Weak narratives and young droughts - the Leafs of 1967-68

Note - as this is not an official Leaf of the Day post I reserve the right to re-use Jim Pappin at a point of my own choosing for whatever nefarious purpose strikes me as a good idea at the time.

My baseball reading this past summer was Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer.  It had been on my to-do list ever since I reacquired Jack Batten's The Leafs in Autumn and saw that it was among his inspirations. 

It's a masterwork.  I don't know how to describe it otherwise.  While I love The Leafs in Autumn, Kahn's work has a whole extra dimension to it because he relates to the team not just as a fan, but as an insider.  He worshipped the Dodgers growing up, covered them as a young man and now rejoins them twenty years later. The writing is spectacular, drawing you into every aspect of his and the players' lives and the relationship between them.  If you only have time for one sports book, this should be it.  (Thus ends the book report.  Sales is not my job.)

I mention this book because there was one little event in it that has stuck with me from the moment I read it.  A young Roger Kahn has just been assigned the Dodger beat and is now meeting not only the players he will cover but also the writers from competing papers - the people he'll be working with and against.  Dick Young, already a legend in New York sports reporting, sits Kahn down over a drink and gives him three pieces of advice.  The first two obviously weren't that compelling because I can't remember either of them.  The third, though, gave me pause and thus ensured that I remember it.

"Don't be so damned sure."

If he expanded on this at all, Kahn didn't write about it.  It just kind of hangs there as a general warning.  I took it to mean that one should approach the subject matter with humility and respect, be willing to learn and never to assume one already knew.  It's a bit of a divergence from the modern perspective which seems to demand strong opinions, often at the expense of well-informed ones.

Of course, the best reason not to be overly sure about things is that there's a rather good chance that at least some, if not all, of what you "know" is woefully incomplete if not completely wrong.

On that topic, I've spent a lot of the summer relearning stuff I'd always accepted as fact.  I'm now reaching the point where I've learned enough that I'm not that certain of anything.

Let's take a case in point (there will be a number of these kinds of "let's take another look at this" posts - this is merely the first) - the beginning of the current Stanley Cup drought.

After their surprising win in 1967, the Leafs of 1967-68 didn't make the playoffs.  They finished fifth in the new Eastern Conference, four points back of Chicago.  This was an obvious disappointment.  That season would include one of the more controversial Leaf deals in history - the trading of Frank Mahovlich to Detroit.

The traditional storyline is that the 1967-68 team was a shadow of the one that had won in 1966-67, in large measure because they didn't handle the expansion draft correctly and they failed to work in replacements for the old guys who won them the Cup the season before.  They hung on to too many old guys for too long (sound familiar?) and it killed them.  Mismanaging that transition established the pattern we've yet to break.

What's this got to do with the price of tea in China?  Admittedly, not a lot.  No matter what one might think of trading Eddie Shack for Murray Oliver, it won't impact Nazem Kadri's career at all. 

For me, it comes down to the validity of the narrative we've all been fed over the years - the one that impacts the way in which this team is covered and viewed.  In order to put 1967 into its proper perspective, you kind of need to understand 1968 - and so far as I'm concerned, the story we've been fed is a bunch of malarkey.

The 1967-68 Leafs finished fifth in the east, four points back of the Chicago Black Hawks (as they were then commonly spelled).  They were two games above .500 and actually managed one more win than the Hawks did.  Defensive play, always the Leafs' strong suit, remained solid.  The Leafs were second in the league in goals against, surrendering just 176 in 74 games for a team GAA of 2.38 (no OT makes that an easy calculation). 

While they scored the fewest goals of any non-expansion team, they still had a positive goal differential of 33, which normally should translate to a better record than they had.  Their differential was actually fourth-best.  Chicago, four points better, actually had a differential of -10.  They won one less game than the Leafs did, but managed six extra ties and that was the difference.

The Leafs had five significant player changes from the previous season.  Red Kelly retired.  Terry Sawchuk went to LA in the expansion draft and defensemen Bob Baun and Kent Douglas went to Oakland.  Eddie Shack was traded to Boston for smallish skill forward Murray Oliver.  Of those five, only Kelly and sawchuk were key players in the 1966-67 playoffs.  The others, while big names overall, hadn't played a ton the previous spring.

Bruce Gamble, picked up in 1965 after the Leafs lost Gerry Cheevers, had an excellent season.  Backing up Johnny Bower, he went 19-13-3 in 41 games with an average of 2.35 and five shutouts.  Bower, though he had a losing record at 14-18-7, had a 2.25 average and four shutouts of his own.

