In their golden days, the Toronto Maple Leafs were a model NHL team. As one of the league’s “Original Six”, they have established a long and rich history of success. Their 13 Stanley Cups are second only to the Montreal Canadiens for most in NHL history. They have iced legendary players like Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Ted Kennedy and Syl Apps. Their fans are some of the most passionate in all of sports.
With that being said, their success in the modern era has been fleeting. Sure, they have 13 cups, but any Leafs hater will be quick to point out that the last of those championships came in 1967. In 1967, my grandfather was 32 and my parents were mere toddlers. We are coming up on a 3rd generation of Leafs fans who were not even around when their favorite team won a championship.
From 1967 to the present day, there have been some dark eras in Maple Leafs history. The years spent under former owner Harold Ballard’s iron grip was devastating for a once-proud franchise. His mismanagement sent to the team into a tailspin that took decades to recover from. From there, fans also had to stand by as the team signed washed-up star after washed-up star as the team floundered.
In those dark times, there have been a few glimpses of sunlight, most memorably in the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, when the Leafs made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. Even in success, Toronto found ways to cover itself in darkness. Up 3-2 in the series with a chance to win it, Game 6 went into overtime. During the extra frame, Toronto’s star Doug Gilmour was caught by a high stick from the Kings’ Wayne Gretzky. Referee Kerry Fraser didn’t see the action, and so he didn’t call a penalty. Gretzky stays on the ice for the ensuing face-off and ultimately scores the game-winner. In Game 7, Gretzky goes off for three goals and an assist as the Kings win that one 5-4 and move on to face the Canadiens in the Finals. The Leafs are left in the dust, cheated out of a chance to compete for the Cup.
Outside of those rare good years, Maple Leafs fans have not been given much to cheer for. That has been especially true in this decade. Prioritizing winning now over building for the future, the Leafs spent precious draft picks to acquire players that were just good enough to keep Toronto out of the basement, but not good enough to really make any sort of noise. For the longest time, the Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck in hockey purgatory.
That all changed when Brendan Shanahan was brought in to manage the team’s roster and make all personnel decisions. Shanahan was also able to convince Mike Babcock to come over and take on the head coaching duties. From there, a new plan of attack was drawn up, and it would finally take Toronto all the way to the bottom. As they say, you only start going up once you’ve reached rock bottom, and under Shanahan, the Leafs worked hard to reach it quickly.
Being the fan of a terrible sports team can take its toll, but it’s made a lot easier when you know the thinking behind it. In the past, Leafs fans were left to wonder if the team was actively trying to suck or just happened to be a poorly put together team. Under Shanahan, it was made clear to everybody: these next few years might involve taking a lot of losses, but it would better them for the future. That it did.
Now Leafs fans see that future right before their eyes in the form of players like Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner — the rookie trio that took the league by storm in the 2016-17 NHL season. All three have different backgrounds in how they got to the league, but they all share one common thread: unquestionable NHL talent.
Born in California and raised in Arizona, Matthews is essentially Gary Bettman’s exhibit A for putting hockey in non-traditional markets. With no hockey blood in his ancestry, Matthews fell in love with the game by watching his local Phoenix Coyotes as a kid, and sought to become a hockey player. Graced with natural talent, a work ethic beyond his years and the unwillingness to accept failure, Matthews worked himself into a promising prospect. Following his non-traditional hockey upbringing, Matthews opted to go to Europe for the final year before he would become draft eligible, playing amateur hockey or Canadian Major Junior seemed too easy for him.
After managing to score more than a point per game in a pro Swiss league as a teenager, Matthews cemented himself as the top prospect in his draft class. The Leafs’ tanking efforts would come to fruition when they landed the number one pick of the 2016 NHL draft and the rights to choose the future game-changer.
Unlike Matthews, William Nylander was basically born into becoming a hockey player. His father, Michael, played for the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers. Nylander was born in Canada, spent most of his youth in the United States, and is a Swedish citizen. Since most boys grow up wanting to be just like dad, Nylander decided to follow in his path. It didn’t hurt that his father had one of the coolest jobs a kid could ask for.
With the pedigree and talent on his side, Nylander didn’t take long to establish himself as a top shelf prospect. As a 17-year-old he was already logging ice time in the Swedish elite league and looking like he belonged. Nylander was graced with excellent vision on the ice and a great pair of hands to go along with it. When he fell to them at the 8th spot of the 2014 NHL draft, the Leafs didn’t hesitate to scoop him up.
The Swede, the American, and finally, the Canadian. Of the three, Mitch Marner had the most common hockey origin story. An Ontario boy, Marner fell in love with the game at a young age because that’s just what you do in Canada. Like any kid with an older sibling, Marner grew up playing against guys three or four years his senior, and it quickened his development. He spent one season in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and tore it up. From there, he made his move to Major Junior.
In junior hockey, Marner spent his entire time as a London Knight. Along with future NHLers Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak, Marner formed one of the deadliest lines in the OHL. In his draft year, he put up nearly two points per game and got the attention of the entire NHL world. The Leafs were lucky to find him sitting around in the 4th spot.
Even though they were all drafted in separate years, circumstances made it so that Marner, Matthews and Nylander would all make their debut in 2016-17. Nylander would spend two seasons down with Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies, and Marner would not make the Leafs’ roster in 2015-16, instead being sent back to junior hockey where he would win a Memorial Cup. With Matthews’ arrival, it felt like the right time to bring all three onboard the big club to start building some chemistry.
For Nylander and Matthews, it was a near-instant connection. They spent most of the season sharing the ice together and carving up the opposition for goals. Nylander’s ability to see the ice allowed Matthews a chance to get himself set up in his preferred spots. Matthews’ general hockey IQ and skill with the puck made it hard for the other team to press Nylander as hard as they would like. They were like a match made in heaven.
As for Marner, he found himself on another line, one that he could take charge of. His primary sidekick became Nazem Kadri, who had his best season to date in 2016-17. It’s no coincidence that Marner’s arrival on the scene would help Kadri really break out as a two way player. Marner became the skillful yin to Kadri’s chippy (and annoying) yang.
The youth movement paid off in great fashion for Toronto. Marner potted 19 goals and had 61 points. Nylander had 22 goals and 61 points. For his part, Matthews impressed with 40 goals and 69 points. Thanks in large part to those three and Babcock’s coaching, the Leafs found themselves in the playoff race after having zero expectations to start the season.
That said, there would be no sniffing the playoffs without some help. Thanks to Shanahan’s smart roster moves, Toronto had that aid in spades. Whether it was the solid play of Frederik Andersen in net, the stellar defensive depth provided by Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, and Jake Gardiner, or the secondary scoring from the likes of James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, and Leo Komarov, the Leafs had players outside their core three who could step up. Thanks to a late-season push from everyone on the team, Toronto locked themselves into a playoff spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.
Unfortunately for the Leafs and their faithful fans, Washington was one of the league’s best teams, and through six games, the Capitals showed them why. It was too much for the youth of Toronto to handle, and their 2016-17 season is now over. Despite the playoff exit, not many people are chagrined up in Leafs Land. Facing a tough opponent in the first round revealed a lot about the team’s character and the composure of their main players. Matthews, Nylander, and Marner all stepped up in hopes to deliver a playoff series win. While the results may not have been what they wanted, the fact that they did not wilt under pressure spoke to the future of the franchise.
All three of Marner, Matthews and Nylander are part of that second generation of people who have no recollection of the Maple Leafs winning a cup. For so long, there has been no pride or glory in being a Maple Leaf. In their combined efforts, they could very well restore some of that honor that has been lost along the years. For too long, the Leafs have been the NHL’s laughing stock. They used to instill fear in the heart of their opponents and after seeing what these rookies could do, it looks like that fear may just start creeping in once again. It’s been 50 years since the Leafs last raised the Stanley Cup, but something tells me we won’t have to wait another 50 to see it happen again.
Toronto Maple Leafs