FanPost

The Best Of A Bad Lot: The Top Four Leaf Teams Since Expansion

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs, as any fan of another Canadian team will tell you, have not been very good in the last five decades. They won the Stanley Cup in 1966-67, and then things pretty much went to hell. The Leafs have not made the Stanley Cup Final since 1967, much less won one.

But there have been good Leafs teams. Sit down and I'll put on a cup of tea, and let's chat about how they were built, what they were good at, what they might have achieved, and what we might take away from our look at them.

  1. Talkin' Bout Your Generation
  2. Our History Sucks And I'm Sad
  3. The 1978 Leafs
  4. An Interlude
  5. The 1993 Leafs
  6. The 1999 Leafs
  7. The 2002 Leafs
  8. Reasons and Answers
As is typical for me, I went on at immense length. I think each team can be read about on its own without needing too much reference to the other parts, but I did want to keep it as one article. Read all of it or bits of it depending on your time and mood. If you want to get to my conclusions, they're in Part Eight.

1. Damned Millennials

I was born at the tail-end of the 80s, and I have a comically poor memory for things that aren't reference jokes. I don't directly remember anything significant about the pre-Mats Sundin Leafs. This means some of the teams I talk about, I never saw the first time around, and will often be coming at them from the perspective of a historian, but like a cool one who has lots of sex. Still, I recognize this is a limitation on my ability to talk about the old teams, so I have enlisted one of the most long-standing and dedicated Leafs fans I know for some first-hand accounting: my father, Papa Fulemin.

Papa Fulemin is in his 70s, looks sort of like Roger Sterling from Mad Men, and has watched the Leafs more or less since the start of the Cold War. He also combines an English teacher's love of language with a veteran appreciation of the game. I will probably sloppily misquote him at least twice in this piece.

2. A Brief And Depressing Survey of Our History

First off, we ought to narrow down what the best Leafs teams since expansion were.

Let's look at hockey-reference for the past forty-eight seasons of Leafs "hockey." Most of the abbreviations should be obvious, but SRS stands for Simple Rating System, a rough approximation of how good the team was based on goal differential and strength of schedule, where 0 is average, negatives are bad, and positives are good. SOS, on a related note, is strength of schedule.

Season Team GP W L T OL PTS PTS% SRS SOS Finish Playoffs Coaches
2015-16 Toronto 82 29 42 11 69 0.421 -0.56 0.03 8th M. Babcock (29-42-11)
2014-15 Toronto 82 30 44 8 68 0.415 -0.61 0.02 7th R. Carlyle (21-16-3) P. Horachek (9-28-5)
2013-14 Toronto 82 38 36 8 84 0.512 -0.34 -0.04 6th R. Carlyle (38-36-8)
2012-13 Toronto 48 26 17 5 57 0.594 0.27 0.02 3rd Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals R. Carlyle (26-17-5)
2011-2012 Toronto 82 35 37 10 80 0.488 -0.38 0.02 4th R. Wilson (29-28-7) R. Carlyle (6-9-3)
2010-2011 Toronto 82 37 34 11 85 0.518 -0.41 0 4th R. Wilson (37-34-11)
2009-2010 Toronto 82 30 38 14 74 0.451 -0.68 -0.03 5th R. Wilson (30-38-14)
2008-2009 Toronto 82 34 35 13 81 0.494 -0.49 0.03 5th R. Wilson (34-35-13)
2007-2008 Toronto 82 36 35 11 83 0.506 -0.42 -0.06 5th P. Maurice (36-35-11)
2006-2007 Toronto 82 40 31 11 91 0.555 -0.21 -0.08 3rd P. Maurice (40-31-11)
2005-2006 Toronto 82 41 33 8 90 0.549 -0.11 0.05 4th P. Quinn (41-33-8)
2003-2004 Toronto 82 45 24 10 3 103 0.628 0.48 0.02 2nd Lost NHL Conference Semi-Finals P. Quinn (45-24-10-3)
2002-2003 Toronto 82 44 28 7 3 98 0.598 0.26 -0.08 2nd Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals P. Quinn (44-28-7-3)
2001-2002 Toronto 82 43 25 10 4 100 0.61 0.44 -0.08 2nd Lost NHL Conference Finals P. Quinn (43-25-10-4)
2000-2001 Toronto 82 37 29 11 5 90 0.549 0.25 -0.05 3rd Lost NHL Conference Semi-Finals P. Quinn (37-29-11-5)
1999-00 Toronto 82 45 27 7 3 100 0.61 0.25 -0.05 1st Lost NHL Conference Semi-Finals P. Quinn (45-27-7-3)
1998-99 Toronto 82 45 30 7 97 0.591 0.46 0.01 2nd Lost NHL Conference Finals P. Quinn (45-30-7)
1997-98 Toronto 82 30 43 9 69 0.421 -0.46 0.07 6th M. Murphy (30-43-9)
1996-97 Toronto 82 30 44 8 68 0.415 -0.48 0.05 6th M. Murphy (30-44-8)
1995-96 Toronto 82 34 36 12 80 0.488 -0.07 0 3rd Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals P. Burns (25-30-10) N. Beverley (9-6-2)
1994-95 Toronto 48 21 19 8 50 0.521 -0.19 0.04 4th Lost NHL Conference Quarter-Finals P. Burns (21-19-8)
1993-94 Toronto 84 43 29 12 98 0.583 0.41 -0.03 2nd Lost NHL Conference Finals P. Burns (43-29-12)
1992-93 Toronto 84 44 29 11 99 0.589 0.47 -0.09 3rd Lost NHL Conference Finals P. Burns (44-29-11)
1991-92 Toronto 80 30 43 7 67 0.419 -0.68 0.07 5th T. Watt (30-43-7)
1990-91 Toronto 80 23 46 11 57 0.356 -0.86 0.11 5th D. Carpenter (1-9-1) T. Watt (22-37-10)
1989-90 Toronto 80 38 38 4 80 0.5 -0.26 0 3rd Lost NHL Division Semi-Finals D. Carpenter (38-38-4)
1988-89 Toronto 80 28 46 6 62 0.388 -1.08 -0.05 5th J. Brophy (11-20-2) G. Armstrong (17-26-4)
1987-88 Toronto 80 21 49 10 52 0.325 -0.99 -0.09 4th Lost NHL Division Semi-Finals J. Brophy (21-49-10)
1986-87 Toronto 80 32 42 6 70 0.438 -0.46 -0.05 4th Lost NHL Division Finals J. Brophy (32-42-6)
1985-86 Toronto 80 25 48 7 57 0.356 -1.02 -0.09 4th Lost NHL Division Finals D. Maloney (25-48-7)
1984-85 Toronto 80 20 52 8 48 0.3 -1.36 -0.04 5th D. Maloney (20-52-8)
1983-84 Toronto 80 26 45 9 61 0.381 -1.1 -0.05 5th M. Nykoluk (26-45-9)
1982-83 Toronto 80 28 40 12 68 0.425 -0.46 0 3rd Lost NHL Division Semi-Finals M. Nykoluk (28-40-12)
1981-82 Toronto 80 20 44 16 56 0.35 -1.08 -0.05 5th M. Nykoluk (20-44-16)
1980-81 Toronto 80 28 37 15 71 0.444 -0.54 0.03 5th Lost NHL Preliminary Round J. Crozier (13-22-5) M. Nykoluk (15-15-10)
1979-80 Toronto 80 35 40 5 75 0.469 -0.27 0.01 4th Lost NHL Preliminary Round F. Smith (30-33-5) D. Duff (0-2-0) P. Imlach (5-5-0)
1978-79 Toronto 80 34 33 13 81 0.506 0.2 0.02 3rd Lost NHL Quarter-Finals R. Neilson (34-33-13)
1977-78 Toronto 80 41 29 10 92 0.575 0.43 0.01 3rd Lost NHL Semi-Finals R. Neilson (41-29-10)
1976-77 Toronto 80 33 32 15 81 0.506 0.23 0.03 3rd Lost NHL Quarter-Finals R. Kelly (33-32-15)
1975-76 Toronto 80 34 31 15 83 0.519 0.27 0.04 3rd Lost NHL Quarter-Finals R. Kelly (34-31-15)
1974-75 Toronto 80 31 33 16 78 0.488 -0.32 0.05 3rd Lost NHL Quarter-Finals R. Kelly (31-33-16)
1973-74 Toronto 78 35 27 16 86 0.551 0.54 -0.03 4th Lost NHL Quarter-Finals R. Kelly (35-27-16)
1972-73 Toronto 78 27 41 10 64 0.41 -0.38 0.03 6th J. McLellan (27-41-10)
1971-72 Toronto 78 33 31 14 80 0.513 0.01 0 4th Lost NHL Quarter-Finals J. McLellan (33-31-14)
1970-71 Toronto 78 37 33 8 82 0.526 0.44 -0.03 4th Lost NHL Quarter-Finals J. McLellan (37-33-8)
1969-70 Toronto 76 29 34 13 71 0.467 -0.15 0.11 6th J. McLellan (29-34-13)
1968-69 Toronto 76 35 26 15 85 0.559 0.29 0.06 4th Lost NHL Quarter-Finals P. Imlach (35-26-15)
1967-68 Toronto 74 33 31 10 76 0.514 0.64 0.19 5th P. Imlach (33-31-10)