The defense still centred around Tim Horton, an NHL All-Star that season at 38.  Allan Stanley was in his last year in Toronto and Marcel Pronovost played his last full season.  Larry Hillman, the surprise of the 1967 playoffs, was just 29 and still in Toronto, meaning that the top pairings on the blue line were still intact.  Duane Rupp, a 29-year-old rookie, played the fifth spot.  Rookies like Mike Pelyk and Jim McKenny would also see limited action.

For all the talk of age, the strength of the Leafs was in young forwards.  A pair of 23-year-olds, Mike Walton and Ron Ellis, scored 30 and 28 goals.  Future captain Dave Keon was just 27.  Pete Stemkowski and Wayne Carleton were just 24 and 21.  Jim Pappin was 28.  Even the Big M was just 30.  The only forward of significant age was George Armstrong.

This was a team with some age on the blue line, but really, not a lot of other holes.  They needed health from Bower, harder to find at 43 and they could ill-sustain a bad injury on defense, but as it turned out, they got this.

So what happened?  How bad was this team really?

The first thing that jumps out when one looks at the game results is something modern Leaf fans know all too well.  The Leafs had a five-week period after Christmas where they couldn't win to save their lives.  The Leafs beat Detroit 2-0 on January 21, 1968 and then fell off a cliff.  From that game through Feburary 29, the Leafs went 2-13-1 and basically, that was it for the season.  They won a game prior to the Mahovlich trade and then caught fire, going 8-4-1 down the stretch (9-4-1 with that pre-trade win).  Ullman was brilliant with 17 points in his 13 games (including a +12), but it was too little too late.

While it's fine to say that one month killed the Leafs, is that really fair?  Were they really that good otherwise?  Where were they in the standings before they went into the dumper?

Would you believe first overall?

OK, technically, they were just tied for first and would have lost the tie-break for the President's Trophy, but that 2-0 win gave them a record of 22-14-8.  Those 52 points tied them with Boston and Chicago for first overall.  Montreal was a point back and the Rangers were four.

This, in a nutshell, was the problem.  As of January 21, the top four teams in the east were all within one point of each other and the fifth-place team was just four points out of first.  There were five legitimate contenders for four playoff spots and there was no margin for error.  By the time the Leafs' bad streak was done, they had fallen 13 points out of fourth.  They managed to close that gap to four, but the damage was done and they ran out of season in which to make it happen.

The Leafs had gone through a similar streak a year earlier.  They dropped 10 straight games from January 15 - February 8, 1967.  Punch Imlach wound up in the hospital with stress and with King Clancy behind the bench for the next ten, the Leafs rallied to a 7-1-2 mark and saved the season. 

The difference, though, was that in 1966-67, neither Detroit nor Boston was a serious threat.  When their 1967 streak was done, the Leafs found themselves a single point out of fourth with 24 games to go and no real fear of the team ahead of them.  In 1967-68, Boston was a factor.  The only soft touch was last-place Detroit.  This streak put the Leafs 13 points out with 14 to play, and it just was too much to overcome.

The killer for the Leafs really looks to have been the offense (which wasn't where the age was).  They were still a very sound defensive team, but they should have been able to score a lot more than they did.  A lot of players had sub-par seasons offensively and that was particularly true during February.  During their 16-game bad patch, the Leafs scored only 22 goals.  Of the 13 losses, five were by one goal and three were by two. 

Dave Keon, in particular, had a horrific year, scoring only 11 goals.  Pappin and Stemkowski, the bright lights of the 1967 playoffs, had 20 between them and Carleton, an offensive star in junior, managed only eight.  Frank Mahovlich missed a bunch of time in the early going with nerves, and had 36 points in 50 games.  Imlach was often at odds with his young players, few of whom were that great in their own end, but fewer of whom were lighting it up offensively.  Pappin, Stemkowski and Carleton were perpetually in the doghouse and Mahovlich often joined them there.

Given this, it's not surprising that the Mahovlich deal focused on getting offense in return.  Stemkowski went with Frank to Detroit and Pappin would go at season's end.  The Leafs got Ullman, Henderson and Smith, all of whom could play the two-way game the Leafs desired and all of whom were factors in the late-season run.  (The hidden gem the Leafs gave up was Garry Unger, a 20-year-old prospect who would score more than 400 NHL goals once he left the Leafs.  He was another who was not really an Imlach type, though.  His only hope in Toronto was to outlast Punch, and it didn't happen.)

So in a nutshell, the 1967-68 Leafs were a pretty solid team that could play with anyone until they hit an awful goal-scoring slump in February.  A really tough eastern conference with five solid teams meant that any prolongued slump was deadly.  The Leafs had an ill-timed one and it killed their season.  Even so, the numbers they put up overall suggest they deserved a lot better than they got.

It's a far cry from the mismanagement we've been told about.

(Note - people will talk about the trades the Leafs made: Mahovlich, Pappin, Stemkowski, etc and the numbers they put up elsewhere.  That's a topic for another day.  :)  )

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