The 2003-04 Toronto Maple Leafs represent the last time that the Toronto Maple Leafs were actually a good hockey team. Not sneak-into-the-playoffs-and-lose-to-the-Bruins good, but actually a really solid team (with nice hair, too). A true Stanley Cup contender that loaded up at the trade deadline for a deep run, the Leafs ultimately came up short. It’s not a stretch to say that they haven’t recovered since.
Second in Northeast, Fourth in East, Fifth Overall
This was an excellent offensive team, scoring the fourth most goals in the NHL and sporting an above-average 10.7% shooting rate. Even with a below-average goaltending save percentage, Toronto’s PDO worked out to be a lofty 1014. Essentially, the 2003-04 Maple Leafs were offensively dangerous, and received stable goaltending from veteran netminder Eddie Belfour. His backups… well, that was a different story. The team’s goaltending numbers were definitely brought down by Trevor Kidd and Mikael Tellqvist.
The Leafs made three trades during the 2003-04 campaign, each one of them meant to significantly improve the team’s chances of winning a Stanley Cup.
In February, Toronto sent 25-year old Ric Jackman to the Pittsburgh Penguins for 31-year old Drake Berehowsky, looking to add some experience to the blueline.
A month later, the Leafs made another couple (and much more significant) moves, sending prospects Maxim Kondratiev, Jarkko Immonen, a first round pick and a second round pick to the New York Rangers for Hall of Fame defenceman Brian Leetch. Just six days later, Toronto sent a fourth round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for another Hall of Famer in centre Ron Francis.
Leetch and Francis in particular made a significant impact immediately upon arriving in Toronto. Leetch scored 15 points in 15 games, and another 8 points in 13 playoff games, while Francis managed 10 in 12 and four in 12.
That said, their time with the Leafs was brief. Francis retired at season’s end, while Leetch became a free agent that offseason, and signed a one-year contract with Bruins following the 2004-05 lockout. He retired after one season in Boston. Berehowsky played hockey and Sweden during the lockout, but never cracked another NHL lineup following his return to North America.
If it makes you feel any better, the majority of the young players and picks moved out by the Leafs in these deals never panned out. Only Kurt Sauer (the second round pick that went to the Rangers) and Jared Boll (the fourth that went to Carolina) had meaningful NHL careers, so I wouldn’t say Toronto necessarily mortgaged the future, even for just 61 total games.
The only notable waiver wire move was picking up Chad Kilger from Montreal on the same day of the Francis deal. Kilger was by no means a star for Toronto, but was pretty well liked during his three years with the team.
Despite their strong finish to the season, the 2003-04 Maple Leafs campaign was very much an up-and-down affair.
Toronto started the season as a middling team at best, going 7-6-5-2 through their first 20 games of the season. For those who forgot that hockey once had tie games, that’s Wins, Losses, Ties, and Overtime Losses. Very suddenly, as if the Leafs abruptly recognized they were old as hell and had little time left, things turned around. From November 22nd through December 26th, Toronto would go on a truly impressive 14-0-1-1 streak.
Of course, streaks are meant to be broken, and Toronto would endure a bit of a skid in early January. Mats Sundin, so used to winning hockey games, didn’t seem to know how to deal with foreign concept of defeat and frustration, going so far as to throw his broken stick into the crowd during a 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators.
Of course, this caused quite on a controversy. Daniel Alfredsson would mock Sundin with his very own faux stick throw, while YouTube user ‘supercooled’ had some very harsh criticism for the Leafs captain.
For the remainder of the season, Toronto would play win only a few more than they’d lose. Ultimately, it’d be that wild mid-season tear that would carry the Leafs to a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a date with the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs.
While the Leafs would eventually win the series in seven games, suggesting that the Battle of Ontario was closely fought, it’s important to remember just how hilariously bad the Senators were when they lost. In Toronto’s first three victories of the series, Ed Belfour would post three shutouts. Then in game seven, Patrick Lalime would be pulled after just 20 minutes and replaced with dumb mask wearer Martin Prusek. It was a thing of beauty.
Unfortunately, Toronto wouldn’t carry themselves much further in the postseason. In the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Leafs would struggle through a evenly matched series with the Philadelphia Flyers. The first four games of the series turned out to be very close contents, with the Leafs and Flyers winning two games each. In the fifth game however, Philadelphia stomped all over Toronto in a 7-2 victory, pushing their opponents to the edge of elimination. In Game 6, Toronto would come back in the third period from a two-goal deficit and force overtime. In extra time, Darcy Tucker would lay his infamously nasty hit on Sami Kapanen shortly before Jeremy Roenick would bury the dagger.
Philadelphia would move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, and would be beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions – the Tampa Bay Lightning. Toronto wouldn’t make it back to the playoffs for eight seasons.
Team Scoring Leaders
Man, there are a lot of old dudes on that list. They now say that hockey is a young man’s game, more than half of these guys were on the wrong side of 30. Antropov, at 23, was the youngest player on this list.
Somehow Tomas Kaberle was only 25. That’s strange because I thought Kaberle broke into the league at like, 32, and remained 32 throughout his 14-year career.
Rethinking The Team
You can’t say Toronto didn’t go for it, bringing in both Leetch and Francis in an attempt to win it all, but this was the Maple Leafs last stab at the Stanley Cup.
This team was not only hella old, but so many of its best players would move on to other teams following the lockout season. Both Nieuwendyk and Roberts would become free agents and sign on with the Florida Panthers, while Nolan would move on to Phoenix and Mogilny would head to New Jersey. Reichel and Renberg would leave the NHL altogether, returning to their respective homes in the Czech Republic and Sweden to play out the rest of their careers. Leetch and Francis, as mentioned previously, also left Toronto
It was a mass exodus of talent, and the Leafs’ farm system just wasn’t strong enough to carry on any traditions of success. Remember this 2003-04 team for what it was; extremely talented, but put together too late, and too old to go the distance.