Let me state right off the bat that we all know the hockey world has changed quite a bit since (sadly) the last time the Maple Leafs made the playoffs.
That, of course, was at the end of the 2003-’04 season, when Pat Quinn was still coach (but had given up the GM’s reins to young John Ferguson Jr.) and the blue and white were a perennial playoff team and sometimes even Cup contenders.
Since then, we lost a season because of a labour dispute; the “new” NHL (a more open game, faster, less ‘clutch and grab’) sprung from the ashes, and the Leafs emerged a much weaker team than we had seen since around 1997. Meanwhile, the salary cap created a somewhat more level playing field and, ultimately, more parity around the league. New superstars, like Crosby and Ovechkin and Stamkos, have emerged.
Yes, things are not the way they were when the Leafs last made the playoffs in 2003-’04. Brian Burke has brought an aggressive management style to the franchise. He has shifted his original near-term thinking (improving the roster to compete right away, as he kept saying he wasn’t interested in a five year re-build)) toward a longer-term view (which in the end will indeed mean fans will have waited at least five years for a contender). He is building a squad with youth, some size, with that ‘compete’ attitude that we all like.
On that note, we could also compare the management teams (Ferguson, Craig Button and other good hockey minds in that management era) with today’s crew—Burke, Nonis, Poulin, Dudley, Fletcher, et all. There was a feeling that JFJ wasn’t very open to input from his management people, whereas Burke seems to listen to the good hockey minds he surrounds himself with. But that’s a subject for another day.
From a roster perspective, the Leafs of 2003-’04 were an interesting mix. They had the aging but still fiery and capable Ed Belfour in goal, with young Tellqvist and Trevor Kidd providing relief. The blueline had McCabe and Kaberle playing the best hockey of their lives (in fact, wasn’t that the year McCabe was a bona fide end-of-season second-team NHL All-Star…might have been the year before.)
In playoff games, Kabby and McCabe would play 30+ minutes. The pairings behind them included names like Berg, Klee, young Karel Pilar and the veteran Bryan Marchment. (Leaf fans of the time will well recall that Ranger legend Brian Leetch accepted a deadline deal to join the Leafs, which should have been a difference-maker but the Leafs just couldn’t get deep into the playoffs.)
Up front, Sundin was the team’s true superstar talent, and many nights he was a leader as well, scoring big goals and making the players around him better. While we often complained in the Sundin years that he “had no help” from linemates, that year he was surrounded by good players, including on the power play. Gary Roberts was getting up there in age but largely healthy and still at his bashing best. Renberg was not a guy who ever seemed to play the way he had in his hey-day with the Flyers, but he was a nice player nonetheless.
The second unit was centered by the classy veteran, Joe Nieuwendyk. He had an assortment of linemates, as I recall. Mogilny (often with Sundin on the power play), Tucker, Owen Nolan were all key performers, providing some skill and a lot of grit and experience.
Robert Reichel was still around. He was never the impact guy here that he was as an international player, where he was revered and so highly thought of. Chad Kilger came late that year and played some of his best NHL hockey under Quinn (as did McCabe and Kaberle on the back end).
Stajan was the sort of training camp “surprise”, making the big team as a 19-year old out of junior. Ponikarovsky and Antropov contributed, but were often at their youthful and infuriating best—showing talent but long periods of quiet, unproductive play.
Domi and Nathan Perrott provided the fighting muscle, while the former Preds captain, Tom Fitzgerald, was a hard-working ‘bottom-six’ guy. Others like Clark Wilm provided grit as the occasional depth call-up.
Ron Francis, too old to help much at the end of a wonderful Hall-of-Fame career, came in a last second deal but was largely ineffective for the Leafs.
So that was the roster. Hardly an unbeatable team, but under Quinn, a competitive lot who, if they had been able to escape the second round, would likely have caused trouble for anyone who played them. (I seem to recall Nolan missed the playoffs because of injuries and Nieuwendyk also missed time and played hurt when he was able to suit up. That didn’t help at all…)
I liked the team a lot. Not perfect, but a solid veteran group that could still bring it, with enough youth to play with energy across four lines. I thought they were going places in the playoffs, and with a healthier line-up, they may well have reached the finals.
Compare that with today’s roster—Reimer and Monster manning the net, with Scrivens in reserve.
No Hall-of-Famers (yet) like Belfour but young, hungry goalies who will fight for ice team. Long-term, it’s hard not to like this trio over the three I mentioned in goal from ’04. Tellqvist had some nice games in Toronto, but these youngsters have their future in front of them.
On the blueline, I really loved McCabe and Kaberle together, but was less fond of what came afterwards. They were all useful NHL’ers, but maybe not quite what we needed to go deeper into the playoffs.
This season, Leaf fans have to love the fact that the Leafs are so deep (and young) that Komisarek, a veteran glue-guy, is considered expendable. That Gardiner (and we should temper our expectations; he looks awfully good but there’s a big difference between exhibition games and say, the NHL playoffs…) can’t find a spot yet speaks to how many guys can play on the Leaf blueline, and that’s a credit to Burke and company. Schenn, Aulie, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Liles, Franson may not be All-Stars but they should provide reasonably dependable blueline play.
Now, when ‘comparing’ the forward lines, I know current Leaf fans may like what we have now, and the potential a lot of the “kids” have, but we simply don’t have a force like Sundin, gritty rock-hard vets like Roberts or Nolan, or anyone with the poise and smoothness of Nieuwendyk or Mogilny.
But what we do have is speed and sniper skill in Kessel, a 20-something second unit (MacArthur, Kulemin and Grabbo) in their prime that should be very strong and an assortment of young skill guys (Kadri, Frattin and Colborne soon, and a number of others on the way…).
My concern, as I have stated previously, is it will take me some time (I was a slow- adopter when it came to Grabbo last season) to warm up to Connolly as a number-one center here, but I’m open to being won over.
I’m also still not sure about the bottom-six. Tim Brent surprised people and did some awfully good things last season as a third/fourth-line center and he may be missed more than we think. I know we have lots of guys fighting for spots, I’m just not sure we have enough there. We’ll see.
I’ll say this. This year’s Leafs are the best-built team since the 2003-’04 team, for sure. Who do I like better? Well, again, it was a different time- pre-cap, clutch and grab, etc. but there were some awfully good players on that team. They were well-coached and played hard—and tough.
This year’s crew is young and is really just emerging. So while a comparison is largely irrelevant, I realize, I just thought it would be worth a few moments today to look back and see what the last Leaf playoff team looked like, and how this year’s team “stacks up”.
Whether we can say this will be the next Leaf playoff team, well, time will tell.