Leafs champions in waiting
You can see a Stanley Cup from here. Maybe for the first time since the Stanley Cup season of 1967, you can see it.
You can envision it. You can believe in it. You can close your eyes and actually picture Gary Bettman calling Auston Matthews — assuming he will eventually be granted the captaincy — to come up and grab the Cup.
The Toronto Maple Leafs: future Stanley Cup champion.
This isn’t a dream or a joke, it’s a path. It’s a destination. The seemingly impossible eventually becoming possible. For most of our lives, we haven’t known anything like this at all. You could hope, but it was never realistic. You could predict, but it wasn’t logical.
There hasn’t been a Maple Leafs team in 50 years that looked to be the anywhere near the part of champion in September. Even that old 1967 team — and they were old — didn’t begin the season as any kind of favourites.
But as the Maple Leafs open training camp on Thursday, you can honestly say that for the first time since the 60s decade, the one most of you never saw or lived through, you can look at his group, especially the kids, the coach and the management team, and you can see a finish line.
A finish line ending with a parade. And a future that isn’t necessarily all that far away.
And believe me, there has been no reason to pen anything like this in my first 30 years writing about the Leafs.
This season may be too soon. Teams don’t go from last to playoffs to title in three seasons. But in four seasons? That’s happened.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane carried the Chicago Blackhawks to their first of three Stanley Cups in just their third NHL season, 2009-10. Toews was 22 when he was handed the Cup. Kane was just 21.
The template of sorts was set for new champions then. You can win a Stanley Cup with a great centreman (Toews), a great scorer (Kane), an A-defenceman (Duncan Keith) a frontline coach (Joel Quenneville) and solid goaltending with Corey Crawford, and before that, somehow, Antti Niemi.
Sidney Crosby was in his third NHL season when he and Evgeni Malkin took Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup final. The Penguins won a year later: Malkin was 22, Crosby turned 22 two months later.
The template was there. Strength down the middle with Crosby and Malkin; an burgeoning A-defenceman in Kris Letang; Dan Bylsma as coach; Marc-Andre Fleury in goal.
After that, Drew Doughty led the Los Angeles Kings to their first of two Cups under coach Darryl Sutter. That was Doughty’s fourth NHL season, the fourth season for goalie Jonathan Quick. The complete Anze Kopitar played the part of Toews; Jeff Carter played the Malkin role as the secondline centre.
The template changed more than slightly this June, with Pittsburgh winning its second straight Cup. They had the goalie in Matt Murray, the coach in Mike Sullivan, the centres in Crosby and Malkin, but not a Doughty, a Keith or a Letang to be found on defence.
They just had guys. And they won with them. With Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin. With Justin Schultz and Ian Cole. Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta. Somehow they won with them.
This is Year 2 for Matthews and Mitch Marner and Year 2.5 for William Nylander. The Leafs have never been in this position before, with young players of this immense and diverse talents. They are each exceptional and varied in their games.
This is a year to grow and learn to contend. No one in the Eastern Conference has young forwards of this pedigree or talent level to compare with.
And who knows, in a game getting younger, as professional sports appears to be trending that way all over, what could that mean for a team that has yet to win a playoff round? After this season, though, with Matthews and Marner in Year 3, before their big salaries kick in and the salary cap tap dance begins for the Maple Leafs, the running of the Cup marathon does not look like a mountain that cannot be climbed.
Pat Quinn coached some very good Leaf teams in his years in Toronto. Good, yes. Great, no. They looked like they might one day get to a Cup final if everything went their way. Twice they got to the Conference final and tapped out. They never had the look of a future champion. Pat Burns coached some surprisingly good Leaf teams in his first two years in Toronto. Overachieving, yes. Great, no. In the inspiring and miraculous first season in Toronto, Burns’ teams came within a Kerry Fraser hair of playing for the Stanley Cup. They were good and lucky and, when Doug Gilmour played, they were great. No Leaf team has been close since. Even the Roger Neilson teams of the late 70s, with Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming and Mike Palmateer looked like they were a player addition or two away from being serious. But as top-heavy as those teams were — they had the template parts — the Montreal Canadiens were stacked with eight Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach.
The playing field was hardly level. Those Leafs made a semifinal once.
Now, look at the Eastern Conference today, before this season begins, and project what might come soon. The Leafs have Matthews, Marner, Nylander and depth alongside them up front. The defence isn’t where it needs to be yet but it can improve internally. Frederik Andersen can be a Cup-winning goalie. Babcock has already been a Cup-winning coach.
Now it should be a matter of when. The view to the top of the mountain, forever cloudy, forever illogical, forever impeded by barriers of incompetence, ownership woes or lack of talent, seems rather clear for the first time in my life and probably yours.
The Leafs will win the Stanley Cup. I’ve never written that before. This team is a champion in waiting.
Toronto centre Auston Matthews celebrates a goal with teammate William Nylander early last season. Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner appear to give the Maple Leafs more than enough top-tier talent to contend for the Stanley Cup over the next few years.