Leafs Will Improve… Won’t They?

TORONTO (June 21) — The warnings were in place; unheeded, and verily scoffed at by fans of the record–setting Toronto Maple Leafs. The same warnings that are certain to be ignored later tonight in Las Vegas after what should be a glorious few moments for the Leafs — Mike Babcock and Auston Matthews likely to claim, respectively, the Jack Adams Award and Calder Trophy at the National Hockey League’s annual glitz.

In October 1993, coming off their deepest playoff run since last winning the Stanley Cup 26 years earlier, the Leafs opened the new season by winning their first ten games — breaking the modern–day record of eight (established by the 1975–76 Buffalo Sabres). It was, however, a sidelight for observers in Toronto and across Canada, as the Toronto Blue Jays were appearing in their second consecutive World Series. In fact, the Leafs cracked Buffalo’s season–opening streak, in St. Petersburg, Fla., mere moments before Joe Carter belted his championship–winning home run off Mitch Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies. When full spectator attention turned to the Blue and White, they were 9–0–0… and about to become 10–0–0 with another triumph, Oct. 28, at old Chicago Stadium. Like never before, our city was awash in double–sports euphoria.

  
OCT. 23, 1993 WAS A NIGHT UNPARALLELED IN TORONTO SPORTS HISTORY. FIRST, THE MAPLE LEAFS WON, 2–0, AT TAMPA BAY TO ESTABLISH A RECORD OF NINE CONSECUTIVE VICTORIES AT THE START OF A NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE SEASON. THEN, MOMENTS LATER, AT SKYDOME, JOE CARTER WALKED OFF THE BLUE JAYS WITH HIS NOW–LEGENDARY HOME RUN TO LEFT–FIELD, AGAINST THE PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES, FOR THE CLUB’S SECOND WORLD SERIES TRIUMPH IN AS MANY YEARS.

Lost amid the frenzy was a notion that the Leafs might encounter some difficulty in equaling their meteoric ascent of the previous year, when Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Wendel Clark, Felix Potvin et al authored a team–record 32–point improvement and ventured to within a single triumph of playing for the Stanley Cup. “Good one!” answered Toronto hockey followers as their perfect team prepared for Game 11 of the 1993–94 schedule at the Montreal Forum. Even a streak–busting, 5–2 loss to the Canadiens couldn’t diffuse the unshakable conclusion that the Leafs were on their way to bigger and much better.

Nearly a quarter–century later, the record clearly indicates the accuracy of those that had a more conservative appraisal of the ’93–94 Maple Leafs. The 10–game win streak was not only the apex of that season, but, in fact, the short–lived reign of Burns and Gilmour in Toronto (memorable though it was). After winning 4–2 in Chicago to reach the perfect–ten, the Leafs were a pedestrian 33–29–12 in their remaining 74 matches. A first–round playoff defeat of the Blackhawks was followed by a colossal struggle against San Jose that the Sharks nearly won when Johan Garpenlov struck the crossbar behind Potvin in overtime of Game 6 at Maple Leaf Gardens. As it were, veteran Mike Gartner provided the decisive tally and the Leafs advanced to a second Conference final by ousting the plucky Sharks in Game 7 (also at MLG, as the ’94 playoff format adopted a 2–3–2 rotation). Against Vancouver, Gilmour and the Maple Leafs were throttled in five games.

What followed were first–round defeats in 1995 (against Chicago) and 1996 (St. Louis); then consecutive playoff misses in ’97 and ’98. In other words, a not–so–gradual decline after the record bump in ’92–93.

I am not here to forecast that the current Leafs will proceed down a similar path. Rather, I urge emboldened fans of the Blue and White to remember that nothing is guaranteed in the NHL… and that teams often flatten out on the heels of a one–season splurge. Babcock, Matthews and Co. rocketed northward by 26 points in 2016–17. I can almost guarantee the club will encounter more of a challenge next season — in the standings and perhaps with respect to avoiding key injuries after a remarkably healthy year. Opponents will no longer be facing a 30th–place club on the rise and will prepare for the Leafs as they would other playoff contenders. Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander may improve on their splendid rookie numbers, but modern NHL history overwhelmingly indicates that Year 2 is a good deal tougher than Year 1.

Which doesn’t consign the Leafs to failure over the long haul. Often, if properly constructed, a team will naturally take a backward step in the process of moving forward. If not, the decline will continue.

  
None of this, however, seems to have deterred those that are paid to watch the Blue and White — many of whom feel the Leafs are Stanley Cup bound. No less an observer than Damien Cox essentially wrote as much in his weekly column for the Saturday Toronto Star (http://bit.ly/2sUI1lm). I have long considered Damien among the top analytical minds in the local media. As such, he may be stone–cold accurate in his assessment of the Maple Leafs. In my view, however, people around here are getting carried away. Which is somewhat natural, given how near–perfectly the Leafs administration has governed itself in the past three years. Luring Babcock as coach; drafting Nylander, Marner and Matthews in consecutive summers and trading smartly with Anaheim for goalie Frederik Andersen has vaulted the club from last place to middle–of–the–pack. Now comes the hard part: Rising from middle–of–the–pack to legitimate Stanley Cup contention without the benefit of elite draft picks… and while becoming the prime target of all NHL rivals.

