TORONTO (Jan. 27) — The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, they were hockey’s version of a retirement home. Consider the ages of the following players, integral to the 1967 playoff upsets of Chicago and Montreal: Johnny Bower (42), Allan Stanley (40), Red Kelly (39), Tim Horton (37), Terry Sawchuk (37), George Armstrong (36) and Marcel Pronovost (36). All of the aforementioned are deceased. Bower, the legendary goaltender, was the oldest Maple Leaf ever when he retired in December 1969, one month past his 45th birthday. Future hall–of–fame defenseman Zdeno Chara turns 45 on Mar. 18 of this year. Can you imagine the giant Slovak pulling on a Toronto jersey three days later… after the Mar. 21 National Hockey League trade deadline?
If the Leafs are looking for savvy, belligerence, depth on the blue line and Stanley Cup experience, they could not do much better than renting the Big ‘Z’ from the New York Islanders. This, of course, would require the cooperation of Lou Lamoriello, demoted from general manager to senior adviser by the Leafs on Apr. 30, 2018. Kyle Dubas took his spot in the big chair. Just more than three weeks later, Lamoriello fled to become GM of the Islanders. On July 1 of that summer, he lost captain John Tavares to his former team as an unrestricted free agent. It appeared the Islanders would lapse into decline, but Lamoriello and future Hall–of–Fame coach Barry Trotz somehow guided the club to a 23–point improvement and a second–round appearance in the Stanley Cup tournament (Toronto was ousted in the opening round by Boston). The following year, in a 68–game season shortened by the onset of COVID–19, the Islanders amassed 80 points and lost to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final (Toronto was sent packing by Columbus in the qualifying round). Then, last spring, as the Leafs were coughing up a 3–1 first–round lead against Montreal, Lamoriello and Trotz guided the Islanders to another Cup semifinal appearance (and loss) against the Lightning. Only this season have the Isles tailed off at 15–14–6 after 35 games (though 7–2–1 of late) and 16 points in arrears of the second wild card playoff spot in the East.
ZDENO CHARA IS BACK PLAYING FOR THE TEAM WITH WHICH HE BEGAN HIS NHL CAREER A QUARTER–CENTURY AGO. BUT, THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 2017–18. AND, CHARA WILL BE DEALT PRIOR TO THE MAR. 21 TRADE DEADLINE. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES/NHL
After spending last season with the Washington Capitals, Chara contemplated retirement but signed a one–year, $750,000 deal with the Islanders. Hanging on to the 6–foot–9, 250–pound behemoth beyond the trade deadline won’t make sense for Lamoriello; he’ll trade the 25–year veteran for a draft pick and/or a prospect. Both of which the Leafs would happily unload to acquire Chara for the stretch run and playoffs. Why? It seems rather obvious.
The 2021–22 Maple Leafs are in position to have the most wins at mid–season in franchise history. The record of 27 is held by the 2018–19 club that finished with 100 points. The current team is 26–10–3 after 39 games, with upcoming clashes against much–weaker Detroit and New Jersey. So, 28 wins after 41 games seems attainable.
Contributing predominantly to the surge is Jack Campbell, the first goalie in Leaf annals to earn 20 victories in the first half of a season (he is 20–6–3 with a 2.26 goals–against average, .926 save–percentage and four shutouts). Should Campbell stay healthy and continue his remarkable performance, the Leafs will be superbly graced at the game’s most–critical position for the Stanley Cup tournament. We cannot say, of course, whether the Big 4 up front for the Leafs — principally Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — will shake their lack of playoff achievement this spring. But, any such reversal, in combination with Campbell, could install Toronto amid the Cup favorites.
The Leafs are middle–of–the–pack among NHL defense units and were badly exposed in recent road losses to Colorado and the New York Rangers. A short–term dose of Chara would help stabilize the Toronto blue line.
Once he turns 45, the Big ‘Z’ will move into a tie as the third–oldest player in NHL history. Only Gordie Howe (52) and Chris Chelios (48) appeared at a more–advanced age. The captain of the 2011 Stanley Cup–champion Boston Bruins is on his last legs, but those legs are long and they know how to maneuver smartly and economically in the defensive zone. Chara still has an impressive reach and is not hesitant to become ornery. There will be younger and better defensemen available at the trade deadline. The Leafs would have to overpay for the likes of John Klingberg (Dallas) and Jacob Chychrun (Arizona), with no chance of affording either player beyond this season (Klingberg can become an unrestricted free agent; Chychrun has three years left at a cap hit of $4.6 million).
As I’ve written several times, it will be virtually impossible for the Maple Leafs to retain all of John Tavares, Matthews, Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly under a flat, $81.5 million salary cap, while still needing to re–sign Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev and young blue–liners Rasmus Sandin and Tim Liljegren. Therefore, ponying up for Klingberg or Chychrun would be irrational. Chara, conversely, would fit beneath Toronto’s projected cap space at the Mar. 21 deadline ($928,275, according to capfriendly.com) with no commitment for next season.
But, the big question remains: Would Lamoriello do business with the club that effectively let him go in 2018, then snagged his captain on the open market? Surely, Chara will be in demand elsewhere and Lou has a sharp memory, even at 79 years of age. The prospect may be dim, but you can bet that Dubas will make an inquiry.