The Hamilton Spectator
Blueprint hasn’t paid off
Following Chicago’s franchise-building approach not yielding same results
When the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Auston Matthews first overall in 2016, a year after taking Mitch Marner fourth, the comparisons to the Chicago Blackhawks began.
The Blackhawks were an Original Six team that hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961 until they were rescued by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane was a scoring wizard, speedster and gifted playmaker, drafted first in 2007. Toews was a centre with defensive acumen and leadership abilities who was taken third in 2006.
By the time the Matthews-Marner era began in Toronto, Kane and Toews had earned three Stanley Cup rings, in 2010, 2012 and 2015. The same quick turnaround, the same end to a too-long Stanley Cup drought, was the dream in Toronto. It hasn’t happened.
With the sun setting on the KaneToews era in Chicago — Kane is likely to be traded at the deadline, Toews is sidelined by illness for the rest of the season — the question is why has similar success eluded the Leafs, who haven’t been able to win a playoff round, much less a championship.
“Was it lightning in a bottle?” says TV analyst Darren Pang, a former Blackhawks goalie. “A change of a coach, segueing from Dénis Savard to Joel Quenneville, from an owner dying (Bill Wirtz) with son Rocky putting the team finally on TV.
“What I remember is that the players went from insignificance in the city to billboards, to local TV and an energy that I personally had not seen there, even going back to my playing days. The crowd to me would be like the (extra) man. The place was jammed. Whereas it hadn’t been before. There were just so many factors that went into the rise of the Blackhawks in 2010.”
The Leafs have long dominated Toronto’s sports coverage, even if they took a back seat in 2019 to the Raptors‘ championship run. But Leafs fans, whose passion is unquestioned, have only on rare occasions lifted themselves to the frenzied level witnessed routinely in Chicago in the Kane-Toews heyday. Leafs fans probably don’t want to get too high, accustomed as they are to the frequent lows.
Both teams added high-priced, effective and Cup-hungry free agents — Chicago with Marián Hossa, the Leafs with John Tavares.
But maybe that’s where the comparisons truly end.
“Toronto is more top-six loaded than what Chicago was,” Pang says. “Chicago had players that could change the course of a game on the bottom six, more so than what Toronto has had lately. Now, are (the Leafs) developing that with (David) Kämpf and Calle Järnkrok? I would say they are.
“But Chicago had Adam Burish, Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland. Some pretty big boys.”
It’s fair to say the Leafs’ bottom six has been a work in progress, with coach Sheldon Keefe continuing to audition Marlies for jobs there. Even the ones who have stuck, like Pontus Holmberg and Joey Anderson, are on the small side — both six feet — compared to players in the bottom six who have had big playoff games against the Leafs, like Patrick Maroon and Jeff Carter.
And when Marner and Matthews began their run, the Leafs didn’t have the kind of defencemen who Chicago already had in place for Kane and Toews. They had Hall of Fame-bound Duncan Keith, his steady Canadian Olympic team partner Brent Seabrook, the intimidating Dustin Byfuglien, an emerging Niklas Hjalmarsson and sleek puck-mover Brian Campbell.
“They had a pretty decent group on the back end,” Pang said. “A really solid group. That’s something Toronto has been trying to get ahead of, building a bigger and bulkier group. That’s not easy to do. It’s not like they grow on trees.”
The Kane-Toews Hawks missed the playoffs in their first two years, but won two rounds in 2009 before winning the Cup in 2010, ending a 49-year wait and leaving the Leafs with the longest active drought, now at 55 years and counting.