Mending Old Wounds: Can Auston Matthews and the Leafs Heal Decades of Heartbreak?
NHL

Mending Old Wounds: Can Auston Matthews and the Leafs Heal Decades of Heartbreak?

The Maple Leafs have had the talent to make a title push for years. Now, with the team playing up to its potential, will Toronto finally hoist the Stanley Cup?


The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t gotten their hands on the Stanley Cup since 1967.

A member of the “Original Six,” Punch Imlach’s Maple Leafs conquered their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, for their 13th Stanley Cup 54 years ago.

It was Toronto’s fourth championship in the 1960s, which formed the second of two recognized dynasties from 1947 to 1951 and from 1962 to 1967.

The celebrations then stopped for the Leafs, leading to the longest active title drought in the NHL – 52 consecutive seasons (including the 2004-05 lockout).

longest droughts without a Stanley cup title

But, after years of pain and false hope, are Sheldon Keefe’s Leafs – spearheaded by Auston Matthews and a supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner – finally on the cusp of ending their long-standing drought?

It has been more than four decades since the Leafs and Canadiens faced off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004, prepare for the mouth-watering first-round showdown, we look at the team’s rise from pretenders to genuine contenders, using Stats Perform data.

Finding Their Way

There were high hopes when the Leafs and Ontario native Mike Babcock came together in 2015. Toronto made the Stanley Cup-winning head coach the highest paid in NHL history following his success with the Detroit Red Wings.

One of the most coveted coaches at the time, the championship-chasing Leafs viewed Babcock as the perfect man to oversee the culmination of rebuild in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Despite a talented roster, the franchise’s vision did not materialize – Toronto never made it out of the first round of the playoffs following three consecutive postseason appearances. Babcock’s style did not go down well at Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs eventually fired Babcock in November 2019 and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted to the top job.

At the time of Babcock’s departure, the Leafs led a league-low 21.1% of the time. This season, Toronto ranks second for the highest percentage of time leading (45.4), just behind the Colorado Avalanche (45.5).

This season’s percentage of time leading is the highest mark in Leafs history, eclipsing the 43.1% recorded in 1924-25.

The Leafs have long been judged by the Babcock era, but the 40-year-old Keefe is finally utilizing this highly skilled squad, while helping John Tavares rediscover his best form.  

Toronto also appears to finally have the kind of physicality it needs for the demands of playoff hockey. Complementing its exciting roster with the experience of premier top-line center and former San Jose Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton also bodes well as the Leafs enter the postseason as one of the heaviest teams in the league – 201.1 pounds, only behind the Vegas Golden Knights (207), Dallas Stars (203.1), Washington Capitals (202.9), Anaheim Ducks (202.6) and Tampa Bay Lightning (202.4).

In a League of His Own

The Leafs wasted no time selecting Matthews in 2016 when he was widely considered the top prospect of the NHL draft.

Matthews hit the ground running, becoming the first player in modern NHL history to score four goals in his debut. He also set a Leafs record with 40 goals in his first season, while becoming just the second rookie since the 2004-05 lockout to achieve the milestone.

The centerpiece of the franchise has taken his game to another level this season.

2020-21 Maple Leafs, With/Without Matthews On Ice

With/WithoutGoalsGoals/60Goals AllowedGA/60Goal Diff.
With Matthews854.55452.41+40
Without Matthews1012.681012.73-2
(/60=per 60 minutes)

Matthews, who has developed into arguably the best goal-scorer of his generation, tallied a remarkable league-high 41 goals in just 52 games in 2020-21. He managed 47 in 70 regular-season appearances last year. The last Leafs player to lead the NHL in goals was Gaye Stewart in 1945-46.

Matthews’ performance led to the best goals-per-game average (0.79) in franchise history, topping Charlie Conacher’s record of 0.77 that had stood since 1931-32. The 23-year-old Matthews already has 199 goals and 351 points in his career. He ranks 14th all time for the most goals before age 24, but he finds himself in good company on a list that is topped by Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky (405) and includes Mario Lemieux (300), Steven Stamkos (222), Alex Ovechkin (219), Sidney Crosby (215) and Jaromir Jagr (202).

Toronto’s Dynamic Duo

While Matthews is the star, Marner is the other half of Toronto’s terrific duo.

A much-loved figure in Toronto, Marner has always been a great young player with loads of potential. The 24-year-old right wing took a step forward this season as a model of consistency for the North Division champions.

Marner, who was a fourth-round pick a year before the Leafs brought in Matthews, ranks fourth in the NHL in points (67) and assists this season (47). And with the Ontario-born winger on ice, the Leafs have scored 89 goals and conceded 57 this season – a differential of plus-32. That differential shrinks to just plus-6.0 without him.

Keefe paired Matthews and Marner together midway through last season and it is a move that continues to pay dividends. Marner has assisted on 25 Matthews goals this year, ahead of Edmonton Oilers duo Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (22) for the most in the league.

Marner and Matthews are also the first pair of teammates in NHL history to have five 60-point seasons together before turning 24. (This is based on their age when they reached 60 points. Marner achieved the feat before celebrating his 24th birthday.)

With Matthews and Marner leading the way, the Maple Leafs have a real shot of not only beating their rivals in the first round but in the ending one of the longest active title droughts in North American sports.


Research support provided by Sam Hovland. Design by Matt Sisneros.