Good lord. Here are some things that stand out:
  1. Our team finished below .500 for literally an entire decade straight. I know we all know the 80s were a pure nightmare, but Jesus Christ!
  2. We went a decade without winning more than a round, had one good season, and then things got worse. This is like reading the history of Russia.
  3. It's insane that the decade from 2005-2015 wasn't the worst ten-year stretch in team history, but it wasn't. It was merely awful.
Conveniently for this exercise, albeit tragically for fans of the team, there really isn't much of a statistical argument to be made for the vast majority of the seasons on this list. For example, say we set two simple conditions:

a) Win more games than you lose in the regular season, and
b) Win at least one best-of-seven playoff series. (At various times in the 70s and 80s, the league sometimes had a best-of-three first round; any time the Leafs won in the preliminary round, they lost right after, with one exception.)

The Leafs have achieved this standard eight times in the forty-eight seasons since expansion: once under Roger Neilson (1977-78), twice under Pat Burns (1992-93 and 1993-94), and five times under Pat Quinn (1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2001-02, and 2003-04.) This is also captures all five seasons the Leafs made the third round, and is a pretty fair survey of which Leafs teams were actually any good.

If you want to investigate that intriguing SRS statistic, it mostly bears this out, except it's a little kinder to the Leafs teams in the first decade after expansion. I don't think this really does them much credit, given that the league was chock-full of new teams that the rest of the league beat up on. The Leafs were predictably better than the fresh, hot garbage of most expansion franchises, but they were miles below the genuinely good teams of the NHL at this point. To take in example, in the best two seasons by SRS in our 48-year sample--1967-68 and 1973-74--the Leafs were still the fifth-best of the Original Six franchises (both times better than only the sad-sack Detroit Red Wings). In the former year, they didn't qualify for the playoffs at all. In the latter, they got swept in the first round by the Bobby Orr Bruins.

I don't really think there's an argument for the Leafs having a really good season outside those eight years described above, except possibly 2013, which has a whole host of problems with it--I won't try and fight that battle again, but I would strongly disagree with putting it in the top Leafs seasons of all time, and I'm sure most of us remember it all too well. Beyond that, things get pretty bad pretty quickly--the 12th-best Leafs team of the past 48 by points percentage was the 2006-07 edition coached by Paul Maurice, which rode a bunch of loser points all the way to narrowly missing the playoffs.

So with an eye to varying the era a bit, here's our list. The best four Leaf teams since expansion:
  1. 1977-78
  2. 1992-93
  3. 1998-99
  4. 2001-02

3. 1977-78: Roger Neilson And The Shadows Of Giants

Take a look at the 1977-78 standings. They are absolutely bonkers.

The league had eighteen teams, twelve of them having originated in the past decade. The first NHL entry draft was only fourteen years prior--June 5th, 1963--and had ever since been masterfully exploited by Montreal Canadiens GM Sam Pollock, possibly the greatest NHL history. Pollock, as described by our own NNU, was a wizard at figuring out which draft picks were going to be the most valuable before that became obvious to everyone else. His drafting work had built one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports; in the thirteen years since his rise to the top job, the Canadiens had won eight times, and they were coming off two straight championships. The previous year, they had set the still-standing record for points in a season, with 132. They were coached by Scotty Bowman and led by players like Lafleur, Shutt, Lemaire, Robinson, and Cournoyer; their goalie was Ken Dryden. You can make a strong case that, relative to era, this was the greatest team of all time.

Boston no longer had Bobby Orr, who was sitting the season out in the hopes of one last resurgence--with Chicago. But the Bruins had an excellent team, good enough to survive and thrive despite being coached by Don Cherry. The Flyers remained in Broad Street Bully form, just two seasons removed from a Cup in 1975 and led by Bobby Clarke. The Isles were a dynasty in incubation, already starring famous and soon-to-be-more-famous names like Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Denis Potvin, and coached by the soon-to-be-legendary Al Arbour.

If you look at the goal differentials from 2015-16, the Capitals are the top team with +59, and the Canucks the worst with -52. In 1977-78, all of the four teams described above had goal differentials of at least +96, and the Habs were sitting at a ridiculous +176--meaning that for the 80-game season, the average Canadiens game was a two-goal win. These four teams towered above the league.

As Bernie Sanders will tell you, when some people are very rich, it means others are very poor--especially in sports. Four teams had goal differentials of -95 or worse, with the Cleveland Barons at a grotesque -126; the Barons were dissolved at the end of the year, the only time this has happened to an NHL franchise since WWII.

The 77-78 Leafs were neither giants nor pygmies. They were a mid-level team who, for one glorious round, stood toe-to-toe with a giant, and won.

The Players

As always with the Leafs in the late 70s, it starts with captain and first-line centre Darryl Sittler. Sittler may have been the best player the Leafs ever drafted (8th overall in 1970) and this season he was pure dynamite. We all remember that his best game--the best single game in NHL history--came in 1976, but his best season came in 77-78. He put up 45G-72A-117P in 80 games, a record that would stand until Doug Gilmour broke it later on in this post. Sittler was a classic bit-of-everything power forward, and he fought without giving anything up on skill; he racked up 100 PIMs this year, good for third on the team.

Papa Fulemin: He was big, he could skate, he could shoot, he could pass, and he was a leader. He wasn't the leader because he was a captain; he was made captain because he was the leader of the team.

Sittler's friend and top-line running mate Lanny McDonald had a banner year as well with 47G-40A-87P, though in Lanny's case he had even more offensive glory ahead of him; he was another high Leafs draft pick, coming 4th overall in 1973. Now let's all look at Lanny McDonald's mustache.

lanny.0.jpg

Three types of men have mustaches like that: a) Fathers of Confederation; b) classic porn stars; and c) Lanny McDonald. If you told me Lanny had brought Alberta into the Canadian union while enjoying a three-way, I would absolutely believe you.

