TORONTO (Feb. 6) — The dubious playoff record is gut–wrenchingly familiar to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs: Most Consecutive First–Round Eliminations by a North American Professional Sports Team — 6. Is there a logical or pronounced explanation for the streak to end this spring? Certainly not to these eyes.
Given the reluctance of Maple Leafs management to fundamentally alter the line–up, only blind hope can account for a Stanley Cup challenge in 2023. Though the club has performed with improved defensive structure for most of the current season — a credit to coach Sheldon Keefe — it still glaringly lacks the two most–integral components of a championship team: goaltending brilliance and a Norris Trophy candidate. To expect that one or both deficits will be vanquished prior to the Mar. 3 National Hockey League trade deadline is to dream. In technicolor.
As I have previously (and graphically) indicated in this corner, the chance of winning the Stanley Cup without a franchise goalie and/or defenseman is infinitesimal. Simply peruse the list, below, of NHL champions since 1970, with Norris Trophy candidates or winners bracketed. Most players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame; those that aren’t will be inducted when eligible. The list shows that only nine of the past 52 Cup winners (or 17.3 percent) have lacked such a component on the blue line. Those listed in BLUE represent teams that prevailed with neither a Norris–caliber defenseman nor a Vezina–caliber goalie. Those listed in GREEN lacked a franchise defenseman, but possessed arguably the best goaltender in the world (the 1974, 1975 Philadelphia Flyers had Bernie Parent; the 1993 Montreal Canadiens and 1996 Colorado Avalanche had Patrick Roy). That reduces such a club as the current Leafs to a mere 9.6 percent chance of winning the title this season. A further argument can be made for the 1988 Edmonton Oilers (Wayne Gretzky), 1990 Edmonton Oilers (Mark Messier) and 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins (Sidney Crosby) possessing the most–dominant player in the sport. Which the Maple Leafs also currently lack.
That leaves the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes (in RED) as the only true anomalies among the past 52 Stanley Cup champions — a minuscule 3.8 percent. As even a dyed–in–the–wool supporter of the Blue and White, would you put a heap of cash on that diminutive number? Probably not.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 1970–2022
1970 BOSTON BRUINS (Bobby Orr)
1971 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Jacques Laperriere, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe)
1972 BOSTON BRUINS (Bobby Orr)
1973 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson)
1974 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
1975 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
1976 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson)
1977 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson)
1978 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson)
1979 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson)
1980 NEW YORK ISLANDERS (Denis Potvin)
1981 NEW YORK ISLANDERS (Denis Potvin)
1982 NEW YORK ISLANDERS (Denis Potvin)
1983 NEW YORK ISLANDERS (Denis Potvin)
1984 EDMONTON OILERS (Paul Coffey)
1985 EDMONTON OILERS (Paul Coffey)
1986 MONTREAL CANADIENS (Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios)
1987 EDMONTON OILERS (Paul Coffey)
1988 EDMONTON OILERS
1989 CALGARY FLAMES (Al MacInnis)
1990 EDMONTON OILERS
1991 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy)
1992 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy)
1993 MONTREAL CANADIENS
1994 NEW YORK RANGERS (Brian Leetch, Sergei Zubov)
1995 NEW JERSEY DEVILS (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer)
1996 COLORADO AVALANCHE
1997 DETROIT RED WINGS (Nicklas Lidstrom)
1998 DETROIT RED WINGS (Nicklas Lidstrom, Larry Murphy)
1999 DALLAS STARS (Sergei Zubov, Darien Hatcher)
2000 NEW JERSEY DEVILS (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer)
2001 COLORADO AVALANCHE (Rob Blake, Raymond Bourque)
2002 DETROIT RED WINGS (Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios)
2003 NEW JERSEY DEVILS (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer)
2004 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
2006 CAROLINA HURRICANES
2007 ANAHEIM DUCKS (Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer)
2008 DETROIT RED WINGS (Nicklas Lidstrom)
2009 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Kris Letang)
2010 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (Duncan Keith)
2011 BOSTON BRUINS (Zdeno Chara)
2012 LOS ANGELES KINGS (Drew Doughty)
2013 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (Duncan Keith)
2014 LOS ANGELES KINGS (Drew Doughty)
2015 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (Duncan Keith)
2016 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
2017 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Kris Letang)
2018 WASHINGTON CAPITALS (John Carlson)
2019 ST. LOUIS BLUES (Alex Pietrangelo)
2020 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (Victor Hedman)
2021 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (Victor Hedman)
2022 COLORADO AVALANCHE (Cale Makar)
The specter of the Leafs posing a Cup challenge in 2023 with either of Matt Murray or Ilya Samsovov in net — and with Morgan Rielly (one goal in 37 games; a 0 plus/minus) as the club’s No. 1 defenseman — is pure fantasy. Despite lacking all evidence, Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have chosen, yet again, to bank their playoff chances on the Big (and passive) 4 up front: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares.
To the interminable exclusion of either a Norris or Vezina candidate.
This is why I firmly contend the Leafs will not step forward when it matters without sweeping change at the top. Shanahan and Dubas have supplied a wonderful regular–season product. But, nothing more. As such, the team is again positioned whereby winning a single playoff round for the first time in nearly two decades would touch off a grenade–like celebration… and, more–than–likely, preserve jobs. The Stanley Cup bar is below sea level.
Ownership continues to rake in massive profits… and viewership on TSN/Sportsnet whenever the Leafs are mentioned. Under what circumstance are Rogers/Bell/Larry Tanenbaum motivated toward elemental change?
Sadly, the endless endurance of the fan base allows for such paralysis. That, and an apathetic local media which routinely avoids important issues. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment understands this… and takes full advantage of it. Almost never does Shanahan — an otherwise respected and revered figure (ask any of the Leafs alumni) — make himself available to explain why the hockey club can accomplish more this spring than in the previous half–dozen. What can he say differently from after the Tampa Bay series last year, or the Montreal fiasco of 2021? The Leafs hang onto their aborted playoff nucleus each year because, a) they can… and b) the club remains in salary cap hell, knowing significant change isn’t remotely possible without offloading one of Matthews, Marner or Nylander. That requires effort and ingenuity, neither of which, evidently, is expected by ownership.
Instead, remaining competitive during the 82–game regular schedule and offering the illusion of Stanley Cup success is more than adequate from a business perspective. Always has been. Where is the need for urgency?
If the Leafs truly wanted to break the pattern and try for the ultimate prize, management would be proactive.
Not lethargic and whimsical.
So, get excited, if you wish, for the trade deadline. Convince yourself that a rental or two will alter the playoff narrative. But, know that unless the rentals are Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman, nothing will change.