Leafs: Is The Magic Number 52?

TORONTO (June 20) — At 10:45 p.m. Eastern on Sunday night, Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, stood center–court at Oracle Arena in Oakland; microphone in hand. “To northeast–Ohio and Cleveland,” Silver proclaimed, “the curse is over. The 52–year drought has come to an end.” With that, Silver presented the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Cleveland Cavaliers — the first major professional champion on the south shore of Lake Erie since the National Football League Browns in 1964.

This can be taken as an encouraging sign for hockey’s tortured souls here in the Big Smoke. Of course, Toronto hasn’t been starved of a professional championship since 1964. The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967. Toronto Metros–Croatia of the North American Soccer League (forerunner to Major League Soccer) prevailed in 1976. The Argonauts of the nine–team Canadian Football League ended a nearly–impossible 31–year famine in 1983; then added Grey Cup titles in 1991–96–97–2004 and 2012. And, the Blue Jays turned this city upside down by winning consecutive World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.

So, Toronto has trounced Cleveland, 10–1, in the past 52 years.


Where it seems to matter most, however, our town feels like a forever loser.

You must, on this day, be approaching retirement age to have first–hand recollection of the Leafs’ last triumph in ’67; in your mid–30’s to remember the Pat Burns–Doug Gilmour–Wendel Clark outfit of 1993 that since came closest to a berth in the Stanley Cup final; and, in your early–to–mid 20’s to recall much about the last playoff appearance after a full, 82–game season (under the late Pat Quinn, in 2004). So, a championship in the NHL would be a first for the overwhelming majority of post–baby boomers in Toronto. And, of course, for each and every “millennial.” Heck, even something as modest as an opening–round victory in the Stanley Cup playoffs would engender a form of culture shock in southern Ontario.

Let us, however, fast–forward to the spring of 2019. Year 52 of the Stanley Cup drought.

Much will need to unfold brilliantly for the Leafs to duplicate the Cavaliers’ triumph. But, possibilities do exist. If, for example, Friday’s big catch in Buffalo — Auston Matthews — develops as anticipated, the Leafs could have a quasi–version of LeBron James (though it’s difficult to envision Matthews the most dominant player in the NHL at 22). Should Mitch Marner carry over, into professional hockey, his puck wizardry and big–game performances from Junior in London, Ont., the Leafs may possess their answer to Kyrie Irving. Barring a catastrophe, Mike Babcock will have served, by 2019, half of his eight–year, $50–million term as coach of the Blue and White. His pronounced stamp should be all over the club, from top to bottom.

Still required, categorically, are two elements — a big, rangy defenseman capable of playing 25 to 30 minutes–per–night at the level of a Norris Trophy candidate, and a Vezina–caliber goalie (UPDATE: Leafs traded the No. 30 selection in the first round of Friday’s draft to Anaheim for Frederik Andersen. I’m not convinced he’s the long–term answer, but it’s worth a shot for the pick). But, three years is a long time in the National Hockey League; enough time for an efficient, contemporary organization to assemble the components of a Stanley Cup threat. As mentioned, these components have to come together like a Rubik’s Cube, and the Leafs — let us recall — are fresh off a 30th–place finish.

But, we can also remember the Chicago Blackhawks as a 71–point team in 2006–07 (26th overall), three seasons before their first Stanley Cup title since 1961. And, the Los Angeles Kings as a 79–point straggler in 2008–09 (25th overall), three years before their first–ever championship. Accordingly, perhaps Toronto and Cleveland — by 2019 — will share more than just a perch amid the Great Lakes.



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