Believe it, Maple Leafs fans: Your team’s time is now

Wendel Clark joins Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup to discuss the great talent and depth on this Maple Leafs team, and remembers back to ’93 when both the Blue Jays and Leafs were winning and the city was alive.

It’s been 50 years and 186 days (and counting!) since the Toronto Maple Leafs have won a Stanley Cup. It’s been just as long without the Blue and White making an appearance in the Final.

It’s a streak unlike any other in the National Hockey League, it goes without saying, but every once in a while it’s worth stepping back and marveling at it, like you would a hideous piece of sculpture.

But more than its length, the Leafs monument to mediocrity and worse is remarkable for the depth of troughs between the rare crests. For most of those years, trying to believe in the Leafs has been like treading water in the bottom of a well – the light above seemed so far away and you found yourself getting very, very tired trying not to sink.

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Which is what makes this moment – this friggin’ day – in Leafs history so special.

It’s not that the Auston Matthews and William Nylander and Mitch Marner and Connor Brown and — the list goes on, doesn’t it? – are going to win the Cup this season or the next or the one after that. The NHL and its salary cap have bludgeoned the league into parity and unpredictability and windows that suddenly fly open and snap shut.

So there are no locks anymore and dynasties rise and fall in record time.

But on Friday, Oct. 6 it’s completely reasonable to look at the Leafs roster stacked top to bottom with skill and potential 20-goal scorers (I count eight of them) and think that they could win a Cup this year and the year after and maybe for a good while after that.

This is a neck-wrenching U-turn in Leafs historical trajectory. Is this how Leaf fans felt on the eve of the 1961-62 season, before 21-year-old Dave Keon lifted the Leafs to three straight Cups and a fourth in 1967?

I have no idea, but there’s a level of legitimate optimism that’s unmatched since, I know that.

It’s not that Toronto has gone all that time without hope or expectation. In between the long lulls – most of the 1970s, pretty much all of the 1980s and a chunk of the 2000s – there were glimmers of hope.

Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald made it to the semi-finals in 1977-78 although being swept by the late-dynasty Montreal Canadiens quickly dimmed the brightest moment in the Ballard-era darkness.

The Gilmour-Burns-Potvin Leafs provided perhaps the best chance to break the streak in 1992-93, but they were undone by Gretzky and Kerry Fraser in the conference finals.

Would they have had a chance against the Montreal Canadians in the ’93 Final? Sure they would have, but that group was a surprise contender to begin with and largely built on the back of veterans. Even as they returned to the conference final in 1993-94, there was a sense of the air leaking from the balloon, and sure enough, that moment in the sun was washed out almost as quickly as it arrived.

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The Pat Quinn era brought more success – six straight playoff appearances; three 100-point seasons and two more conference finals appearances – and some teams that had legitimate championship expectations. But they could never get over the top and if their window began to close prior to the 2004-05 lockout, it was nailed closed and covered by hurricane shutters by the time it ended.

It’s taken 12 years to open it up again.

Which is why things seem so different this time around: this concept not only of hope and expectation – but of a future – that’s what’s new and so luxurious.

It almost feels like a guilty pleasure. There were all kinds of reasons for optimism when Brendan Shanahan took over the club’s top job and began preaching patience and process from the get-go.

There were some early stumbles: was there any need to extend Randy Carlyle prior to the 2014-15 season? And Shanahan got away with one when he failed to commit to tanking or rebuilding for that same season – saying he had to study the situation first – until mid-way through when he ended up firing Carlyle anyway.

That was the season prior to the Connor McDavid draft and the Leafs 19-9-3 start that year – which preceded their epic 11-35-5 finish – hurt their odds in arguably the most important draft lottery in league history.

That they got Marner fourth overall and got some lottery luck the following year in landing the No. 1 overall pick in Auston Matthews obscures that fact.

But that’s nit-picking in the overall context of what the Shana-plan has wrought: the richest, youngest pool of talent in the NHL, arguably, and the best young group the Leafs have ever had as their assault on every conceivable franchise record for rookies indicated last season.

As a bonus, there remains a depth of prospects and draft picks that give management more room to manoeuvre from here. If there’s a package to be put together to add one more high-end defenceman – perhaps the only part of the roster that looks in need of bolstering – you get the sense they have pieces to pull it off.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

It’s hard to get your head around. When I sat down with Shanahan two years ago the idea of the Leafs getting to where they are now still seemed like a long way away.

“There is a certain way [we] have to prepare and play in order to become the kind of organization and team that we want to be,” he told me. “If that takes three months, three years, it doesn’t matter.

“It takes as long as it takes.”

It didn’t take very long did it?

Which is why today is a great day to be Leafs fan and there will almost assuredly be more to come. Not because they head into their home opener Saturday night coming off a resounding 7-2 win on the road, a result that seemed to justify every bit of pre-season optimism already floating around the club.

But because no matter what happens from here, it’s very clearly just the start of a blindingly bright future that has arrived all at once.

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