The Leafs Are Still An Illusion

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.


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)
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)
1989 CALGARY FLAMES (Al MacInnis)
1991 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy)
1992 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy)
1994 NEW YORK RANGERS (Brian Leetch, Sergei Zubov)
1995 NEW JERSEY DEVILS (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer)
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)
2007 ANAHEIM DUCKS (Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer)
2008 DETROIT RED WINGS (Nicklas Lidstrom)
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)
2019 ST. LOUIS BLUES (Alex Pietrangelo)
2020 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (Victor Hedman)
2021 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (Victor Hedman)

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.

Good luck.

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.


10 comments on “The Leafs Are Still An Illusion

  1. A good chunk of those Stanley Cup Champions who didn’t have a Norris Trophy Finalist on their team had a Selke Trophy Type Player on their team.

  2. In my opinion anything less than a conference finals appearance is a failure this season. That’s mostly because of the recent failures and their improved defensive play this season. They APPEAR to have learned, and they have a (very fragile) goalie who has won. Additionally, I won’t swallow the excuse about being in a tough division with Boston and Tampa. Yeah, they probably need to beat both teams BUT both teams also need to beat the leafs and the other. To give them ANY kind of a pass because of their opponents is hollow nonsense. Either you’re good enough and are willing/able/committed to elevate your game enough to win or you aren’t, and with all the offensive (top heavy) talent this team you would think they are good enough. At least that’s what we’ve been sold.
    Having said that, I expect they will faceplant in the first round again, because they are much too passive and their skill and collective effort can be nullified and derailed by an opponent playing a physical pressure game. In short, they wilt in the heat of competition, at least they have until now.
    Even with a first round crap-out I wouldn’t necessarily fire Dubas. If he acknowledges the obvious fatal flaws in his core and trades 1 of them to address the makeup of the team then I’d keep him. If he even begins to deliver the old, “I believe in these guys” or, “trust the process” crap then I’d heave him over the side before he finished the first sentence.
    Maybe Haley Wickenheiser should become GM. At least she has thrown a body check before.

  3. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Realistically, the main objective of this year’s Leaf team is to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. The notion of winning the Cup this year is pie in the sky thinking.

  4. It’s always easy to point out failures! Washington almost ran Ovi out of town until he and the team finally won the Cup; they haven’t come close since. Ask Colorado how they felt prior to last year. Edmonton and Vegas haven’t won despite being favorites to make a Cup run out of the West many times the past few years! Only one team wins the Cup. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen.

    1. I only point out the failures. What playoff success is there to detail since 2004? A lot of what you write is true. But, the rationalization is what allows the Maple Leafs to underachieve year after year. You mention Vegas – a team born 102 years after the Leafs. And, with more recent playoff success. That says a lot.

  5. Completely agree and have been saying this for the past 3 years. Even the sportswriters have bought into this fallacy znd are espousing the same rhetoric. Keefe is wringing everything he can out of his line up but once again the limitations will be exposed in the playoffs. Fool me once shame on you but fool me for 5 years in row well people get the government they deserve and unfortunately the unmotivated corporate elite is the government where the Leafs are concerned. Just look at who fills the Platiinum seats.

  6. For better or worse, the team is what it is. Hopefully, this year will be different. However, I think Boston, Tampa, Carolina and New Jersey are going to be the four teams in the east to beat. The Leafs were built a certain way. It’s too late to change that. A better question would be why is that after being GM since 2018, Kyle has yet to draft a player who is on the team (other than Sandin). Of course I would be happy to see this team succeed, but I also recognize its limitations (some of which I think are psychological). In any event, in a couple of years, I suspect the Leafs will look quite different. For lessons on how to build a winner, I suggest the franchise look at the way Boston and Tampa have done things.

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