It's often very difficult when something ends badly in life to remember the earlier good moments. That applies in sports, too. To a certain extend, that's the story of the 2011-'12 season for the Maple Leafs. Through the first 50 or so games, fans were generally satisfied. The team (most nights, at least) worked hard, showed its superior speed and finished its offensive chances often enough to overcome some defensive lapses and some uncertain goaltending. The special teams were generally pretty dreadful until the new year, but by and large people wondered how high the Leafs would get in the Eastern Conference standings, and what their playoff seed would be. Few, if any, predicted the rather precipitous fall-off that actually took place after the All-Star break.
As a result, we tend to overlook the good stuff that happened over the course of the season. What were those things? Well, we could cite Carl Gunnarsson's generally steady play and Mike Brown's unfailing grit. Matt Frattin showed he could play in the NHL and that he might have a future as a legitimate power-forward. Young Jake Gardiner stunned just about everyone with his ability to skate effortlessly, see the ice so well and play with the kind of calm manner that you rarely see in a player so inexperienced. When he had the opportunity to get in between the pipes for the big club, Ben Scrivens showed he had a future as an NHL netminder. And most Leaf supporters are hopeful that at least one of of Kadri, Colborne and D'Amigo will be with the big club starting next season. That could happen, based on their ongoing positive development with the Marlies, including their work in this spring's nice little AHL playoff run. (On the hopeful front, it appears that there's also a chance that young Finnish forward Leo Komarov, now in the KHL, could join the Leafs as a third-line agitator, which couldn't hurt. Every good team needs guys who are hard to play against. Throw in that number-five overall draft pick this summer and, well, there is hope...)
(For the most part they lined up with Tyler Bozak, who also continued to slowly emerge as a bona fide NHL'er, though he seems most likely to fit down the road as a good third-line centre...)
Amazingly, for a good chunk of the first half and a bit of the NHL season, Lupul and Kessel were both in the top 10 in NHL scoring, something we haven't really seen in these parts for quite a while. They played creative, fast, intuitive hockey. It was entertaining stuff.
We all know that the Leafs began to struggle, however, and then Lupul was injured. By the end of the season we weren't much focussing on the good stuff, mostly wondering why and how things went off the rails so suddenly- and so badly.
But Lupul and Kessel were indeed dynamic for the most part this past season, and it was good to see because the Leafs have not had many “special” line combinations in recent years. Even during Mats Sundin’s best years in blue and white, a lot of us spent time moaning that he had no one to play with, though the times he spent with Gary Roberts on his flank were welcome. (Mogilny was there on occasion, too, and he also had his moments, though I’ve yet to forgive him for the pass that led to the OT loss against Carolina in Game 6 in the 2002 semi-finals…but I tend to hang on to things.)
Bottom-line, it was nice to see Toronto have a kind of "special" line to talk about and enjoy watching. Whether the Leafs will build or acquire enough high-end talent that Lupul and Kessel will be able to play on different lines and still produce big numbers, I guess we’ll see. (I've written recently here about a number of intriguing possibilities for the Leafs, including players such as Alexander Semin, Jordan Staal, Roberto Luongo and of course, Rick Nash or Ryan Getzlaf. Such additions would probably alter the dynamic of the team's line combinations.) Maybe their chemistry will continue to be so strong that Carlyle will keep them together, regardless of who their centre will be in 2012-'13 and beyond,
I posted here a while back about the old-time hockey “lines” that stayed together year after year in the NHL. I certainly didn’t see them all because I wasn’t old enough, but some of the notable legendary lines included, off the top of my head, Frank Boucher and the Cook brothers in New York and the “Kraut Line” as they were called in Boston—Kitchener boys Schmidt, Bauer and Dumart. (Milt Schmidt later was coach and GM of the Bruins; Bauer was the brother, I believe, of the equally famous Fr. David Bauer of St. Michael’s and Canadian amateur hockey fame…)
Those were the days when really good lines often stayed together for years, though coaches would still change lines on occasion during a game, of course. Funny thing is, when I think back specifically about the Maple Leafs of “my” era (late ‘50s and forward) there haven’t been many lines that stayed together for a long period of time. Some, sure, but not many that I can think of off the top of my head.
In the really old days, before my time, there was the original Leaf “Kid Line”. (Someone help me here, was it Primeau, Conacher and Jackson or am I missing something?) Also, at right is a great old photo of Ted Kennedy, Sid Smith and Tod Sloan, but I was too young at the time in the early 1950s to remember if they were a regular Leaf line at any point...) In the ‘60s Punch Imlach, the Leaf bench boss, moved guys around quite a bit. His three top centers, Red Kelly, Dave Keon and Bobby Pulford did not stay with the same wingers all the time. Kelly played with Frank Mahovlich in the very early ‘60s, but that didn’t always last. Keon played with Dickie Duff a fair bit, but Duff was traded to the Rangers in 1964. Pulford is known by some fans as a winger (he was a center most of his career) on a rugged line that was good in the second half of the Cup-winning 1966-’67 season, alongside Pete Stemkowski and Jimmy Pappin.
In the ‘70s Darryl Sittler played tons with Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson and later Tiger Williams, so they qualify as a popular “line” in the minds of many Leaf enthusiasts, I’m sure. In the ‘80s, didn’t we have, temporarily, a new “kid” line—Courtnal, Clark and Leeman? Rick Vaive and Billy Derlago were together for a good chunk of Vaive’s three 50-goal seasons in that decade as well.
I guess my point simply is, in this era, we don’t often see trios sticking together all season long, much less year after year. Detroit had Maltby, Draper and McCarty and that was a heck of a “third” line for years. But I don’t think we see it very often, at least not consistently. (During his coaching hey-day in Montreal in the 1970s, Scotty Bowman used to change up lines during a game all the time when he felt things weren't working on any given night. But he still stuck primarily with Lemaire, Shutt and Lafleur as his top unit, Risebrough, Tremblay and Lambert as his two-way grinding line with Gainey, Jarvis and Roberts as his main checking trio...)
That we don't see line consistency is partly a function, I guess, of coaches whose jobs are on the line and as a result, they need quick results and therefore have itchy trigger fingers. They are always on the look-out for combinations that might work. It's also partly a function of modern-day free agency. Players move so much, and at such young ages, that having a "favourite" line is, for we fans, virtually a thing of the past.
That said, if Kessel and Lupul both keep putting up numbers and actually sign to play here for the rest of their careers and can maintain their current chemistry…..
Not likely, but who knows? It's nice to think about, at least.