On May 1, 1967, goaltender Terry Sawchuk stopped 41 shots while his team backed him up with 3 goals. The Toronto Maple Leafs took the series from the Montreal Canadiens 4 games to 2, and the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup.
Since then: next to nothing.
How Long Will it Take to Rebuild the Maple Leafs?
Toronto’s struggles since 1967 have been well documented, but their recent run of futility bears comparison to any stretch since Sawchuk lifted that cup. In the 10 seasons since the last lockout, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs just once (they were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in a way that will painfully be remembered forever). They’ve fired four coaches in the past decade: Pat Quinn in 2006, Paul Maurice in 2008, Ron Wilson in 2012, and Randy Carlyle in 2015 after extending him in the offseason. 2015 interim coach Peter Horachek didn’t get to keep the gig, either, making him a de facto fifth firing.
But now, the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking for real stability and a blueprint for success. And they really, really want you to trust them this time.
The Maple Leafs went out this offseason and threw money at former Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, who signed a $50 million deal worth an average of $6.25 million per season. That makes him the highest-paid head coach in NHL history. Next, the Leafs hired legendary Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who already has three Stanley Cup championships to his credit. Prior to Lamoriello’s arrival, the team traded Phil Kessel in a deal that netted them some picks and cleared up salary cap space. Toronto is starting over, and they’re serious this time.
Starting from scratch is a painful thing, but a necessary one. It seems like a fan base that’s been waiting nearly 50 years will have to wait a little bit longer. But how much longer is that, exactly?
Well, forget about next year. If the Kessel trade signals anything, it’s that the Leafs are in full rebuild mode, whatever that may mean in Toronto. They won’t be adding any high-priced talent to replace Kessel this year. A good draft pick would be nice (though, ironically, Babcock might be too good of a coach to help the team in that particular department).
Developing young talent is the goal for the next few years, and the Leafs have a jump on that thanks to some decent drafting over the past few lost seasons. Morgan Rielly, the Leafs’ 2012 first-round pick, is a defenseman that could really flourish under Babcock. He’ll hit restricted free agency in 2016-17, but the Leafs can afford him. Frédérik Gauthier and William Nylander are worth watching, as well. These players are all quite young – Rielly is 21, Gauthier is 20, and Nylander is just 19.
Of course, even after swapping Kessel, the Leafs have some money on the books. They’re paying more than $5 million a year to Nathan Horton (whose long-term injury gives the Leafs ways to soften his cap hit) through the 2019-20 season and $7 million a year to Dion Phaneuf through the 2020-21 season. If the Leafs can find a way to swap Phaneuf for a younger star while unloading all of Phaneuf’s salary (as they’ve reportedly considered), then they should. Whether any team is likely to give them both those things in one deal is another matter entirely.
Luckily, there aren’t too many other players that the Leafs have made major commitments to. That gives them significant payroll flexibility in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. Those seasons – 3 and 4 years away, respectively – are the ones that Leafs fans ought to be daydreaming about. Consider the Leafs about two seasons away from the playoffs, and four to five away from serious contention, if they stick to their rebuilding plans. That’s a long wait, but for a fan base that’s seen decades without hope, it’s one wait that might actually be worth it.