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Figuring out the current Leafs going into 2010—and the second half of the season

Within the last few weeks, I mentioned that we would see over the next while if the 2009-2010 Leafs were simply one of those teams that can look strong at times and upset a good team every once in a while—or will actually ‘turn the corner” and become a consistently competitive team.

They’ve beaten “good” teams—Detroit, Washington twice, Boston, Pittsburgh. But they typically follow up these short spurts of somewhat inspired play with flat performances. (They finished the first half of this season with a record of 14-18-9 and lost the first game of the second half last night in Calgary.)

Now, for younger Leaf fans reading this, you should know one thing: this is not new. Many of us have seen this movie for a long, long time.

Even when the Leafs were not very good—late ‘60s, through the 1970s off and on and of course, the rather bleak ‘80s—the team could occasionally upset one of the “big boys” (usually someone like Montreal, when they were really good). Everyone would get revved up, and think about the possibilities, if only….

Reality usually hit us in the face before too much time had passed. History reminds us we haven’t been to the finals since, well, we all know since when.

A few days ago I posted on the subject of “Who will be here in three years”. That is, how many of the guys on the current Leaf roster will likely be in blue and white by the 2012-2013 season, or even 2011-2012. A number of players on the back end may be (Gustavsson, Beauchemin, Komisarek - they’re Burke guys) but it’s not hard to project a virtual wholesale change with the 12-13 forward spots.

So much can change in hockey nowadays with free agency; it is tough to project where a club might be. Two solid drafts, a couple of kids step up, a franchise player bursts onto the scene, improvement in goal—a team can improve quickly. Maybe even the Leafs.

Most observers will give the current Leafs that, most nights, they work. They are all solid NHL players. And on occasion, when the grinders grind and the “skill” forwards make a slick move, a nice pass, or the puck goes in- you start thinking players like Stajan, Grabovski, Ponikarovsky, Mitchell, Hagman might be part of the long-term ‘answer’.

In reality, there may be only two pieces up front that Burke will want to keep: Kessel (if he doesn’t drive his coach crazy as time goes on) and Kulemin. Everyone else could be moved, one would think.

How far are the Leafs away? Again, that things can change quickly nowadays.

But to sustain an elite-level team, over a period of years, in addition to outstanding coaching, health, good fortune and an unbelievable work ethic, you need top-end talent and depth.

The Leafs just don’t have that, and it’s not in the “system” or even the junior ranks.

I think back over the years to when the Leafs were “good” but nowhere near good enough to win a Cup:

In the early ‘70s, when they were ‘good’ for one season, they had Keon, Ullman and Armstrong up front, Bernie Parent and Jacques Plante in goal, all Hall-of-Famers. Bobby Baun was on defense. They had a top rookie in Darryl Sittler, quality veterans like Henderson and Ellis, rugged grinders like Spencer and Harrison and talented young defensemen.

They didn’t get out of the quarter-finals.

In the later ’70s, when they were ‘good’ they had (at various times) Sittler, McDonald and Salming—all Hall-of Famers. A goalie in Palmateer everyone said was great. An innovative, inspirational coach in Roger Neilson. They got to the semi-finals once. And didn’t win a game once they got there.

In the ‘80s, despite some nice moments and lots of hope with guys like Vaive, Salming, Derlago, Anderson and of course Wendell and the young goalies, Bester and Wreggett, they maybe won one four-out-of-seven playoff series, if that.

When Pat Burns changed the culture of the organization under Cliff Fletcher in the early 90s, they had “Dougie” and Wendell, still, and a cast of character players, as well as a young goalie who could be pretty good at times in Felix Potvin. We all felt cheated in 1993, but the reality is, despite the talent and the grit, they didn’t win in ’93 or ‘94.

Under Pat Quinn, the Leafs had those two runs – in 1999 and 2002. A superstar in Sundin, a top-end goalie in Cujo, but they could not get to the end. In their last final four appearance against Carolina they leaned on Sundin (through they actually played their best hockey when he was hurt), a rugged leader in Gary Roberts, and more Curtis Joseph.

My point is with all that over the years…at times a lot of talent, sometimes a ton of grit, good coaching, outstanding goaltending, it’s never been enough to win a championship. It’s that hard in the NHL.

Just think back to last season: The Penguins won with superior goalkeeping, extraordinary talent in Crosby and Malkin and an outstanding supporting core. Look who didn’t—the Red Wings, with a quality roster up and down and tremendous depth. Anaheim, the Cup champions two years before. San Jose. Washington. Look at the teams who get to the final four every year. How much talent they have, how hard they have to work.

The Leafs, in truth, just don’t—and can’t—play anything like that on a regular basis right now.

They seem to be a long, long way away.

Nevertheless, since the fun isn’t (thank God) always in “winning”, but in hoping that someday you’ll get there, Leaf fans keep checking out the Marlie roster for the sleeper who may develop late; they see how Kadri is doing in London, they wonder how the next couple of drafts might go.

Because it’s always worth believing.


  1. Well written post Michael. I think you summed it up nicely. I'm a bit younger than you and barely recall the early 70's as a Leafs fan. My biggest disappointment lately is that they had an opportunity to bottom feed for awhile, draft well and start over. But now Burke messed that up with the Kessel move. Cheers

  2. This so called professional team/organization is only that in name because they play in the same league as the real professional teams/organizations. In part their existence is really only because the city itself sees itself as the the capital of the country where the game originated and where this team did in fact excel at one point early in the franchises history. It's more like an honorary position or role they play only because of the contribution they had made to the development of the league in it's infancy . There is no risk of this team moving or folding as it should and start from scratch with a different name and logo. Sort of like the senate here where they have a seat and a wage for life but they don't do anything. And we gladly support this hallowed tradition because that's who we are - suckers. Come to think of it I wouldn't mind a job like that!