Errol Thompson completed the hockey--and thus I would say sexier--type of three-way that made up the Leafs' first line. He was 5'9", fast and with a scoring touch, and the Leafs drafted him 22nd overall in 1970 after Johnny Bower noticed him playing in the remote hellscape of Prince Edward Island. The Sittler-McDonald-Thompson troika was the Leafs' offensive engine throughout the late 70s. When I asked Papa Fulemin about Leaf teams of the past, this line was the first thing he mentioned.

The Leafs had two fantastic offensive defencemen to lead their D-core. One was Ian Turnbull, who had a short but very productive career almost entirely with the Leafs, after being drafted by them 15th overall in 1973. The other was the legendary Borje Salming, one of the first prominent Swedes to play in the NHL; he was signed by the Leafs as a free agent in 1973, when European scouting was still in its infancy, after a Leafs scout saw him and spoke positively. This year was one of many productive seasons he gave the Leafs, providing 16G-60A-76P. Of course, as a Swedish player in the 70s, Borje faced questions about whether he was "tough enough."

2-borje-salming.0.jpg

Borje was tough enough.

A sixth name needs to be mentioned: Tiger Williams. Tiger is famous for being the NHL's career leader in penalty minutes with 3966 (NHL.com insists on calling him Dave, despite everyone else in the entire world calling him Tiger.) But in addition to being a fighting machine, he could also actually play; he put up 19G-31A-50P this season to go with his absurd 351 PIMs. It was a nasty league, and Tiger was the Leafs' nuclear deterrent, but he was by no means a 1970s Colton Orr.

The 77-78 Leafs' roster is rounded out by a bunch of names you will recognize either from PPP usernames or coaches with round heads: Jim McKenny, Mike Pelyk, (Sir) Mike Palmateer, Randy Carlyle, and Bruce Boudreau. But one of the biggest names to account for is one that isn't there: Dave Keon. Keon, a long-standing Leafs captain and future Hall of Famer, had been driven out of the NHL in 1975 and to the competing World Hockey Association after being viciously jerked around by Leafs' owner Harold Ballard. Keon was 37 by this point, but still highly productive; he produced impressively in the WHA and, once his Hartford Whalers joined the NHL, in the NHL again as a 40-year-old. Don't worry, though, this isn't the last time Harold Ballard's behavior deprived the Leafs of a phenomenally talented captain.

The Coach

The Leafs' coach this year was Roger Neilson, and this was good, because Roger Neilson was awesome. He's most famous for the white flag incident, but I strongly recommend reading his whole Wikipedia page. He had several qualities that are amazing in a coach: innovative, creative at exploiting loopholes, a workaholic, funny, and beloved by his players. Surely any owner would value such a talented individual! [weeping]

This was Neilson's first year as a head coach, but he went on to coach a damn near every team in the league in a Hall of Fame career. While we're on the topic: Sittler--Hall of Fame. McDonald--Hall of Fame. Salming--Hall of Fame. It is a testament to how dominant the top teams were at this time that the Leafs weren't a giant, because there was a lot to love about this team.

The GM

Jim Gregory was the Leafs' GM from 1969-79. There's a lot to be impressed about with Gregory. He drafted pretty much the entire Leafs core of this team, and he was one of the first GMs to see the value in scouting Europe--hence Borje, among others. Considering that in the late 70s NHL was losing players to the rival World Hockey Association and Gregory had to put up with Ballard's constant interventions, you could argue he spent a decade behind the eight-ball. His struggles to compete with the giants notwithstanding, he deserves complete credit for building this Leafs team through drafting and scouting; this was Jim Gregory's team.

Having said that, this was also an era of tighter team control of players. The NHLPA was only founded in 1967 and was just beginning to flex its muscles during the 70s, and the advent of the WHA was a system shock that finally began to give players competitive options. Ballard's reign of destruction was easier to survive when the team still held so many cards; Gregory's successors had to deal with a different world, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they failed as long as Ballard lived.

Gregory would end up fired in summer 1979. Characteristically, he found out when the league offered him a job, because Ballard didn't tell him directly. Gregory went on to serve as Director of Central Scouting and is currently a Senior VP of Hockey Operations. He is in the Hall of Fame as a builder.

The Season

The Leafs posted a respectable 41-29-10 WLT record in 80 games, finishing 7th in goals for and 8th in goals against. They were good. They were not great, although their best players were, as described above. In all of the few team statistics tracked by hockey reference at this point, they finished between fifth and ninth in the 18-team NHL, except short-handed goals against, where they tied for eleventh. They were one of the best of the middleweight franchises, with a spectacular top-end players, and yet the gap between them and the giants was enormous.

The Leafs drew the low-end mediocre Los Angeles Kings in the preliminary round, and blasted them out of the rink with a couple of four-goal wins--7-3 and then 4-0. Then they drew the Islanders in Round Two--the Islanders who were on the way to being a dynasty. The Leafs promptly dropped the first two games in Long Island.

But the Leafs had Ian Turnbull, and the Leafs had Darryl Sittler, and the Leafs had one hell of a lot of resilience and for once--for the only time in the Ballard years--they seemed to have fate on their side. They won four of five from the Isles, ending the series with a 2-1 OT win in the Islanders' arena. Again, this was an Isles team with Trottier and Bossy and coached by Al Arbour, and the Leafs--in the middle of their two-decade sellout run as the best tragicomedy in town--beat them.

The Islanders lost this series, then one more in 1979--to the New York Rangers--and then won nineteen series in a row. The Isles were a long way from an easy mark, and the Leafs beat them; they were the only team to defeat one of the four giants this year without being one.

Then the Leafs ran into a buzzsaw. Despite what the Bible and Malcom Gladwell would have you believe, most of the time Goliath crushes David into dust. The dynasty Habs beat the Leafs in four straight en route to their third (of four) straight titles. Sammy Pollock retired triumphant in the summer of 1978.

Thoughts On 1978

  • Wandering in the shadows of giants is, I think, really the story of the Leafs from 1968 to 1990. The turmoil of expansion and the asymmetrical drafting success of particular teams led to a league whose quality formed a pyramid, with a very narrow top tier. The 1970s were dominated by three gigantic hockey presences: Sam Pollock, Bobby Orr, and the Broad Street Bullies. Between 1968 and 1980, the Leafs ran into the Canadiens, the Bruins, or the Flyers in the playoffs a combined eight times. They lost every series. Put another way, getting wiped out by one of the three big fish was the most common way for a Leafs season to end in this era. Goliath always won.
  • To expand on this, the Habs, the Bruins, the Flyers, or the Islanders and Oilers dynasties won every Cup between 1968 and 1988. The Leafs beat those teams in the playoffs a total of exactly one time during that period, and you just read about it. 1978 was the closest the Leafs came to surviving in that top tier, and they hacked it--for eight days in April.
  • And yet, there was so much good about this team. The six key players described above included five Leafs draftees and one great Leafs scouting find--this was a team assembled "the right way." Darryl Sittler was one of the three best centres the Leafs have ever had, and the best they drafted. The Leafs' scouting actually produced some genuinely great players; in another era, this team might have gone a very long way.
  • I mean, while we're on the topic, a team led by an 8th-overall pick at centre, an elite offensive winger drafted 4th, and a free agent defenceman from overseas might go somewhere under a Hall of Fame-calibre coach. I dunno. Just spitballin'.
  • The "too many giants" explanation isn't satisfying, though. The Leafs have long been one of the most profitable franchises in hockey and had one of the biggest fanbases, if not the biggest. As Katya has detailed, there are a thousand ways in which a rich franchise can exploit its financial advantages even in a salary-capped league, and the league of this time had no salary cap. In short, the Leafs should have been a Goliath. Why did they bounce between being David and being too terrible to lift up a slingshot? Well...

