Leafs champions in wait­ing

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - SPORTS - STEVE SIM­MONS TORONTO SUN

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.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

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.

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