Photo Credit: Adam Hunger/USA TODAY SPORTS
Toronto Maple Leafs? Playoffs? In a full 82-game season? Surely not, right? Well, the deductive reasoning, and scoreboard-watching, and calculating is already happening, I can assure you of that. And, yes, it’s officially past the halfway point of January, and by the time the Leafs finish a four game homestand after eight of ten games away (and nine of ten away from the Air Canada Centre, given one of the home games was in a soccer stadium), we’ll have a much clearer sense as to realistic nature of the Leafs’ playoff aspirations.
You’re all too familiar with the history. One playoff appearance since the 2004-05 season was set adrift in a labour dispute, never to be recovered. That playoff appearance in the spring of 2013 not only didn’t feature a full regular season (just 48 games, and none against, then, the more top-heavy and skilled Western Conference teams), but it’s a bitter memory for Maple Leafs fans, almost unlike any other. Basically, if you’re a kid or teenager, it’s about the only playoff involvement you’ve been a conscious being for, and if you’re older than that, the Game 7 in Boston is as painful a elimination as you can recall, even though most smart fans weren’t under any illusion the Leafs were Cup contenders, nor were they convinced about the merits of the head coach, Randy Carlyle, or the construction of the roster, and soon that summer of 2013 they’d take a turn for the worse through various signings, buyouts, and over-valuing of assets.
But playoffs are still playoffs, and no, it takes nothing away from how hard that squad fought to get there and how well James Reimer played, under siege most nights from considerably lopsided shots and possession totals. In fact, I was at the ACC for Game 4 of that series against Boston, and after that overtime loss on a Sunday evening (May 8th), it was a reasonably safe bet the Leafs wouldn’t be back for a Game 6, but they won 2-1 in Boston, and by the same scoreline in that sixth game, forcing the less-than-pleasant Game 7 result in Beantown.
Safe to say that squad surprised many by making the playoffs, but you’re forgiven if because the season happened so fast and was so compressed, it doesn’t seem that way in retrospect. The prior year in 2011-12, Toronto tied for the 25th most points out of 30, and in their conference, only had the Islanders and Canadiens behind them. Well, in the short season to follow, all of Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Florida slipped out of the playoffs, while the Leafs, Montreal, and the Islanders (amazingly, after a five-year absence) all improved and made it.
But this year’s squad has me thinking about other surprising Maple Leafs’ playoff teams of my lifetime (early 70s and forward — let’s face it, in the Original Six era, it was kind of hard to “shock the hockey world” by qualifying for a postseason tournament that featured four of the six teams), and whether playoff games played this April, and potentially May, would push these Leafs into the conversation for the most surprising playoff team ever.
Now, remember, at this point, you won’t be surprised if they make the playoffs — because you’ve seen Freddie Andersen gain a worthy level of consistency, and you’ve seen all the young forwards not only develop to an NHL-worthy level, but in the obvious cases of Matthews and Marner, utterly thrive in the environment as rookies, night in and night out. So the “surprise” factor isn’t about how you feel now, it’s whether in mid-September, we all could have foreseen this coming, and admittedly, very, very few of us did.
Here’s what else has changed before I provide the always-enlightening historical context. There isn’t certainty anymore that the Atlantic Division will only send three of the eight Eastern teams to the playoffs. Though the Metropolitan Division teams (most of them, anyway) were winning games outside of their division at a remarkable rate in October and November, that rate has cooled, and certain teams have slumped. As of this morning, Philadelphia and Carolina (5th and 6th in the Metropolitan), are anywhere from 1-3 points ahead of the 3rd-to-6th place teams in the Atlantic (encompassing Toronto, Ottawa, Florida, and Tampa Bay). Yes, it’s pretty safe to consider the Caps, Jackets, Penguins, and Rangers playoff teams, and, obviously Montreal in the Atlantic, but the remaining three spots (either ALL in the Atlantic, or two in the Atlantic, one in the Metropolitan, are up for debate these next 35-41 games, depending on the team, that are left).
So beginning from the “Expansion Era” forward, let’s examine just who played a role and what was so utterly surprising about four previous Maple Leafs’ playoff teams:
1973-74, 4th of 8 teams in East Division, 35-27-16 for 86 points, lost to Boston 4 games to none in Quarter-Final Round
Realignment and expansion to sixteen teams from six still left a lot of strange scheduling quirks and bizarre rivalries. Vancouver was in the East Division, with their closest division mate geographically being the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit, rather unhappily, was separated from Chicago, who benefitted from being in the West Division with a lot less skilled teams, with the exception, then, of Philadelphia.
As for the Leafs, their group the year before under head coach, John McLellan, had missed the playoffs by a whopping 24 points behind fourth-place Buffalo, in the East. The onset of the World Hockey Association had battered the Leafs, with defections from goalie Bernie Parent, who jumped to the Philadelphia Blazers for just the one season, then stayed in the city, to become a Cup-winning goalie with the Flyers (who he’d started his career with) for two straight seasons. In addition, two young and developing defencemen jumped to the WHA’s New England Whalers (scoring winger Rick Kehoe would do the same a season later) in Brad Selwood and Rick Ley.
But the 73-74 Leafs somehow improved by 22 points in the standings. It was Borje Salming’s rookie year, and he helped spell the holes Selwood and Ley left behind. 23 year old Darryl Sittler carried the team offensively and improved to 38 goals from 29 the season before. The poor finish the year before allowed them to draft Lanny McDonald 4th overall and he had a 30-point rookie season. In addition to Sittler, the Leafs had five other 20-goal scorers in 37-year old Norm Ullman, veterans Ron Ellis, Dave Keon, and Paul Henderson (his final Leaf season before also jumping to the WHA), and another Swede, Inge Hammarstrom. Two 19-year old defencemen were huge additions, along with Salming, in Ian Turnbull, and Bob Neely.
The Leafs were utterly overmatched by a great Boston team (Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr were 1-2 in scoring with 145 and 122 points respectively). In fact, the Bruins had the top four scorers in the NHL with Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman right behind Orr and Esposito. Boston scored 49 more goals than any other team did that 78-game season, an average of 4.47 goals for per game. They’d lose to the Flyers in six games in the Stanley Cup Final, but absolutely bombed the Leafs in a 4-game sweep, outscoring Toronto 17-9, with only the deciding Game 4 being taken to overtime.
I know, I know. You’re thinking it, I’m thinking it. There’s really no applauding a team finishing with the 19th-highest point total out of 21 teams. What a farce. What a travesty. You’re not wrong, but hear me out. The Leafs qualified for the playoffs 17 points ahead of a terrible Detroit team, and for the first time in three seasons. Toronto had made speedy postseason exits in best three-of-five series to the Cup Champion Islanders in 1981 (#1 vs. #16 in overall points) and to Minnesota in 1983. It was a pretty barren wasteland of things to be proud of for the Maple Leafs. Gone were Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull, John Anderson, and, come on, even Rocky Saganiuk! The Leafs won one playoff game between the start of the 80-81 season and the end of the 84-85 season.
And, imagine the outrage today (an era of outrage!) over the teams that missed the playoffs while this 57-point team qualified. Buffalo, playing in the ultra-competitive Adams Division (Quebec, Montreal, Hartford, Boston) sat home for the postseason with 80 points in 80 games, a true “.500” team, 23 more than Toronto. Incredible. The Sabres scored four more goals than they allowed that season. We were also denied what would have Mario Lemieux’s first playoff experience at age 19. All Lemieux did was post up a 141-point season (2nd to Gretzky’s 215) helping Pittsburgh to 76 points (yes, they also scored more goals than they allowed!). The Leafs? They scored 311, and gave up 386, a team GAA of 4.83.
So, you’re asking, “where does the surprise factor in?” They were expected to be bad, and were bad, and got lucky Detroit (the Dead Things Era) was so much worse. Well, yes, but, can I somehow convince you that 57 points was even better than anyone thought given how dreadful the prior season was, and how moribund the enviroment surrounding the team was? Maybe you had to be there then to truly know how easy it was to make a Norris Division joke.
Also, there was this minor issue with the Maple Leafs’ start to the season — they won one of their first sixteen games in Wendel Clark’s rookie season. In fact, on November 15th, 1985, they were already five points out of the 4th and final playoff spot in the Norris (Detroit started their season with Harry Neale as head coach at a robust 3-9-4 record for 10 points, while the Leafs were 1-12-3). Again, you just had to be there to open the newspaper each day and see the standings.
All that said, Wendel Clark was an awful lot of fun that season. 29 fights, 34 goals, all in just 70 games. Miroslav Frycer led the team in scoring with 75 points (I swear, he did!). Rick Vaive’s final Leafs season produced his usual consistency, with 33 goals in just 60 games, limited by a wrist injury. 20-year old Russ Courtnall, 22-year old Steve Thomas, 19-year old Al Iafrate, and 21-year old Gary Leeman all showed moments of promise and, at times, brilliance. But, again, I grant you, by no illusion was this team a good hockey team, and had Ken Wregget not stepped up and won some key games down the stretch in February and March (outplaying the veterans Don Edwards and Tim Bernhardt to earn those starts), the Leafs are a lot closer to last overall than they actually were.
So, yes, a mild surprise that they were even a playoff team, but infinitely more surprising was what happened when those playoffs arrived. Strangely, Toronto was 6-2-0 against Chicago in the regular season, and those matchup issues for the Blackhawks persisted into the postseason. On back-to-back nights against division champion Chicago (a team that pushed the dynastic Oilers a bit the year before in the Western Conference Final), the Leafs pumped 11 goals past Hawks’ goaltending (Murray Bannerman, followed by Bob Sauve), and leading the series 2-0, wrapped it up at a jubilant Maple Leaf Gardens with an utterly inexplicable 7-2 pounding in Game Three. Denis Savard scored four of Chicago’s nine goals in the sweep, but had little help from his mates, and the Leafs moved on to play St. Louis in the Division Final.
The Leafs actually led this series also, two games to one, but faltered badly in a home ice Game Four, losing 7-4 to St. Louis, and then a bitter Game Five overtime defeat put Toronto on the brink of elimination. They’d force the series back to Missouri but Greg Millen outdueled Ken Wregget in a 2-1 Game Seven and the Leafs surprising run was over.
That very same night, the two-time defending Cup Champion Oilers lost to Calgary in a seventh game (the Steve Smith moment…) but a Maple Leafs/Flames Western Conference Final wasn’t to be. Calgary would get pushed to seven games before beating the Blues and advancing to play Montreal and their star rookie goalie, Patrick Roy, in the Stanley Cup Final.
Nonetheless, the spark was lit by this group of Maple Leafs and they’d make the playoffs the next two seasons, and won yet another playoff round (this time over St. Louis in six games) in 1987, before an epic collapse against Detroit while leading 3-1 in the series.
1992-93, 3rd of 6 teams in Norris Division, 44-29-11 for 99 points, defeated Detroit 4 games to 3, defeated St. Louis 4 games to 3, lost to Los Angeles 4 games to 3 in Western Conference Final
The legends of this team are numerous, aren’t they? I feel it’s undoubtedly the most popular Leafs team of my lifetime (does that change in the next 5-6 years, perhaps?) and provided the most memorable moments in a playoff run, even more than the 2002 Maple Leafs, or drifting back a few years, the 1999 Leafs, which I’ll mention shortly. It was Doug Gilmour’s first full season in Toronto. It was Pat Burns’ first year as head coach. Dave Andreychuk and John Cullen were massively important additions offensively. Felix Potvin had shocked all Leafs’ fans by bumping out the great Grant Fuhr (at only age 29, we forget) and making him expendable to make the Andreychuk acquisition.
All that said, there were lots of questions at the start of the 1992-93 season about whether the Leafs would be a playoff team and could compete in a division that was improving. Chicago had just been to the Stanley Cup Final (losing to Pittsburgh). St. Louis was quite steady and consistent. Detroit had a 98-point season and had the highest point total in the Western Conference before being swept by Chicago in the Norris Division Final that spring. The Red Wings had a young core (Yzerman 27, Fedorov 22, Sheppard 26, Carson 24, Probert 27, Lidstrom 22, Primeau 20, Konstantinov 25) that the Maple Leafs just shouldn’t have been able to compete with.