4. An Interlude: Harold Ballard Was A Dick

Harold Ballard joined the Leafs ownership group in 1961 and became majority owner of the franchise in 1972. Here are some things that Harold Ballard did.

Papa Fulemin: He was a terrible person.

We all know about Harold Ballard, but this point ought to be expressed in full. In the obituary (one of the links above), Ballard is described as "feisty", "original", and "colorful." I appreciate the reluctance to speak ill of the dead, but none of this is apt. Harold Ballard was a miserable, shitty human being in his personal life. In his ownership of the Leafs, he was a miserly, micro- and mis-managing vampire who stuck his fangs in Toronto's veins for three decades. It is a testament to the strength of the Leafs' fanbase that it endured such a protracted period of horrible ownership. It is a testament to what a dick he was that it had to.

Fuck Harold Ballard.

Whew. It feels good to get that out there. Anyway, Ballard did do one good thing for the Leafs, which was to die in April 1990. After spending the 1980s in a nihilistic failure vortex, the Leafs quickly began to rise from the ashes, and the rest of this article will be much more cheerful in tone.

....uh...probably.

5. 1992-93: Against Bad Refereeing The Gods Themselves Contend In Vain

In some ways, 1993 had a lot in common with 1978. There was a dominant first-place team coming off two straight Cups and gunning for a third. This was Pittsburgh, led by an insane forward lineup of Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Ron Francis, Rick Tocchet, and Jaromir Jagr. The Penguins were very, very good. There were also several recent-expansion guppies in the league's basement: the Lightning, who would eventually go on to a Cup and regular post-season success; the Sharks, who would eventually go on to extended regular-season dominance; and the Senators, who would eventually go on to be the punchline of this joke.

Still, as great as the Penguins were, and as bad as the expansion teams might have been, there was much more parity in this league. Nobody in this league hit a goal differential of +100 (the Pens led the league with +99) and the spread was much less pronounced; the middle-class of the league still looked up at a titanic team, but they weren't nearly as outclassed.

The Leafs, for a change, has a lot going for them. But they had five things in particular.

The Players

I could write this entire section just about Doug Gilmour and it would accurately reflect his place in the imagination of this city. Here's where he came from: Gilmour was drafted 134th overall by the Blues in 1982, wound up on Calgary where he helped lead them to a Cup, and was traded to Toronto in an enormous ten-player swap, in which he was clearly the most important player. In a sign of how things were finally going the Leafs' way, the trade was a highway robbery executed by the Silver Fox, Cliff Fletcher.

Doug Gilmour was 5'10", was nicknamed "Killer", and was one of the best two-way centres the Leafs ever had. 1992-93 was his finest year; he put up 32G-95A-127P (still a franchise record for points), won the Selke, and finished second in Hart Trophy voting--to Mario Lemieux, who was having what was in some ways the most impressive season of all time. All of this is incredible enough, and was the high point of a Leafs tenure that made him the best Leaf forward between Sittler and Sundin. But this doesn't really touch how iconic he was.

After the dark night of the Ballard years, he came to the Leafs in a massive, lightning-bolt trade early in 1992, and he was part of Leafs teams that won--the Leafs hadn't had a winning season since Roger Neilson's last as coach, in 1979, and in 1992-93, they had one again. He was, and still is, a city hero. He starred in bad milk commercials. He went on to star in bad laptop commercials where it sounded like he was swearing (here's the revised version where he's trying to make it very clear he's not advertising the Asus Note Fuckin' Tablet.) When I was a kid I read a puffy little book about the Leafs that talked about how Doug Gilmour was the team prankster and gave people fucked-up doughnuts with shaving cream in them. People cared about this. People cared about Doug Gilmour. Because Doug Gilmour got this city excited about watching hockey again, instead of it being a grim ritual they did out of a pathological compulsion.

(And people want very much to believe that the sexual assault allegation against him, in 1988, was unfounded. Gilmour has always denied the allegation and countersued his accuser for libel; a grand jury chose not to indict him; he was never charged with a crime, and the lawsuit against him was subsequently dropped.)

Gilmour wasn't the only offensive star on the team this year; there was a weirdly excellent (and never repeated) season from Nikolai Borschevsky where he put up 74 points, as well as a good post-prime year from ex-Oilers-Dynast Glenn Anderson, plus 31 games of best-player-kept-out-of-the-Hall-of-Fame Dave Andreychuk (see below). But nobody on the team was within 50 points of Gilmour, and nobody else matched him for a generation of Leafs fans. With one possible exception.

Wendel Clark was the Leafs' 1st overall pick in 1985, and he was the kind of player fans love. He was gritty as hell, he was a fighter, he was a decent scorer. He led the team through the dark times in the late 80s and then as a captain from 1991-1994. He personified toughness. Someone literally made a video about him called All Heart. His offensive production didn't quite match his draft position, and he was often injured. It didn't matter. Wendel Clark permanently etched himself on the minds of this city, which led many years later to this.

BOdcmq0CcAA5QPj.0.jpg

No, wait, I said this article was going to get more cheerful. Okay. The Leafs were good again! But there was a third player who was key to their success.

Felix Potvin was a goalie, and he was great for several reasons. One, he was nicknamed Felix the Cat, which is a cool-ass nickname. Two, he once fought noted murder-goalie Ron Hextall and won. Three, for a few years he was really good. In the 1992-93 season, when you could have played under general anesthetic and scored 20 goals, he put up a .910 save percentage--second only to Curtis Joseph's .911 among goalies who played multiple games. Felix was drafted by the Leafs 31st overall in 1990.

As mentioned, another key piece: Dave Andreychuk, acquired mid-season from Buffalo.

Papa Fulemin: Andreychuk was one of the best opportunists in the NHL. Pat Burns used to say he was "like a dog on a bone" with loose pucks, and with Gilmour, there were a lot of loose pucks. Gilmour turned him into a 50-goal man.

Andreychuk did indeed score 54 goals this season (split between Buffalo and Toronto) and 53 the following year, putting up 99 points each season. He never cleared 41 otherwise.

Other key Leafs this season included noted time-traveling defenceman Todd Gill (drafted 25th OA by Toronto in 1984) and Dave Ellett (drafted by Winnipeg in the 4th round.) For those of you keeping score at home: Gilmour, Andreychuk, Ellett, and Anderson were all acquired in trades after the death of Ballard. This was a combination of being freed from Ballard and being led by one of the most trade-happy GMs in the history of hockey, about whom I will have more to say shortly. But first, we need to talk about Pat Burns.

The Coach

Pat Burns is the only coach in history to win the Jack Adams three times. He was an ex-cop who turned to hockey coaching because he was Canada's uncle. He is one of the only hockey people who is beloved by Habs, Leafs, and Bruins fans, which seems like it should be impossible. He made the Leafs defensively sound. When he was finally elected to the Hall of Fame, everyone was furious--that they hadn't done it sooner. Virtually everyone described him as the tough guy with a heart of gold. Sometimes he looked like Kenny Powers from Eastbound and Down.

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If you don't like Pat Burns, I can't help you.

The GM

I would like to posit that Cliff Fletcher is the Leafs' Vyacheslav Molotov. Vyacheslav Molotov was a Russian Communist politican and diplomat; he is famous for, among other things, having molotov cocktails named after him by Finnish soldiers in the Russo-Finnish war. I don't mean that Cliff Fletcher made an imperialist bargain with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, although if it came to that I totally think Cliff would have won the trade. What I mean is that Cliff Fletcher's Leafs career cannot be destroyed.

