TORONTO (Dec. 25) — Yes, the standings suggest otherwise — if only slightly — and the good folks on the Gulf side of Florida may vehemently disagree. But, I say to you, on Christmas Night 2018, that the Toronto Maple Leafs are the best team in the National Hockey League. In no way does it imply the Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup; far–too–many variables exist between now and next June to credibly offer such a prediction. As of right now, however, there is no club in the NHL superior to the Blue and White.
Oddly, the best indication of this occurred at Amalie Arena, Dec. 13, in the first meeting between Tampa Bay and Toronto — today, sitting one–two atop the overall standings. On the scoreboard, the Leafs were upened, 4–1, yet they supplied their most–dynamic performance to this juncture of the schedule. In fact, the rink appeared tilted in the direction of the Tampa end and only a supernatural performance by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy prevented the Leafs from a landslide of their own. Returning from a fracture in his left foot, Vasilevskiy tied a club–record by making 48 saves, as Toronto out–shot the Lightning by more than a 2–to–1 margin (49–21). For long stretches, the Leafs skated circles around their division rival; Vasilevskiy plundering two points. By himself. The clubs meet three more times: Jan. 17 in Tampa, then Mar. 11 and Apr. 4 at Scotiabank Arena — games that could–well determine which team finishes atop the Atlantic Division.
At the Christmas break, and by virtue of a marvelous 14–1–1 record since Nov. 21, Tampa Bay leads the NHL with a 28–7–2 mark for 58 points. Toronto — 10–4–2 in the same stretch — is next at 25–10–2 for 52 points. The Lightning and Leafs are also the two highest–scoring teams in the league: Tampa Bay with a 154 to 140 edge. Yet, there is something about the Leafs (very–much including the lone head–to–head match–up) that promises more in the second half of the season. Health pending, Toronto has the most–gifted array of forwards in the NHL, with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri and Kasperi Kapanen. And, the occasional contribution from Patrick Marleau. Morgan Rielly leads all defensemen in goals (11) and points (41) without any indication of a prolonged scoring drought. Yes, the Leafs — as always — are susceptible in their own zone, yet they’ve allowed three fewer goals (103–106) than Tampa Bay. If general manager Kyle Dubas can somehow parlay his embarrassment–of–riches up front into a big, dependable body on the blue line, there’s no telling what the Leafs may accomplish.
ANDREI VASILVESKIY BRILLIANTLY THWARTED JOHN TAVARES AND THE LEAFS IN TAMPA, DEC. 13.
No club prior to this in franchise history has won 25 of its first 37 games. Nor has any compiled as many points in the standings, including the 1993–94 team of Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark et al that began the season with a perfect 10–0–0 mark. Last year, when the Leafs established a franchise record of 105 points, they were 22–14–1 (45 points) after 37 games. Only the 2003–04 outfit, which held the previous team–high of 103 points, was close to the current club: 21–7–9 for 51 points. And, only after Pat Quinn had guided the Leafs to a franchise–long unbeaten streak (14–0–2 between Nov. 22 and Dec. 26).
The Achilles Heel of the Maple Leafs appears to be two–fold: the over–exertion, once again, of No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen before the playoffs. And, having to square off, at some point, against Division nemesis Boston. If the Stanley Cup tournament started tonight, Toronto would play Buffalo with home–ice advantage. Lurking, however, just three points behind the Sabres — and getting healthier — are the Bruins, against whom the Leafs, and Andersen in particular, are rather spooked. Boston is able to deliver, at crunch time, a brand of hockey more conducive to the playoffs. Which, again, requires that Dubas add some bite to the roster before the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline. And, ideally, a No. 2 stopper in which Mike Babcock has confidence. Garret Sparks doesn’t appear to be that player, which contributes mightily to burning out Andersen well–before the two months of playoff drudgery needed to win the NHL championship.
As we speak, however, the Leafs are the best team in hockey’s best league. Better, even, than the Division opponent they manhandled — everywhere but between the pipes — on Dec. 13.
at MAPLE LEAF GARDENS
More in my collection of Maple Leaf Gardens hockey programs from 50 years ago. After a three–game road trip to Detroit, Chicago and Montreal (Dec. 22–26), the Leafs came home to face Los Angeles on Dec. 28, 1968. Though the Kings were in just their second NHL season, having won 11 of 30 games, they easily handled the Leafs, 4–1. Toronto, however, was in the midst of its hottest stretch of the ’68–69 schedule, posting a record of 13–5–5 in 23 games (Dec. 4–Jan. 25). Back in the day, the Gardens would celebrate Leaf appearances during the holiday season by printing the program–insert mostly in green (as below):
OF THE 22 PEOPLE IN THIS 1968 HOLIDAY PHOTO, 11 HAVE SINCE PASSED ON. THEY ARE: KING CLANCY (1986); PUNCH IMLACH (1987); TIM HORTON (1974); BRUCE GAMBLE (1982); JOHNNY BOWER (2017); MURRAY OLIVER (2014); MARCEL PRONOVOST (2015); PIERRE PILOTE (2017); PAT QUINN (2014); BILL SUTHERLAND (2017) AND LARRY MICKEY (1982). STILL WITH US ARE: RON ELLIS (72); DAVE KEON (78); GEORGE ARMSTRONG (88); BOB PULFORD (82); NORM ULLMAN (82); FLOYD SMITH (83); PAUL HENDERSON (75); MIKE WALTON (73); MIKE PELYK (71); JIM DOREY (71) AND RICK LEY (70).