The Leafs, meantime, had the ignominity of watching the New Jersey Devils use their draft pick in spring 1991 to draft Scott Niedermayer, and they settled on Brandon Convery at #8 in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft,
Add to that, there was nothing exceptional about the Leafs’ start to the season in 1992-93. No, it wasn’t a terrible start like they’d had the prior two seasons, but under Pat Burns, there were early struggles. In fact, December saw the Maple Leafs in a terrible swoon, starting the month with an 8-3 loss in New Jersey, and after a 5-1 Boxing Day loss at home to the Red Wings, they had a monthly record of 2-7-2 and an overall mark of 13-16-5, good for 31 points in 34 games. It looked like either another non-playoff year for Toronto, or at most, they’d be first-round skidmarks for a Chicago or Detroit.
The tide turned for this Leafs group though right after that Boxing Day loss, they went 2-0-1 on a short road trip to finish the calendar year, and early in 1993, went on an 8-3-0 stretch that not only got them back solidly into 3rd place in the division (St. Louis, having an off year had slipped behind the Leafs to fourth in a six-team Norris). By the way, Tampa Bay was newly in the league that season and in the Leafs’ division. I’d totally forgotten they were ever in the same division together before this most recent realignment, but just for this one season they were.
Whether the Leafs’ good form specifically inspired them to add some scoring punch to their first line or not is up for debate, but they did just that on February 2nd, swindling Buffalo out of a 29-year old Dave Andreychuk, and backup goalie Daren Puppa, AND the Sabres’ 1st-rounder in 1993, all for a Grant Fuhr who was already saddled behind Felix Potvin in the Maple Leafs’ goaltender depth chart.
As Andreychuk settled in, the Leafs finished February on a 9-0-1 tear, outscoring their opponents 54-19, before being stopped in their tracks by, who else, Detroit, their nemesis, in a 5-1 defeat at Joe Louis Arena on March 5th.
In the 84-game season the league played back then, the Leafs clinched their playoff spot in mid-March, but still pushed hard for home advantage in the first round, eventually petering out and losing four of their last six games, and finishing with 99 points, four behind second-place Detroit.
The rest is all legend, really, isn’t it? But a legend is something that may or not have happened, so it doesn’t really apply here. The Red Wings pulverized Toronto in embarrassing 6-3 and 6-2 defeats at Joe Louis Arena, and the only question was whether the Leafs would muster up the spirit to win a game and force the series back to Detroit, or be swept at home.
But the Leafs earned their right to be talked about for years (and now, decades) to come with their comeback in the series, winning three straight games, then looking as awful defensively as a playoff team can in a 7-3 home loss at Maple Leaf Gardens, with the ability to clinch the series. Game 7 on Saturday evening of May 1st is as memorable as it gets for Leafs fans of nearly all ages. It was far from a well-played game by either team, and it’s still quite memorable to me that not a single powerplay was given to the Red Wings, and only one to the Maple Leafs (congratulations if you had “Jim Hiller for hooking” in the pool), but the end result was the end result, and the Nik Borschevsky overtime goal is probably still one of the most incredible moments in the past fifty Maple Leafs seasons, many of which, we can conclude unfortunately, have provided fewer incredible moments than anyone could have predicted.
It’s not spoken about much, but the Leafs probably got an incredible break going to the second round that St. Louis upset Chicago. First, the Hawks were a juggernaut, and had blistered the Maple Leafs all season long, going 5-1-1 against them. Second, the Leafs would have not even been able to go home to Toronto, as Game 1 in Chicago would have the same Monday night that Toronto actually got to host St. Louis.
Here’s something I forgot about that series, honestly. Yes, we all remember the Gilmour goal to win Game 1 in overtime, but it utterly slipped my mind that Game 2 went to double-overtime also, with defenceman Jeff Brown scoring the OT winner. No recollection of that. Was I working? Was I on a date? Was I drunk? Were all three happening? Are you drunk right now? Anyway….