The impressive thing about Molotov was that every time Stalin purged the Communist leadership, Molotov survived, and no one is quite sure why. Stalin got annoyed with him and demoted him, and yet unlike virtually every other prominent Old Bolshevik, he never executed him. Molotov lived into the 1980s and died at the age of 96.

Cliff Fletcher has been GM twice, and he has never been fired from the Leafs organization. He retired to do other things after his first tenure, and he was replaced the second time by Brian Burke, but look at the Leafs' front office: he's still there. As a Senior Advisor. You may ask, what is Cliff Fletcher doing there? I'll tell you what he's doing. SURVIVING.

Where was I? Cliff Fletcher came in as the Leafs' COO, President and GM in 1991, essentially making him the Leafs' czar. Cliff had built the Calgary Flames out of the ashes (heh) of the Atlanta Flames expansion franchise and saw his efforts crowned by their 1989 Stanley Cup; the Flames connection almost certainly helped grease the wheels for Gilmour trade. I've been glib describing his professional immortality, but he was a genuinely bold, aggressive team-builder, and he had a Burkian love for the big trade. He made multiple spectacular trades for the Leafs--one you can see above, and one you can see below--and some very bad ones (he gave the Islanders the Luongo pick and in his second tenure he made the Steen-for-Stempniak deal.) Sometimes he was brilliant, sometimes he was wrong, but he was never boring. Simmons (I know) actually had quite a good article this year talking to Cliff about his career.

Cliff's strength, and his weakness, was that he always seemed to be swinging for a deal on par with the one that brought Lanny McDonald to Calgary and put the Flames over the top. This made him cavalier about trading high draft picks, and was part of the infamous Leaf disregard for drafting in recent decades; no player the Leafs drafted in the first two rounds under Cliff went on to play 100 games for the franchise. The Leafs scouting actually produced some Leafs gems in later rounds, especially from Europe--Danny Markov, Sergei Berezin, Tomas Kaberle--but Cliff was always eager to take bullets out of his scouts' guns to make trades. Cliff himself acknowledges you can't operate the way he did in the modern NHL.

But for better or for worse, he was gutsy as hell, and three of the best four Leaf teams since expansion were built on the foundation of his dealing. That's something to be proud of. Godspeed, Comrade.

The Season

The Leafs generation before mine mythologized this season more beautifully than I ever could, to the point that despite not remembering what I was doing in 1993--the evidence suggests covert operations, but the CIA won't unseal my file--I can recite a hundred things that happened that year. The Leafs had a Selke winner (Gilmour) and a Jack Adams winner (Burns), the only major individual awards any Leaf has won since expansion outside the Lady Byng. The Leafs picked up 99 points, the best in team history to that point, and good for 8th in a 24-team league. Maybe those factoids, after all the terrible years, give you some sense of the electricity Toronto was feeling. Wendel Clark said it was the most excitement he saw in the Leafs; the people who lived it tell you it was the most excitement they've seen ever.

The Leafs this season did it with defence. They were only 16th in the NHL in goals per game, but they were 2nd in goals against, with credit due in shares to Gilmour, Pat Burns, and especially Felix the Cat. But it wasn't just goaltending--they were fifth in shots against. The Leafs were also top-ten in both powerplay and penalty kill this year, again to the credit of Pat Burns. They were good, they made the playoffs easily, and then the fun started.

Every series the Leafs played that year went seven. After dropping the first two games, as is tradition, they stormed back and beat the Wings--the Wings who already had Yzerman and Fedorov and Lidstrom--in Game 7 OT, and Ron MacLean interviewed Nikolai Borschevsky after a series win and it turned out he only knew how to say one word in English. They faced the Blues, and Gilmour scored a double-OT winner in Game 1. Curtis Joseph, whom you may remember as the only goalie better than Potvin this year, played brilliantly but not brilliantly enough, and the Leafs made it through another full-length round. And then the Leafs drew the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings had Wayne Gretzky, the Leafs had Doug Gilmour. The Kings had Marty McSorley, and the Leafs had Wendel Clark.

Clark won the latter matchup.

And thanks to Kerry Fraser, Gretzky won the former.

We all know the story of Game 6. The Leafs, were up 3-2 in the series and in overtime with a chance to advance to the finals. Gretzky slashed open Gilmour's face with a shot follow-through, leaving a gash that required eight stitches. Kerry Fraser saw this and did nothing, like a malign and indifferent god whose power mocks any dream of cosmic justice. Gretzky then went on to score the game-winner, and the Leafs lost Game 7 by a goal.

We're not over it.

Thoughts on 1993

  • This was it. In raw numbers, this was as close as we came. No Leafs team before or since won eleven playoff games. It is an article of faith among Leafs fans that we could have beat the Habs and Patrick Roy in the finals (something the Kings were unable to do.) We could have...I...ARGH.
  • Fuck Kerry Fraser.
  • If you're wondering about the Pens, they got upset by the Islanders in the second round over in the other conference. This is another sign that the era of the untouchable dynasties was ending. There were and are still great teams, but no team has won three consecutive Cups since the Oilers, and nobody's won two in a row since the 97-98 Wings. There isn't as much parity as the league likes to pretend, but there's a hell of a lot more than there once was.
  • Could the Leafs really have won it all? Obviously they were one bounce away from beating the Kings, and it was a year of upsets on the other side of the bracket. Roy sure looked unbeatable, but on the other hand, Gilmour was having the year of his life. "Of all the words of tongue or pen..."
  • This was the first good Leafs team built on a blockbuster trade, and to some extent set the strategy for the Leafs for the next fifteen years. Between Sergei Berezin (drafted 256th OA in 1994) and Nazem Kadri (drafted 5th OA in 2009), the best forward the Leafs drafted and didn't trade away in his prime was okay-I-guess winger Nik Antropov (10th OA, 1998.) When people talk about the Leafs needing to build through the draft, they're looking back through this era of trying for the big trade that only really ended with the firing of Brian Burke in early 2013. Why did the Leafs constantly try this? Because of Gilmour and Sundin.
  • This team had another kick at the can in 1994, when they made the third round and lost to old hero Roger Neilson's Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks went on to lose in the finals (as is tradition) and light their city on fire (as is also tradition.) After that, the Leafs went into a period of retooling. Wonder how that'll go.

6. 1998-99: Free Agents And Narrow Windows

The year was 1998, and the Leafs had a youngish team with potential. Mats Sundin was 27, as was Sergei Berezin, and the Leafs had several promising young defencemen.

General manager Ken Dryden saw he had a team with potential, and he did what we expect general managers to do: he tried to acquire some talent to put them over the top. Almost all his acquisitions worked well this year. (Guess the key word in that sentence.)

The league still had its elite--the Devils, the Avs, the Red Wings, and the Stars were the class of the league in this era--but as good as they were, they weren't in another universe. This was a league in which the Leafs could make a move. If you want to know the ugly truth--terrible as Ballard was, we weren't going to win in the 1980s no matter what he did; the Islanders and the Oilers were superhuman. This year...I think we could have done it.

We didn't.

But here's why we could have.

The Players

Mats Sundin. Mats--muhfuckin'--Sundin. Let's just sit around and have feelings about Mats for a while, guys.

Cliff Fletcher, that glorious old Bolshevik, got us Mats at the 1994 draft in one of his big trades. It was controversial at the time, because we gave up fan favourite Wendel Clark to the Nordiques. It was absolutely brilliant. It set the basis for the most regularly successful Leafs team of the last fifty years. Because Mats was the best.

Mats was the kind of centre GMs dream about. He was huge, he could score, and he was the kind of offensive-distributor that can turn any winger into a goal-producer (sadly, this was tested often.) He scored at a 74-point pace or better in each of his thirteen seasons with the Leafs, and this included some of the lowest-scoring years in the modern NHL--all of the post-expansion seasons where the league averaged under 2.70 goals per team per game occurred while Mats was in Toronto.

After Doug Gilmour was traded in 1997, Sundin became the Leafs' captain, and he was perfect. He took the Toronto spotlight without blinking for years; Rosie Dimanno (clickety-clack boom boom bap) said she only knew him to lose his temper with a reporter once in his whole time in Toronto, in response to a question about his personal life. Given the scrutiny he put up with, his gentlemanly stoicism would have done Marcus Aurelius proud. Mats got a hard time for not being Doug Gilmour. It's only since his retirement that he's gotten proper credit for being Mats Sundin.

Mats produced this year, just like every year, putting up 31G-52A-83P in 82 GP at age 27. This year, though, he had some great wingers. Steve Thomas, a free agent 35-year-old, was one of those small guys with scoring touch, and he was one of Dryden's two big UFA pickups in summer 1998. He responded with 28G-45A-73P in 78 games. Other offensive contributors included famous non-passer and alleged Medicaid fraudster Sergei Berezin (age 27) as well as Derek "no I'm the one who could actually score, you're thinking of Kris King" King (age 31). Oh, and Tie Domi. Always Tie Domi.

This was a team with an offence built on trades and signed free agents; the Leafs had seven players score 40 or more points this year, and they only drafted one of them (Berezin.) Johnson was signed out of college; Derek King, Thomas and Igor Korolev were free agents, and Steven Sullivan was acquired in a trade.

The same applies to the Leafs' defence, led by veteran Sylvain Cote and one of my favourite Leafs ever, tough defenceman Dmitry Yushkevich. It also featured a young trio of D-men in Tomas Kaberle, Danny Markov and Brian Berard. Kabby and Markov were Leafs draftees, but that was it.

But the biggest addition was in net. Curtis Joseph was 31; after a meh year from Potvin, the Leaf decided to trust that Joseph could rebound from a meh year of his own and signed him away from Edmonton. Cujo was indeed better than Felix, who was at the start of a long, slow decline.

Cujo, though, didn't have his best stuff this season; he was okay, just okay--.910 in 67 GP, 17th among goalies who played 20 or more games. He did get better in the next couple of seasons, but...well...winning the goaltending battle would have been nice this year. You'll see.

The Coach

Pat Quinn.

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Pat Quinn won the Jack Adams twice (with Phily and Vancouver; he finished second this season), coached Canada to a gold medal in 2002, and looked like my uncle Gerry. He liked offence and he trusted his veterans. He is forever associated in my mind with being big, friendly, Irish-Canadian, and shrewd (again, partly cause of Uncle Gerry.) He is also associated with Leafs teams that were good, and he coached a bunch of them in a row. He was criticized for being reluctant to trust his young players, and fair enough. He also made the odd embarrassing mistake. But he did some mighty impressive stuff with what he had.

The GM

Honestly? I totally forgot Ken Dryden was ever our GM until I looked it up, though I vaguely recalled him being president. I thought the sequence was Fletcher--Bill Watters--Pat Quinn. But Ken Dryden, during a point in his career between being one of the best goalies ever (he was the goalie for that Habs team that swept the 1978 Leafs) and being Canada's Minister for Social Development, he ran the Leafs for two years--1997-99. And you know what? I think he--or depending on who you believe took the organizational initiative, the Leafs under him--did a pretty good job.

After the spectacular wheeling and dealing of Cliff Fletcher, the Dryden Leafs were sensibly more focused on adding pieces than renovating the foundations, recognizing they had a franchise centre in his 20s to build around. Look at the Leafs trade history Dryden's two seasons in charge--1997-98 and 1998-99. By my count there was one trade we had reason to sincerely regret--Schneider for Karpotsev--and there were a bunch of very helpful additions--Berard, Cote, Perrault, Bohonos, and Cote. This is a very solid trade record.

On the free agency front, the signing of Steve Thomas worked out brilliantly, adding the highest-scoring winger to what became an elite offence. Dryden upgraded in goal with Cujo; Cujo's flaws aside, no better goalie than him changed teams over the summer of 1998, and he gave the Leafs several good years. In an uncapped league, the Leafs had every reason to spend in free agency, and these were smart additions. We can lament that the Leafs didn't draft somewhat better, and I do. But Fletcher's foundation and Dryden's fine-tuning put the Leafs in a very competitive position.

To be honest, after looking at all this, I wondered why the Leafs didn't let Dryden keep the job, rather than letting Pat Quinn put on a second hat in the summer of 1999.

Papa Fulemin: "Dryden was an intellectual, perceived as aloof, and he was never 'one of the boys.' There were too many cooks in the Leafs' organization, and there was a power struggle. Quinn was one of the boys."

Sigh. I guess I was starting to feel too good about our franchise's operation.


The Season

The Leafs led the league in scoring this season, and they led it by a lot--3.27 goals per game; the Devils were second with 3.02, and no one else cleared 3--and that was despite an average powerplay. Sundin always produced and Quinn got the most out of the guys around him, and never more so than this season. Some of it was shooting percentages, but the Leafs were a damn good team with a balanced attack--Sundin was eleventh in points, and he and Thomas were the only Leafs in the top thirty. They weren't so hot defensively, mostly because Cujo was just average and the Leafs backups (including Glenn Healy, natch) were grotesque. Still, this was a very good team.

The Leafs drew the Philadelphia Flyers in round one. This was the last great year for the (newly reunited) Legion of Doom line: Eric Lindros, John Leclair and future Leaf Mikael Renberg. They also featured a prime Rod Brind'amour and picked up Mark Recchi. This was one hell of a forward lineup, but they were also great defensively--second in shots against per game this year.

DIDN'T MATTER. Leafs in six, led by five assists from fledging Bryan Berard.

Next up came the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Art Ross winner Jaromir Jagr. They had a generally good offence.

DIDN'T MATTER. Leafs in six, this time led by Mats and future Ghost Lonny Bohonos.

In the third round, they ran into the Sabres, who were led by somewhat-injured Domnik Hasek, who was coming off a Vezina season. It...

...it mattered.

Actually, while Dom was excellent--.926 in the games he played, after returning from injury for Game Three--the real issue was who wasn't excellent. Cujo put up an .850 this series. And that was that. Sabres in five.

Cujo's career save percentage in the playoffs was .917. The next year, he would give the Leafs .932 in 12 games. He just had an awful series at the worst possible time. The Leafs outshot the Sabres in every game they lost (I know, score effects, but still); Cujo produced .762, .870, .815, and .870 in those games (he was .909 in their 6-3 win in Game 2.) As the philosopher John Tortorella said, sometimes you just need a fuckin' save. The Leafs produced sixteen goals in five games, almost exactly in line with their league-leading goals-per-game average from the season. They just didn't get the goaltending.

Thoughts on 1999

  • What's to be said? This was a great, offensively diverse, defensively decent team that lost the goaltending battle. Cujo fell apart.
Papa Fulemin: Cujo was one of these old-school goalies, although the position was changing towards the butterly. He relied on spectacular acrobatics, and when he let in a goal, sometimes he would seem to try to get even more spectacular and overcompensate.

  • This is all the more painful, because I think the Leafs this season had a serious chance to actually win the damn Cup, and possibly the best chance they ever had. In 1993, had they made the finals, they were looking at facing Conn Smythe Patrick Roy, who walled the Gretzky Kings in five. In 2002, they had the most stacked team in my living memory waiting over the hill. This year, they would have faced Dallas.
  • To be clear, Dallas was very, very good. They won the President's Trophy this year, and they were led by Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Brett Hull. They had Ed Belfour in net. The Leafs would be a clear underdog. And yet...the Leafs were only six wins back of Dallas in the regular season. They were so good offensively , and Cujo had played brilliant series before (including that one against the Leafs, in 1993.)

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I am, Lloyd. I'm telling you there was a chance.

7: 2001-02: Mean Muggin' And The Insoluble Latvian

This one was mine.

This is the one I remember the most clearly, and featured the series that was the best time I ever had as a Leafs fan. I loved this team. I don't think they could have won the Cup--the Red Wings this season were unbeatable--but God, they were great. When I think back through the dark times this past decade, and remember being excited about the Leafs, this is the team.

The Players

Have I talked about Mats enough? Because MATS. Mats was 30. Mats was amazing. Mats led the team in scoring with 41G-39A-80P. I'll try not to repeat myself and just say this was Mats' team.

After that, the Leafs had a remarkably balanced attack, with nine players better than 0.5 points per game. They had Darcy Tucker, who was a dirty, psychotic, belligerent rat and who was also a damn good scorer (24G-35A-59P this season.) Imagine if Brad Marchand played for us except he wanted to fight everybody all the time. That was Darcy Tucker. Sometimes, looking back, I feel bad about some of his hits. Sometimes, looking back, I love that he was a mean, effective son-of-a-bitch. Also:

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As part of their eternal quest to get Sundin wingers commensurate with his talent, the Leafs had recently picked up 32-year-old Alexander Mogilny. Mogilny was one of the most offensively gifted players in history. Only eight men have scored 70 goals in a season, and Mogilny was one of them. Though they were stylistically different players, he was my first experience with that electric Phil Kessel feeling that when you see this player's number on the ice, anything could happen in a second. Mogilny wasn't quite what he had been, but he was damn good--24G-33A-57P in 66 GP, good for second on the team.

After that, we have three of the add-on forwards who have become PPPunchlines for their mediocrity--Mikael Renberg, Robert Reichel, and Jonas Hoglund. They were all pretty decent this year, though--52, 51 and 47 points, respectively. Oh, and they had an old guy named Gary Roberts. He might come up again, I don't know.

I think the stereotypes of the Quinn teams--a bunch of middle-aged players we traded for or signed as UFAs--were a little exaggerated in 1999. They were pretty much dead on here. Of these seven forwards, only Tucker was younger than 29 (26) and we didn't draft any of them ourselves. This was a more defensible team-building strategy in 2002 than now, though it obviously had its problems.

On defence, the Leafs were led by players who were, surprisingly, not ancient. Pass-master Tomas Kaberle (23, and we even drafted him!) and can-opening gunner Bryan McCabe (26) were rounding nicely into the form that later would make them one of the best offensive-defencemen pairings in the NHL. The Leafs also still had Yushkie. Most importantly, they had Aki Berg, who hahaha I'm just kidding he was terrible.

In net, the Leafs were still led by Curtis Joseph, and I'll say right here that this year he was decent, if unspectacular, in the regular season and good in the playoffs. I like Cujo. It's okay, Curtis, I forgive you for leaving me the summer after this season.

The Coach and GM

Pat Quinn, now serving in both roles. Quinn continued the Leafs habit of neglecting the draft and focusing on trading and free agency. He made some good acquisitions, particularly Tucker and McCabe (both solid trade victories); he sold at the right time on Berezin (for Renberg) and got a okay return for Danny Markov (Reichel, Travis Green and Craig Mills.) Aside from Mats, Kaberle, Tie Domi, Alyn McCauley, and Cujo, he acquired every significant player on this roster, and he didn't draft any of them--though some of that is a function of timing. It is also not accidental that virtually the entire team outside those guys turned over in a mere three years. It's a function of strategy the Leafs pursued.

Quinn was never a bad GM, per se; he generally got good players and he rarely gave them up. The problem was that, McCabe and Tucker aside, he generally acquired players who were just at the end of or just after their primes. This was more conventional in 2002, before the salary cap, the end of the dead puck era, and the modern emphasis on young players. But as Sam Pollock said many years earlier, "I've always traded for futures--not pasts." Quinn rarely traded for futures, and he never signed them. Quinn made sure the Leafs were good. But he never made them good enough to win.

Now, there's a lot to be said in defence of Quinn as GM. One is that thanks to Mats Sundin and Quinn's own coaching, the Leafs were too good to draft high during his tenure. Second, this was, again, an uncapped league, and any Leafs GM should have been getting maximum value out of the free agency market, even if you also wanted more from other sources. Third was that the Red Wings, another rich team, used free agency to build a team of great players in their 30s this year, and they romped.

Still, the big problem with de-emphasizing the draft, even in a league with no salary cap, is that at best, you're getting a couple of good years out of players who then decline, meaning that if your window opens at all, it doesn't open for long. At best, you're loading a single-shot cannon instead of a machine gun. The 2002 Wings were as dominant as any team since the 80s, but they only won once. This was the Leafs' fate, to a more limited extent, in the 1990s and early 2000s.

So in sum: Quinn had a flawed strategy that was more favoured by the era. To analogize general managers to generals, he did well in his battles and not quite well enough in his wars. But this year, he built and coached a fun, dangerous team.

And one that was nasty as hell.

The Season

The Leafs have always been hated. This year we probably deserved it. We had Tucker, who, uh...well, you'll see. We had Tie Domi, who punched everything that moved and the previous year had done this. We had Shayne Corson, who...you know, we'll get to that too. We were mean.

We were also good. The Leafs hit 100 points this year, something they only ever achieved in the Quinn era, and were third in the league overall. We were third in the NHL in goals per game, twelfth in goals against, ninth in shots-for and third in shots-against. Quinn's teams were always stereotyped as being offence-first, and they probably were, but they were also better defensively than people remember. We were actually a little below league average in penalties.

In the first round, we drew the Islanders in a bitter, dirty series. Mats got taken out with an injured wrist in the opening game, and we settled into a slog. Darcy Tucker did this to Michael Peca. Shayne Corson got into a fight with Eric Cairns and then...well, go to about 0:56, or read the not-at-all-impartial section on his Wikipedia page about it. It was a bloodbath, and we won it in seven, let by tough old man Gary Roberts and callow youth Alyn McCauley (seven points apiece.)

Then we hit the second round, and drew Ottawa.

The one abiding feature of the Quinn years was Ottawa would do well in the regular season and then we would beat them in the playoffs. This year, though, we were missing our leading scorer, and the Senators fans--who hate us so, so much--were finally poised for sweet, sweet vengeance. In Game 1, the Sens came into Toronto and crushed us 5-0. The writing was on the wall.

The phrase "put the team on his back" gets used a lot. It makes the most sense when applied to goalies, who can single-handedly win games for their teams on a regular basis. For a Leafs skater in the playoffs, I have seen this happen one time.

Gary Roberts, who was an iron-looking 35-years old, won this series. He went out in those next six games and dragged the Leafs to the third round kicking and screaming, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

This needs a full article to do it justice. Here's the article, courtesy of Adam Laskaris. The only mistake is in his "Five Stars of the Series." Here is the correct listing:

5. Gary Roberts

4. Gary Roberts

3. Gary Roberts

2. Gary Roberts

1. Gary Roberts

Because he spit hot fire.

The Leafs looked to be in great shape for the Conference Finals. The underdog Carolina Hurricanes had risen from the oft-mocked Southeast division and seemed like an easy mark, and the Leafs were primed to get Sundin back for Game 2.

Sigh.

Arturs Irbe was born in Riga, Latvia (then part of the USSR) in 1967. He was a mediocre goalie for most of his career. His career save percentage was .899. In 2001-02, he slightly overperformed his average at age 35, with a .902. He was immensely ordinary and seemed soon to conclude his immensely ordinary career--as indeed he soon did; 2002 was his last year as an NHL starting goalie, and he played 44 games as a backup over the next two years before leaving the league.

In six games in the Conference Final, Arturs Irbe posted a .962 save percentage and held the third-ranked offence in the NHL to one goal per game on average. He was impenetrable. And it was the last time the Leafs have been in the third round.

This was not at all Cujo's fault. He posted a .937 in this series, and the fact that meant he was the second-best goalie is a reflection of how insane Irbe was. We just couldn't beat him.

Thoughts on 2001-02

  • What can men do against such reckless hate goaltending? The NHL playoffs are littered with the remains of great teams felled by spectacular goaltending performances. The 2010 Capitals are a classic example. The 2002 Leafs are another.
  • I feel kind of bad adding "Fuck Arturs Irbe" to previous two entities I blame for our suffering. Ballard deserved it because he was an awful human being and owner. Kerry Fraser deserved it for failing in his job at one of the most critical moments in our history. Arturs Irbe was doing exactly what he was supposed to do; it was our misfortune that he did it so damn well.
  • But, we're a blog with traditions. Fuck Arturs Irbe.
  • I still can't conceive that we would have beat that berserk all-star team the Red Wings bought in 2002. They had ten Hall of Famers, possibly soon to be eleven if Datsyuk gets in, and a Hall of Fame coach. But there would have been a poetic fitness. The 1978 Leafs ran into possibly the greatest dynasty ever; the 1993 Leafs were undone by the greatest player of all time; the 1999 Leafs were felled by the best goalie ever. If they'd made the 2002 Final, they might have lost to a similarly grand team, and one coached by Bowman and backstopped by Hasek. Instead they got stonewalled by Irbe.
  • Anyway, Irbe put up a good fight in the finals--.919--but he was almost the only Hurricane who did. The Wings won in five.
  • The real indictment of failing to build through the draft, as I wrote above, comes when you miss a year in your window, and you find it's already closing. The Leafs were still good the next season, but Sundin was now into his 30s and Roberts had injury trouble. They lost in the first round, and the following year in the second, and then darkness fell.

8. Reasons and Answers

When the Leafs were good, why were they good?

  1. All four teams had a Hall-of-Fame 1C scoring at least 80 points. So, uh, no pressure, Snizzbone.
  2. All four teams had a coach who either made the Hall of Fame, at some point won multiple Jack Adams awards, or both. It can be hard to separate coaching quality out, but I feel confident saying all three coaches of these four teams were very good.
  3. It helps to have elite defencemen, obviously, but I don't think the Leafs especially did in 1993 or 1999.
  4. No good Leafs team has been built through the draft since the 1970s. The conventional wisdom is right on that one. The Leafs actually had impressive success trading for and signing talent in the 90s; I think a fair analysis actually suggests Fletcher, Dryden and Quinn did well at building through trades and then improving with free agency, which meant they produced good teams with narrow windows.
  5. On a related note, the best improvement a team with no salary cap should have been able to make was to purchase quality depth. Jokes aside, the Leafs at their best managed that.

When the Leafs were good, why weren't they better?

  1. Because there were always teams who were better than them. #Analysis
  2. In the era where the Leafs built primarily through the draft, in the 70s, they had to compete with the best draft-based teams in history, and they had Ballard eating away at them like acid. Jim Gregory did decent work in a difficult job when Pollock, Fred Shero, and Bill Torrey were working miracles. In four words: the shadows of giants.
  3. The 1993 Leafs were a good, but overachieving, team that got screwed. Career-best performances from Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin elevated them from good to great, and then they ran into the best player of all time and a bad call. But they were the eighth-place team in a 24-team league in the regular season. The dramatic trade and the long drought before it helped make this season's success--which was incredible--feel even greater than it was. The Leafs just weren't one of the best teams in the NHL in 1993. They also acquired Doug Gilmour at 27, which was a great move, but led to the narrow window problem that was more pronounced with the Sundin Leafs (see next point.)
  4. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Leafs pursued a trades-and-free-agency strategy to build teams around Mats Sundin. 1999 and 2002 were almost completely different squads, as the Leafs continually used their wealth to acquire late-prime players and then replaced them. This strategy came quite close to working, but when it failed--thanks to an uncharacteristically bad goaltending performance one year and a supernaturally good goaltending performance in another--the Leafs were left to turn over the supporting cast again and hope to contend again while Sundin was still productive. Machiavelli writes that the prudent prince must protect himself from fortune as best he can; the Quinn Leafs left themselves vulnerable when fortune withdrew her favour. In two words: narrow windows.
  5. The Leafs also struggled to keep up with the very best teams. Dallas had a great draft-built team, and Detroit had both great drafting and an extremely expensive free agent lineup. The Leafs were always on the fringe of elite, but they never drafted quite enough elite talent to be the best team in the NHL, though Cliff Fletcher did an impressive job trying to get it through trades. They were good enough to have a chance, and that was all.

What should the Leafs learn from their own history?

The league's movement towards speed, youth, and most of all a salary cap have changed the sport immeasurably. But the Leafs should still be able to learn from past success and failure--and I'm happy to say they seem to be starting to do so.

  1. The most obvious lessons come from 1978. Drafting elite talent gives you an excellent chance at controlling it through prime years. The fact we all know this doesn't make it less important.
  2. The second lesson, from 1978--or more broadly, from 1971-1990: toxic ownership can destroy a team. Say what you will about Bell and Rogers, but they have given the Shanahan Leafs a free hand and an open purse. Ballard would never have given his front office either. The Chicago Blackhawks went through a terrible drought thanks to bad ownership, and have since risen to become the best team of the cap era. May we follow this example.
  3. From all four teams: 1Cs are gold, and so are good coaches. We definitely have the latter, and I hope we have the former. Obvious and essential.
  4. From 1993: pay off the fucking referees.
  5. From 1993 and 1999: we can't fall in love with the big acquisition, but nor should we forget what it did for us. Drafting is not the only road to success, and neglecting any means of acquiring elite talent is, for a team as wealthy and well-supported as the Leafs, a mistake. Hint hint.
  6. From 1999 and 2002--a rich and intelligent front office can build a playoff-calibre supporting cast very quickly. This has gotten more difficult under the cap, but the Leafs have shown encouraging signs of knowing how to get value throughout the lineup.
  7. Once you make the playoffs, for better or for worse...
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Anything

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Can

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Happen.

Why do we cheer for this damn team?

Papa Fulemin: It's called 'imprinting'. When little ducklings are born, they follow the first thing they see. There was an experiment where they dragged a balloon on a string past ducklings. Normally the first thing they follow is their mother, which is in their interest; but if the first thing they see is the balloon, they follow it, which is not in their interest. Sports loyalties are imprinted in childhood.

The Leafs are our balloon on a string.

Acknowledgements Etc.

  • Thanks to my father for patiently answering my questions and offering insight I'd never have gotten otherwise.
  • Thanks to Acha for suggesting the idea for this post. To be clear, it's not at all Acha's fault that I went insane and wrote so much about it.
  • If you like Leafs history, Singjay has written some awesome posts about people and events in our past. I especially thought Murder of A Maple Leaf was great, but they're all worth reading.
  • To anyone who endures my rambling, thank you!

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