Wednesday, May 2, 2018

After 51 years without winning the Stanley Cup, what's next for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Today marks a rather significant anniversary for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their legion of fans.  In many ways, it is a dubious anniversary because it is a reminder of the franchise's many years of futility.  For it was on this day, May 2nd, back in 1967, that the Blue and White last hoisted the Stanley Cup.  That was 51 years ago - more than half a century.  Of course, there were only six teams then, so it wasn't as difficult to win Lord Stanley's Jug.  There wasn't a gruelling two month marathon of playoff hockey (the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup on June 11th last season).  In 1967, the Leafs were an older team, so they wouldn't have survived the endurance test that the NHL's premier championship has become.  Their goaltender, the legendary Johnny Bower, was 42 years old.  Their other goalie, Terry Sawchuk, was 37.  Their captain, George Armstrong, was 36.

Technology has changed in leaps and bounds since the Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens in that long ago Stanley Cup Final, as have social mores and fashion.  Younger hockey fans may find it hard to fathom a world without cell phones and the Internet, but colour television was a novelty in 1967 and people watched the Stanley Cup finals on small black and white TVs.  There were no advertisements along the boards of the arena or on the ice.  Players didn't wear helmets, most goalies didn't wear masks and there were no bearded 6 foot, 5 inch behemoths.  The people in the crowd were not dressed in the home team's sweater.  Many were all dressed up in suits and dresses.

When the Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup, Canadians were celebrating Centennial Year. We were basking in the glow of Expo 67 in Montreal, which opened its gates on April 27, 1967, just days before days before the Leafs' Stanley won the Stanley Cup.  Pierre Elliott Trudeau was planning his run for the leadership of the Liberal Party and his eventual replacement of Lester Pearson as Prime Minister of Canada.  "Trudeaumania" was soon to sweep our land.

Flash forward 51 years.  The son of Pierre Trudeau is the current Prime Minister of Canada.  There are 31 teams in the National Hockey League, including such hockey hotbeds as Nashville, Tennessee and Phoenix Arizona.  The latest franchise to join the league is based in Las Vegas, Nevada.  As of this writing, no Canadian-based team has won the Stanley Cup for 25 years, since Montreal won it in 1993.

Toronto fans have been patient through the horrible years when Harold Ballard owned the team and through many mediocre and sub par seasons.  In 1993, with Doug Gilmore leading the way, the Leafs almost made it to the Stanley Cup final, only to be thwarted by Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.  The dream of a Toronto-Montreal match-up was put to rest. 

The Leafs haven't been as close to winning the Holy Grail of Hockey since then.  However, fate smiled upon them when they won first choice in the lottery draft and were able to sign the talented Auston Matthews.  Matthews is surrounded by some other skilled young players such as Mitch Marner and William Nylander.  I believe the team is headed in the right direction.  Unfortunately, this year,they just weren't ready.  Here's what they need:

1.  More playoff experience:  One of the reasons Boston defeated the Leafs in the first round of this year's playoffs is that they have much more playoff experience.  Compared to the Bruins, the Leafs lacked poise and confidence.

2.  A stronger defence:  Defence is the Leafs' weak spot. Jake Gardner certainly looked bad in the Game 7 loss to Boston, but he should not have to shoulder all the blame.  For example, Freddie Andersen didn't play his best in the seventh game either.  He didn't rise to the occasion.  The Leafs were awful in the first two games in Boston.  However, they did improve greatly in the rest of the series.  Still, their star young player, Auston Matthews and William Nylander did not shine at all.  Although Mattthews had 27 shots on goal in seven games, he finished the series with just one goal in Game 3 and one assist in Game 5.  As for Nylander, he only had four points (one goal and three assists).

3.  A team captain.  The leadership of a captain is very important.  The Maple Leafs were probably too hasty in making Dion Phaneuf their captain, but now they are overdue to choose a captain.  It's hard to imagine a team winning the Stanley Cup without a captain.  Many think it's a matter of time before Auston Matthews wears the "C" on his uniform.  Perhaps, he's the one, but I think all of the Leaf players should have a say in who has the honour of being captain.  They have a good idea of who has the right leadership qualities and whose right for the job.  It should be put to a vote among the players.

4.  More discipline.  A Stanley Cup-winning team is disciplined and focused.  The Leafs took too many unnecessary penalties in their series against Boston.  Nazim Kadri, in particular, must exercise control.  He was no help to his team while he was suspended for three games

Whom do I want to win the Stanley Cup this year?  The Winnipeg Jets, of course, and not just because they are a Canadian-based team.  A victory would mean a lot to the city of Winnipeg.  Yet, I wonder if the situation were reversed and the Toronto Maple Leafs were still in the running for the Cup,  how many fans in Winnipeg or other parts of Canada, could bring themselves to cheer for the Leafs?  Anyway, good look to the Jets. as long as they're not playing the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I hope to see some celebrating in the 'Peg this year and maybe a parade along Yonge Street in the near future.

- Joanne