TORONTO (Mar. 23) — Though it’s true and understandable that the 2017–18 Toronto Maple Leafs will be evaluated on their playoff performance, we are likely watching the second–best club in franchise history.
When I say “watching”, I mean so literally: as during the television era. Or, just beyond 1950–51, when Conn Smythe and Joe Primeau guided the Maple Leafs to a 95–point season and a fourth Stanley Cup title in five years. Only those listening to Foster Hewitt on radio could follow that team — generally regarded as the best–ever composed by the Blue and White. In the TV era, or after the mid–50’s, that distinction belongs to the 1962–63 Toronto club that began to blaze in the second month of the schedule (13–4–3 from Nov. 7 to Dec. 23); finished strongly (10–4–3) and won the Stanley Cup in 10 games (eliminating Montreal and Detroit).
Given the skill and points accumulation of the current Maple Leafs club — and consummated by Thursday night’s 5–2 take–down of the National Hockey League’s No. 1 outfit in Nashville — it’s fair to presuppose that Mike Babcock’s crew has the best chance of all, since 1967, to end the longest–ever Stanley Cup drought.
With respect to the regular season, this should soon become official. Though wins and points are awarded more liberally in the overtime/shootout era, the Maple Leafs are close to equaling the franchise mark of 103 points, established under Pat Quinn in 2003–04. Currently with 95, the club needs eight of 16 available points to share the record; nine to surpass it. And, barring an “18–wheeler”, this season will yield the most victories in franchise history. With 44 to date, the Leafs are only one shy of the mark shared by the teams of 1998–99, 1999–2000 and 2003–04. A 50–win season — unfathomable two years ago — is hardly a stretch.
THE LEAFS CELEBRATE THEIR BIGGEST WIN OF THE 2017–18 SEASON, ROUTING THE NASHVILLE PREDATORS, 5–2, THURSDAY NIGHT AT BRIDGESTONE ARENA. JOHN RUSSELL GETTY IMAGES
Though the law of averages favored a Nashville defeat (the Predators were 14–0–1 in 15 games prior to Thursday night), the visitors rather toyed with the NHL’s top–ranked club at Bridgestone Arena. It was quite astonishing how the Leafs out–skated and overwhelmed the yellow–clad men from Music City. But, again, it conformed with a season–long pattern. In 14 games against the five clubs ahead of them in the overall standings (Nashville, Tampa Bay, Boston, Vegas and Winnipeg), the Leafs are 8–4–2, having swept both meetings with the Predators and compiled a 3–1–0 mark against the Bruins (Boston is 30–7–5 since Dec. 18).
A home date against Patrik Laine and the Jets is set for Mar. 31.
So, embrace the possibility that these Leafs are the best of the TV era — perhaps equivalent to the 1962–63 club coached by Punch Imlach; led in goals (36) and points (73) by the Big M, Frank Mahovlich. The playoffs beckon with a sizable hill in the Atlantic Division, as it’s likely the Leafs will not make it to the Eastern Conference final without knocking off T–Bay and Boston. But, why should that be considered impractically?
The margin between the Leafs and the five clubs they trail in the standings is razor–thin. In my view, only the lack of a Top–4 NHL defenseman can thwart a Stanley Cup challenge by Toronto this spring.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
A rather poignant contrast to the current Leafs’ situation reared itself nearly 30 years ago… in the Dec. 23, 1988 edition of THE HOCKEY NEWS. The Leafs were in total disarray with a 1–12–1 record between Nov. 25 and Dec. 26. Owner Harold Ballard — crazy at the best of times — found himself in the throes of dementia. And, coach John Brophy was under fire from all corners. Even from out of town, where ex–Toronto winger, Miroslav Frycer, having been traded to Detroit by general manager Gord Stellick, hauled off and blistered his former coach in print. The Brophy–Frycer dynamic had to be seen, as I did while covering the Leafs in the first year of my radio career. It’s fairly certain that no two members of the organization have ever despised one another like the fiery coach and the Czechoslovak ex–patriot. Nor would you likely see, today, the sort of on–the–record vitriol spewed by each man in this story — by Red Wings beat writer Keith Gave:
AUTOGRAPHS ON A PROGRAM
On the front of two program–inserts from Maple Leaf Gardens during the 1971–72 NHL season are autographs I obtained while at the games as a 12–year–old. In fact, I still have the ticket–stubs (above) in a scrapbook — both Wednesday–nights. The first, from Oct. 20, 1971, saw the second–year Buffalo Sabres wallop the Leafs, 7–2. St. Louis then doubled the Leafs, 6–3, on Dec. 29, 1971. These seats were still Blues.
They would become Reds to begin the 1974–75 NHL schedule.
During the Buffalo game, I got autographs (above) from Sabres GM/coach Punch Imlach and veteran winger Floyd Smith, who retired after this game and became Buffalo coach in 1974–75 (leading Sabres to the Stanley Cup final). From the Leafs are signatures of David Keon, Guy Trottier and Brian R. Spencer. Also, from a couple of Leafs legends: Penalty timekeeper Irvin “Ace” Bailey and assistant manager King Clancy. The other autograph is from Tom McKee, then a host with CBC Sports. Contents from the program are here:
While attending the St. Louis game, I got autographs from Blues coach Al Arbour and defenseman Carl Brewer. Also, from Leafs coach John McLellan; players Jim Harrison and Brad Selwood. Dave Hodge, in his first season as intermission host of Hockey Night In Canada, also signed. And, arguably the most–coveted signature is from the legendary Foster Hewitt, who began calling hockey on radio in 1923 and was voice of the Maple Leafs through February 1976. Contents from the St. Louis program are here: