The 2016–17 Toronto Maple Leafs season has the team’s fans spewing the f-word. But for once, it’s the positive version: These guys are… fun.
We don’t really know if they’re good yet. They’re certainly better than they’ve been in years, and probably far better than just about anyone predicted. They’re holding down a playoff spot, sure, but have also lost as many games as they’ve won, so the jury’s still out.
But fun? There’s really no debate. This year’s Leafs are young, fast and play high-event hockey, even when their coach doesn’t want them to. Love them or hate them, there may not be a team in the league right now that’s more entertaining to watch.
Maple Leafs fans haven’t had many great teams to cheer on over the last half-century. The team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, which is a fact that you might be familiar with if you’ve studied your history and/or ever spoken to anyone who doesn’t like the Leafs for more than three seconds. Since then, Leafs Nation hasn’t even had a trip to the final to cheer about.
But when it comes to fun teams, Leafs fans have enjoyed a few. Not as many as other teams, maybe but enough to fill up an arbitrary list.
So today, let’s make that list, by counting down the top 10 fun Maple Leafs teams since that 1967 championship.
No. 10: 2012–13
Fun is relative. When a team is consistently good, fans can start to get a little spoiled, somehow finding things to complain about even as their team rumbles its way to yet another 100-point season. (Yes, we’re all looking at you right now, Blackhawk fans.)
The flip side is that when things are bad, you take whatever fun you can get.
That’s why this season cracks the list, if only barely. Sure, finishing third in your division in a lockout-shortened season isn’t much to brag about. But when you’ve suffered through seven straight years without a playoff appearance, you’ll take it. And this really was an entertaining team, one that had Phil Kessel doing Phil Kessel things, a breakout season by Nazem Kadri, strong goaltending from the perpetually chipper James Reimer, and a lineup full of face-punchers who were always doing face-punchy things.
It all added up to a rare playoff berth. And despite going into their matchup with the Bruins as underdogs and falling behind 3–1 in the series, the Leafs scrapped back with a pair of hard-fought wins to force a seventh game.
I PVR’ed that game and haven’t watched it yet, so nobody tell me how it ends.
No. 9: 1989–90
A rare appearance on our list by a season from the 1980s comes from the only Leafs team of the decade to so much as finish .500. But this team was a sneakily entertaining entry, one that finished third in the league in both goals scored and goals allowed.
They were still the Maple Leafs, so I don’t need to tell you that it ended badly. They went out meekly in the first round of the playoffs, losing in five to the Blues in a series best remembered for Allan Bester giving up Sergei Momesso’s overtime goal from outside the blue line. Far worse, this was the season that GM Floyd Smith decided it would be a good idea to trade a future first-round pick for journeyman defenceman Tom Kurvers, costing the team a shot at Eric Lindros and Scott Niedermayer.
But there was a bright side. The season’s breakout star was winger Gary Leeman, who became the second player in franchise history to score 50 goals. He’d never come close to that total again, but that temporary boost in value would pay big dividends for the team in a few years.
No. 8: 2016–17
That’s right, I’m slotting them in here even though the season is only half over. Make fun of me all you want—I’m about three more Auston Matthews highlights from moving them into the top five.
No. 7: 2003–04
This was the last playoff year of the Pat Quinn era, during which the Leafs emerged as plausible Stanley Cup contenders for most of a six-year stretch. You could make a strong case that this team was the best one of that group, and maybe the best Leafs team of the last half-century, period.
The lineup featured five future Hall of Famers, including Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk. That list also included two midseason trade pickups in Brian Leetch and Ron Francis. Mix in Alexander Mogilny, Gary Roberts and a breakout year from Bryan McCabe, and the Leafs were a team built to go all the way. They finished the season with 103 points, which stands as the franchise record.
All that talent is why this team makes this list, but it’s also why it doesn’t rank higher. As good as this team was, they ran into a tough matchup with the Flyers in round two and were knocked out in six games. Jeremy Roenick’s overtime series-winner would be the last post-season moment Toronto would see for nearly a decade.
Still, the team itself was fun, and Leafs fans at least got to enjoy yet another playoff win over the Senators, featuring Patrick Lalime’s game-seven meltdown after Daniel Alfredsson had guaranteed victory.