So, yeah, we have properly given the 1993 Maple Leafs their place in history, but as noted, they didn’t look all that playoff-worthy through the first thirty or so games of the season, but they added key pieces, Potvin’s ascension to #1 goalie status was quite impactful, and Doug Gilmour, in his 127-point season, simply put together one of the most exceptional Maple Leaf individual seasons of all-time, plain and simple. No one was surprised when the Leafs started with ten straight wins the following season, and if anything, losing to Vancouver in five games was the first moment where the euphoria and hype surrounding that group of players ceased. Weeks later, the Mats Sundin/Wendel Clark trade was made and the a new era began.
1998-99, 2nd of 5 teams in Northeast Division, 45-30-7 for 97 points, defeated Philadelphia 4 games to 2, defeated Pittsburgh 4 games to 2, lost to Buffalo 4 games to 1 in Eastern Conference Final
This is a strange one for me. I argue about this with Leafs diehards, some of whom say this was an utterly expected outcome for the team, after landing a huge free agent signing in goaltender Curtis Joseph in during 1998’s summer free agency period, and a new coach in Pat Quinn. I’m not so sure about that, given the core of the team didn’t change much at all from the prior year, when they finished with 69 points, 10th of 13 teams in the Western Conference, and no identifiable “star” factor in any of their younger players, acquired either through trades or via draft picks.
It was the first season the Leafs shifted to the Eastern Conference, and no question (as it’s probably done for Detroit the past few years), limiting travel, and maximizing more nights sleeping in your own bed is always beneficial to teams, especially veteran players.
Here’s what’s strange though and this is useful in future discussions about this team — the Leafs gave up only six fewer goals travelling to the Eastern Conference, even upgrading to Joseph from Felix Potvin (with some Glenn Healy mixed into the backup role). Their team save percentage went from .902 to .904. What did change was the voracity with which the Maple Leafs scored goals.
Though Mats Sundin stayed steady, slipping from 33 to 31 (assists increased from 41 to 52), Mike Johnson went from 15 to 20 goals. Sergei Berezin broke out and went from 16 to 37. Steve Sullivan from 10 to 20. The add of Steve Thomas was big as he potted 28 goals (11 on the powerplay). All in all, the Maple Leafs went from scoring 2.37 goals/game in their final year of the Western Conference (think how good Dallas, Colorado, and Detroit all were then), to 3.27 goals/game in their first year in the Eastern Conference.
Either way, the Leafs did more than enough to grab the fourth seed in the East, meeting Philadelphia in a 4v5 matchup. Advancing from there, they would beat Pittsburgh in six games, after losing Game 1 at home, and falling behind 2-1 in the series. The Garry Valk OT winner in Game 6 is a rather underplayed big moment in Leafs history, only because the meeting with the Sabres and Dominik Hasek (in his utter prime) in May 1999 was over so, so quickly. Not that Hasek was fantastic in the series early on, in fact with one of “Dr. Hasek” and his occasional maladies, Dwayne Roloson had to start the first two games in Toronto. The Leafs would head to Buffalo with a 1-1 split, but a healthy Hasek spelled trouble, and they never won again.
Much like in 1993, the organization was revitalized though, and after adding Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson the next offseason, they could truly be seen as Stanley Cup contenders, even surviving the exodus of Curtis Joseph to Detroit in summer 2002 by replacing him with an older, and more-accomplished Ed Belfour the very same day. Of all organizations that the 2004-05 lost season hurt the most, Toronto could certainly raise its hand. Beyond the millions of dollars of revenue that vanished into thin air, the Leafs could have had one more true run at an Eastern Conference championship (admittedly with a 40-year old Belfour in goal), but it wasn’t to be.
So there’s lots of food for thought. Tons of surprising examples of the Leafs making the postseason — 1974, 1986, 1993, and 1999. Would a 2017 Maple Leafs playoff series top those in terms of surprises? It just might, but just to feel like you’re coming out of a dark period would be a remarkable moment for Maple Leafs fans. We all can relate in some measure — new car, new relationship, new job, you never forget how special it feels to be alive again. The Stanley Cup playoffs are meant to be experienced, they’re not meant to be a television show, but for ten of the past eleven springs, that’s all they’ve been in the most passionate hockey market in the world.