Auston Matthews has won the Rocket Richard Trophy.
It is the first time since the trophy’s creation that a Leaf has won the Richard Trophy.
It is the first time since 1947 that a Maple Leaf has led the NHL in goal scoring.
That is 74 years. Nearly a three quarters of a century.
Matthews is the first Maple Leaf to win a “major award” since Doug Gilmour won the Selke Trophy in 1993, nearly 30 years ago.
(Some would argue the Selke Trophy doesn’t count as a “major award.” If that’s how you feel, then 1955 was the last time a Leaf won the Hart. Bower and Sawchuk won the Vezina in 1965 but it doesn’t count because it was still the Jennings back then.)
A Leaf still has never won the Art Ross. (The last time a Leaf led the league in scoring was in 1938.)
Where am I going with all this?
The Leafs last won a Stanley Cup in 1967, as we all know.
Between then and now they have never even made a Stanley Cup final.
They only managed some conference finals, in 1978, back-to-back in 1993 and 1994, and then most recently in 1999 and 2002. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the game logs from 2002!)
Why have the Leafs had so little team success?
There are many reasons, but a big one was a lack of top end talent.
If there’s anything the lack of major individual awards indicates, it’s a lack of a top end talent.
How do you get top end talent in the NHL?
- You sign free agents if you’re lucky (Tavares is the highest profile free agent to ever sign with the Maple Leafs in his prime)
- You trade for it, as with Mats and Gilmour or
- You draft it (Sittler).
And in the NHL, drafting top talent usually means having high draft picks. And that means being bad.
The Leafs did not Pursue Top End Talent
But even though everyone could see Mats’ decline coming a mile a way – it is not hard to figure out aging curves – Leafs management and ownership tried to preserve his era as long as it could.
Then, once he was gone the plan was to be…
As less bad as possible?
Because, you see, the fan base wouldn’t tolerate tanking for picks. No we wouldn’t! We’d rather have mediocrity!
Between 2004 and the drafting of Auston Matthews in 2016, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs once. (and that was in a shortened season in which they benefited from extreme puck luck.)
Despite being that awful, the Leafs had:
- 0 first overall draft picks
- 3 Top 5 draft picks (two of whom are still on this team because they were drafted in 2012 and 2015 respectively)
- An additional 2 Top 10 draft picks (one of whom is on this team because he was drafted in 2014)
- An additional 2 Top 15 draft picks (one of whom was drafted last summer)
Of course, the Leafs should have had more because they were bad.
But they were only bad enough to come close to the #1 spot once, and they had already traded that pick away.
The rest of the time, they managed to find enough players to be just good enough to not have high draft picks (while trading many away) but not good enough to make the playoffs.
I have no idea if the Leafs will win enough playoff rounds to match their franchise best regular season.*
But what I do know is that more talent beats less talent more often than not.
And it’s hard to have talent when you don’t have the draft picks.
Leafs management and ownership failed in coming up with a post-Sundin plan.
They then failed for nearly a decade to realize that they had to tank.
Until Brendan Shanahan’s hiring at the end of the 2013-14 season, Leafs management and ownership lived in a delusional world where they could return to the, um, “glory days” of the Sundin era with trades and free agent signings alone.
(Remember, those “glory days” resulted in 2 Eastern Conference Finals in 4 seasons, but the latter of which was just a little embarrassing.)
It was a colossal failure of management and ownership that I feel like I cannot overstate. (But then I remember the Oilers exist and they have somehow been worse. So, there’s that…)
The 2020-21 Toronto Maple Leafs
Leafs fans on social media are super stressed out and super critical of this team.
But Matthews’ award should remind us what this franchise used to be like.
Even if everything goes poorly in these playoffs, the Leafs have more talent on their roster than they’ve had in a really long time.
And it’s because someone finally had the guts to let the team be terrible for a few seasons.
It took long enough. But we should be happy it’s happened!
(To be honest, they lost me as a fan because of it. But that’s another story.)
*Yes, it’s a weird year, a shitty division and the loser point is real.