No. 6: 1993–94
This Leafs team made a run to the conference final, beating the Blackhawks and Sharks before losing to the Canucks in five. And yet the highlight of the year came much earlier; they opened the season with an NHL-record 10 straight wins, marking literally the only time in the last 50 years that the Maple Leafs could be considered the best team in the NHL.
It didn’t last, and the Leafs were barely a .500 team after that early streak was snapped. Still, the season had its moment, including a second-straight 100-point season for Doug Gilmour, a second-straight 50-goal season by Dave Andreychuk, and a career-best 46 goals from Wendel Clark. This was also Felix Potvin’s first full season as a starter, and he became one of the few Leafs in the modern era to be voted a starter in the all-star game.
Leafs fans may have enjoyed this season even more if they’d known it was the end of an era, with the Clark-for-Sundin blockbuster right around the corner. As it stood, the year felt a little bit like the entertaining but slightly watered-down sequel to what had come a season before.
No. 5: 1998–99
This was year one of the Pat Quinn era, as well as the first year of Curtis Joseph in Toronto. After missing the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, expectations were low for a team that didn’t feature any top-flight talent beyond Joseph and Sundin.
But then Quinn did something unusual for the dead-puck era: He turned his team loose on offence. The basic game plan seemed to involve focusing on creating as many scoring chances as possible, while largely abandoning Joseph to fend for himself.
And it worked. Despite surrounding Sundin with names like Sergei Berezin, Derek King and Steve Thomas, the Leafs managed to lead the league in goals scored. Joseph finished as the runner-up to Dominik Hasek in Vezina voting (and fourth for the Hart Trophy) despite leading the league in goals allowed. And the Leafs stunned everyone by putting up 97 points.
By the time they’d advanced to face the Sabres in the conference final after wins over the Flyers and Penguins — the latter punctuated by Danny Markov’s salute — the Leafs had a distinct “team of destiny” feel. That was only reinforced when Hasek missed the first two games of the series with a mysterious injury. But backup Dwayne Roloson earned a split, Hasek returned, and the Sabres finished the series in five games before going on to their controversial meeting with Dallas in the final.
No. 4: 1986–87
Imagine you picked up a chainsaw. Now imagine that you accidentally fired it up, and it started to roar out of control. Then imagine that you panicked and flung it as far away from you as you could, only to see it land in a pile of adorable stuffed animals, shredding them all into a fluffy mist as everyone around you shrieked in horror.
That’s what it was like when Wendel Clark was unleashed on the NHL.
As a rookie in 1985-86, Clark tore through the league, scoring 34 goals and fighting anyone who looked at him funny. But it was his sophomore season that really established him as one of the league’s most dynamic power forwards. He had 37 goals and 271 PIM, fighting 31 times and throwing devastating checks, including the legendary Bruce Bell hit.
Clark’s presence alone would be enough to land this team on the list. But they also featured a fun cast of supporting characters, including Hall of Famer Borje Salming, a young Al Iafrate, teenaged rookie Vince Damphousse and the Ken Wregget/Allan Bester goaltending combo. And the whole thing was coached by immortal lunatic John Brophy, who occasionally took breaks from murdering his own players so he could threaten to choke out opposing coaches.
The team wasn’t very good, finishing with just 70 points. But that was good enough for a playoff spot in the old Norris Division, and the Leafs upset the Blues in the opening round before taking the favoured Red Wings to a seventh game in the division final.
And it was great. Maybe you had to be there, but when you were a Leafs fan in the Harold Ballard era, this was about the best you could hope for.
No. 3: 1977–78
This is the earliest season on our list; the decade between the 1967 Cup win and this season was pretty much a writeoff for Leaf fans, who didn’t see their team win a single full-length playoff series. (Though they did win a few best-of-three preliminary rounds.)
This was the team that ended that streak of futility. It was also an undeniably entertaining bunch, led by three future Hall of Famers in Salming, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald. They also had Roger Nielson behind the bench, Mike Palmateer turning cartwheels in goal, and Tiger Williams making sure there was never a dull moment. Also, pretty much every other player on the roster went on to become a head coach. That means something. I’m not sure what.
