TORONTO (Jan. 7) — No one debates the skill. Or, on most nights, the resolve.
Proof is in the formidable ledger of the Toronto Maple Leafs nearing the midway mark of the 2022–23 National Hockey League schedule: Over the past three seasons, including the 56–game, all–Canadian slate of January to May 2021, the club has played 177 games. Compiling a record of 112 wins, 44 regulation losses and 21 defeats in overtime or shootout. Amassing 245 of 354 available points in the standings. Or, 69.2 percent thereof. By any reasonable measure, a strong and enviable accomplishment… in any sport. Yet, numbers that lead only to questions — not answers — about the most–prolific teams in the 106–year history of the Toronto franchise. Why is that so?
There are no categorical explanations. But, two hypotheses abound throughout the era that began on June 27, 2014 when the Leafs selected forward William Nylander in the eighth position of the NHL draft. Followed, in 2015, with Mitch Marner coming aboard at No. 4. And climaxing, in 2016, with the No. 1 overall capture of Auston Matthews. This threesome, unparalleled over an identical juncture in franchise history, has enabled the Leafs to reside among the elite regular–season clubs in the now 32–team NHL. Yet, with nothing to show when it matters: in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The initial premise is obvious and overwhelming: the Maple Leafs have not received Stanley Cup–caliber goaltending in any of their aborted playoff pursuits of the past six years. The second argument is more ambiguous, yet equally as compelling: this version of the hockey club has been devoid of a fulcrum; a core–figure around which all other players can rally when money is on the table. Or, more–commonly, a leader.
Difficult as it may be to comprehend among those with first–hand recollection, the apex of the post–1967 Maple Leafs occurred nearly 30 years ago — on May 29, 1993. That night, so–dismally etched in franchise lore, featured a monumental performance by Wayne Gretzky at Maple Leaf Gardens; one that hockey’s greatest forward still refers to as his finest playoff hour. No. 99 of the Los Angeles Kings owned the ice pad on Carlton Street, scoring three goals in 5–4 triumph by the visitors that eliminated Toronto from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals. One victory removed from challenging for the NHL title. Still the farthest the Maple Leafs have advanced since last winning the coveted trophy, more than 55½ years ago. How was it that a Toronto club not nearly as gifted as the current iteration made such noise in the hockey spring? The answer is easy and unequivocal — the player wearing No. 93 would not allow his disciples to submerge. Over 42 nights, he carried the team on his back.
DOUG GILMOUR (93) OUT–DUELS BRETT HULL OF ST. LOUIS AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS DURING THE SECOND ROUND OF THE 1993 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS. THE LEAFS ELIMINATED THE BLUES AND WENT ON TO FACE LOS ANGELES IN THE CUP SEMIS. WAYNE GRETZKY ULTIMATELY PREVAILED.
It says here, without pause, that any of the past six Toronto playoff teams would have advanced deeply — perhaps conquered all rivals — in the company of Doug Gilmour, circa 1993. Though Nylander, Marner and Matthews possess greater skill than the Hall–of–Fame center, none can match Gilmour in the imponderable, yet glaring power, by his mere ubiquity, to procure maximum effort from all teammates. A scrawny, unimposing figure on chronically pained ankles somehow ascended among giants of the sport. With absolute resolve and conviction. Stubbornly averse to conceding ground. Rising exponentially to the occasion. In every way, an exemplary leader.
Given the playoff evidence that began in 2017, the current Leafs have nothing that compares to Doug Gilmour. Not even collective resolve can equal the endowment No. 93 provided the Leafs of the same calendar year, three decades ago. Neither is there a Toronto warhorse, today, that mirros the dependable, unflinching Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. It is possible that a club lacking such an ingredient could compensate with magnificence in goal. Which the Maple Leafs have not possessed since the spring of 2002, when Curtis Joseph backstopped an injury riddled outfit to Game 6 of the semifinals, two wins removed from vying for the Stanley Cup. Neither Frederik Andersen nor Jack Campbell offered a similar platform in the playoff seasons of 2017 to 2022.
Whether Matt Murray and/or Ilya Samsonov can ascend to such a level this year remains a mystery. Murray did on one occasion, with the championship Pittsburgh Penguins of 2016. In 21 playoff appearances he won 15 games with a 2.08 goals–against average and .923 save–percentage; both sparkling numbers. Since that time, Murray has been mostly a peripheral figure. Samsonov has no playoff resume: a 1–6 record (2.98/.902) in eight appearances with Washington. Until mid–December, both performed marvelously for the Blue and White. After mid–December, it’s been calamitous; the Maple Leafs have the lowest save–percentage in the entire league.
What, then, can be expected when the 2023 Stanley Cup tournament begins? Again, we can merely ponder.
But, fans of the Blue and White cannot expect a monolithic presence. Such as that provided by Gilmour in the spring of 1993. Nylander, Marner and Matthews have not, to this point, matched the sum of their parts. Very likely as the result of certitude not equaling skill. If inclination needs to be manufactured, no talented performer will ascend the Stanley Cup mountain. To prevail over two months and four rounds of laborious playoff competition, elite athletes must be able to improve as the stakes increase. These performers are not plentiful. But, no team can win without one or two–such figures. As with the sublime Gilmour of 30 springs ago. Or, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald in an era (1976–79), sadly for the Leafs, when no rival could match the dynastic Montreal Canadiens.
Prior to the games of today and tonight, Auston Matthews — the reigning Hart Trophy recipient — stood 19th in NHL scoring. And, though 45 points in 39 games is far–better than average, such distance from the top does not provide the Maple Leafs and their fans a lot of clout. A plus–18 figure shows that Matthews has committed to more of a defensive approach. Which could be handy at playoff time. But, residing 30 points in back of the NHL leader, Connor McDavid, is hardly a badge of honor. Not when compared with Gilmour’s franchise–record 127 points (and 95 assists) in 1992–93, which was good enough for only eighth in the scoring derby. Or, far–more significantly, his club–record (and resounding) 35 points in 21 playoff games. If Matthews, in particular, cannot lift himself above and beyond in the spring, no amount of media hype or contract chatter will resonate.
Somehow, and for once, he needs to become THE man… when it matters.
FROM THE VAULT…
IN MY HOCKEY COLLECTION ARE SIX EDITIONS OF THE NHL TEAM ALBUMS SOLD AT THE MONTREAL FORUM FOR GAMES DURING THE 1969–70 SEASON. HERE ARE THE TORONTO AND BOSTON ISSUES (FRONT COVERS, ABOVE; REAR COVERS, BELOW). THE BRUINS WOULD WIN THE STANLEY CUP THAT YEAR ON BOBBY ORR’S ICONIC OVERTIME GOAL AGAINST ST. LOUIS. THE MAPLE LEAFS WOULD FINISH DEAD–LAST IN THE SIX–TEAM EAST DIVISION.
THE NINE ALBUMS WERE ALSO AVAILABLE THROUGH MAIL–ORDER, AS IN THE OPENING PAGES (ABOVE) OF EACH MAGAZINE. AMONG THE PLAYER BIOGRAPHIES, BELOW, WERE DAVE KEON (TORONTO) AND BOBBY ORR (BOSTON).