps a true measure of their success will be if he can halt the drought before it gets to 55 years.
Curtis Rush is a former longtime Toronto Star journalist covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL. He continues to write about hockey and other sports for various publications in the United States and Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @CurtisGRush.
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