But the undisputed highlight came in the post-season, when the Maple Leafs ran into a heavily favored Islanders team. Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and co. were a 116-point juggernaut on the verge of dynasty status. But after dropping the first two games of the series, the Leafs stormed back to force a seventh game, where McDonald scored the team’s most memorable goal of the decade.
It was a rare loss for an Islanders team that would go on to win 20 of their next 21 playoff series. And it would turn out to be a rare win for the Leafs, who wouldn’t win another seven-game series until 1987. Hey, how can you not love what was indisputably the biggest playoff win of two decades?
No. 2: 2001–02
Picking the most entertaining team of the Quinn era is tricky. This entry wasn’t as good as the 2003–04 version, and didn’t have the scrappy underdog mojo of the 1998–99 edition. And let’s face it, if you weren’t a Maple Leafs fan, you pretty much hated this team – within months, even Sports Illustrated would be calling Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker and friends “the NHL’s most notorious band of whiners, divers and cheap-shot artists.”
But sometimes it’s fun to play the bad guy. And this Leafs team was plenty fun. They put up 100 points even though Sundin was the only player to have more than 60 points. Then Sundin and Nieuwendyk both got hurt in the playoffs, leaving a young Alyn McCauley and his 16 points as the team’s top centre. That should have spelled the end. Instead, the Leafs beat the Islanders in a vicious (and undeniably dirty) opening round, then came back from the dead to beat the Senators after a controversial Alfredsson goal had all but ended the series.
That led to the fourth conference final appearance in 10 years — for a team that never wins in the playoffs, the Leafs had a pretty decent 10-year stretch — and a matchup against an upstart Carolina Hurricanes team that they absolutely should have beaten.
Instead, they dropped three of the first four games despite Sundin’s return, and looked to be dead and buried on home ice in game six. Then this happened.
It didn’t end up mattering, as the Hurricanes won the series in overtime. But that somehow didn’t matter much, as the goal became one of the most memorable of a generation. (Joe Bowen’s delightfully over-the-top call really seals it).
No. 1: 1992–93
As if there were any doubt.
We all knew this season would top the list. Though they didn’t win the Stanley Cup—which I’m told is pretty cool but will have to take your word for—the 1992–93 Leafs were just about as fun as hockey teams get.
To start, you have to set the scene. The franchise was slowly emerging form the shadow of the Ballard era, with Cliff Fletcher taking over and rebuilding the organization from the ground up. They’d made the Doug Gilmour trade a year earlier and landed Pat Burns as coach, but hadn’t had a playoff appearance in three years. Heading into opening night, snapping that streak seemed like a best-case scenario. Nobody was thinking of a championship. Leafs fans just wanted the team to seem relevant again.
They got that and more, as everything came together in a dream season. Gilmour shattered the franchise scoring record, Potvin was a mid-season rookie sensation, and 50-goal scorer Dave Andreychuk arrived in a February trade. The Leafs made the playoffs, then pulled off a dramatic comeback to upset the Red Wings with the franchise’s first game-seven overtime goal since McDonald.
By the time they’d beaten the Blues in another seven-game series, this one highlighted by Gilmour’s ridiculous OT goal, they looked like they might actually have a shot at a miracle. Then came the conference final against the Kings, in which Wendel Clark fought Marty McSorley and then scored a dramatic game-six hat trick to bring the Leafs within one goal of facing the Canadiens for the Cup.
You know how that story ends. But here’s the thing: If your team goes on a deep playoff run, you obviously want to see it culminate with a Cup. But if that can’t happen, at least let the end come at the hands of a deserving foe or a worthy villain. Leafs fans got both, dropping a classic conference final to the Kings thanks to Wayne Gretzky’s greatest game ever and a missed Kerry Fraser call that none of us will ever shut up about.
That win by the Kings was devastating, and cost Canada its last chance at a Leafs/Canadiens Stanley Cup final. Patrick Roy and the Habs would have provided a tough test for Gilmour and the Leafs, and we’ll never know who would have won. (Yes we do: the Leafs. It’s OK — no Montreal fan has bothered reading this far.)
But if you’re going to go out, go out on your shield. The 1992–93 Leafs did. It’s why Toronto still gushes about that team to this day. And it’s why they remain the most fun that Leaf fans have had in a half-century.
The bar’s been set high, kids. Let’s see how close you can come.