Of course, and as mentioned, none of this will be front–of–mind tonight in Vegas when Babcock and Matthews become the first coach/player combo of the Leafs to cop awards since Burns and Gilmour in 1993. All will seem near–perfect in the Toronto hockey universe. Expectation will be through the roof once training camp begins in September and the Leafs open their home schedule, Oct. 7, against the New York Rangers.

But, let’s see where we stand with the Blue and White one year from today.

1974 MLG PLAYOFF STUBS

From a scrapbook I made as a 15–year–old. The Green seats were in the northwest corner of Maple Leaf Gardens for Game 4 of the Toronto–Boston Stanley Cup quarterfinal on Sunday, Apr. 14, 1974. Trailing the best–of–seven series, 3–0, the Leafs appeared finished when Bobby Orr beat Doug Favell to break a 2–2 tie at 17:34 of the third period. But, rookie Inge Hammarstrom evened the match once again just 1:09 later (at 18:43) on assists from Paul Henderson and Darryl Sittler, forcing overtime. Alas, the Leaf comeback was not to be, as Ken Hodge re–directed a shot from the point by defenseman Carol Vadnais at 1:27 of the first extra period, eliminating Toronto in the minimum four games. The World Hockey Association Red ticket, at right, was from Game 1 of a semifinal series between the Toronto Toros and Chicago Cougars on Friday, Apr. 19, 1974. The Toros were in their first WHA season, having relocated from Ottawa. The club played its regular–season games at old Varsity Arena, but moved its playoff matches to the Gardens. These seats were still closest to the ice in the spring of 1974. Box 17, Row E was five rows directly behind the home–team bench. For the following season (1974–75), Red seats became Golds and the second–level Blues became Reds.

  
STANLEY CUP MEMORIES (19632016)


On June 11, the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champion. It equaled the club’s own feat, accomplished with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis leading the way in 1991 and 1992. Pittsburgh is one of only four expansion teams to win the Cup in consecutive years; the others being Philadelphia (1974–1975); New York Islanders (1980–81–82–83) and Edmonton (1984–1985 / 1987–1988). Only once since 1979 has the Stanley Cup final featured pre–expansion teams — in 2013, when Chicago defeated Boston. Dec. 19 of this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the first National Hockey League games, played on a Wednesday night in Montreal; hosted by the Canadiens and Wanderers. The Stanley Cup, however, dates to 1893, when the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (or Montreal A.A.A.) finished atop the five–team Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) with a 7–1 record in eight games. The first Stanley Cup playoff match took place on Mar. 17, 1894 at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, which was located two blocks south of the current Bell Centre. Five days later, on Mar. 22, Montreal A.A.A. successfully defended its championship with a 3–1 victory over the Ottawa Senators, also at the Victoria rink. I have spent much of the past week combing through my collection of scrapbooks, newspapers and issues of The Hockey News to present this pictorial history of the Stanley Cup between 1963 and 2016. A total of 27 Cup victories are featured here — including Philadelphia’s initial expansion conquest of 1974; the first titles captured by Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and the last Cup won, to date, by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Please enjoy this reflection:

1963 — TORONTO over DETROIT

  
  
1964 — TORONTO over DETROIT

  


1966 — MONTREAL over DETROIT

  

1967 — TORONTO over MONTREAL


  
1969 — MONTREAL over ST. LOUIS

  

  
1971 — MONTREAL over CHICAGO


  
  
1973 — MONTREAL over CHICAGO


  

1974 — PHILADELPHIA over BOSTON

  

  
  
  
1980 — NEW YORK ISLANDERS over PHILADELPHIA

  

  
1983 — NEW YORK ISLANDERS over EDMONTON

  


1984 — EDMONTON over NEW YORK ISLANDERS

  

  
1985 — EDMONTON over PHILADELPHIA

  

  

1986 — MONTREAL over CALGARY

  

1987 — EDMONTON over PHILADELPHIA



1991 — PITTSBURGH over MINNESOTA


1994 — NEW YORK RANGERS over VANCOUVER



  
  
  
1995 — NEW JERSEY over DETROIT

  

  
1996 — COLORADO over FLORIDA

  

  
1997 — DETROIT over PHILADELPHIA

  

  
1999 — DALLAS over BUFFALO

  
  


2001 — COLORADO over NEW JERSEY


  
  
2002 — DETROIT over CAROLINA

  
  
  

2003 — NEW JERSEY over ANAHEIM

  
  

2004 — TAMPA BAY over CALGARY


2014 — LOS ANGELES over NEW YORK RANGERS

  

2015 — CHICAGO over TAMPA BAY

  

2016 — PITTSBURGH over SAN JOSE

  

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.