The Toronto Maple Leafs had a nice little season but now it’s done.
A lot of talk around the team has revolved around the Leafs’ future and how there are only good days ahead.
That might be the case but if history is any indicator, progress isn’t always linear.
Let’s look at some of the NHL’s up-and-coming teams of old and how they performed after their first playoff berth.
THE FAST – Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins’ rise was meteoric.
During the 2005-06 season, Sidney Crosby’s rookie year, the Penguins won just 22 games. They were brutal. The following season, the young Pens went from a goal differential of minus-72 to plus-31, a 103-goal difference. For comparison, the Leafs were minus-48 when they finished 30th last year and plus-9 this year for a difference of 57. The Penguins basically went from the McEichel Sabres to the current Blackhawks overnight.
How? Some guy named Evgeni Malkin came over from Russia, Jordan Staal made his NHL debut, and Ryan Whitney had a monster year on the back end. Well that and Crosby got even better.
The playoffs weren’t so easy for the Penguins though as they lost in Round 1 to Ottawa. The following year however, Pittsburgh got a first-round rematch the Senators and slaughtered them in a sweep. The 2007-08 Penguins made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where the Detroit Red Wings finally stopped them.
The next season, in yet another rematch, Crosby & Co. finally got their first Cup. Without Marian Hossa, too.
THE FURIOUS – Chicago Blackhawks
Speaking of Hossa – presenting the Blackhawks.
Similar to the Penguins, it’s getting harder to remember a time where the Blackhawks stunk. Well in 2006-07, the Blackhawks stunk.
Their top scorer was Martin Havlat with 57 points and next behind him was Radim Vrbata with 41. Despite a nice season from young defender Duncan Keith, Chicago wasn’t singing much “Chelsea Dagger” back in those days.
Then in 2007-08, both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane burst onto the scene at the same time. Third-year player Patrick Sharp went from 35 points to 62. Dustin Byfuglien emerged as a full-time NHLer. Chicago ultimately missed the post-season but they sent a message to the league that year.
Then bam – Western Conference final in 2009. Though they ultimately lost to Detroit, the continued emergence of their young players as well as a healthy Havlat made them lethal, scoring 264 goals.
Finally in 2010, Marian Hossa and all, the Blackhawks halted the Cinderella run the Philadelphia Flyers were having and ended their own Stanley Cup drought. A huge revelation for Chicago was Antti Niemi being its No. 1 guy. He wasn’t magnificent but he didn’t have to be. Niemi’s .912 save percentage was way better than the .895 Cristobal Huet put up.
THE UP & DOWN – Tampa Bay Lightning
The Penguins and Blackhawks saw linear success. The Lightning weren’t so lucky.
The 2009-10 season saw sophomore Stamkos hit 50 goals for the first time and Vincent Lecavalier hit 60 or more points for the last time. Stamkos and Martin St. Louis both put up over 90 points and rookie Victor Hedman showed promise.
The next season in 2010-11, Tampa was firing on all cylinders again but that wasn’t the issue. Mike Smith (.899) and Dan Ellis (.889) were porous in net for Tampa. On Jan. 1, 2011, the Lightning got Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders in exchange for 2006 first-rounder Ty Wishart.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, Wishart played just 21 NHL games for them and fortunately for Tampa, Roloson was a significant upgrade in net.
Both St. Louis and Lecavalier scored at over a point per game in the playoffs, accompanied by strong runs from Ted Purcell, Steve Downie, Stamkos, Simone Gagne, and Dominic Moore. Unfortunately for them – Tim Thomas happened. The Boston Bruins won in Round 3, Brad Marchand speed-bagged the Sedins for seven games, and Boston won the Cup.
The following year, Roloson (.886) and Mathieu Garon (.900) were brutal in net and the Lightning missed the playoffs. The lockout-shortened season was another missed chance at the playoffs with Garon (.897) and Anders Lindback (.902) struggling in goal, although this Ben Bishop kid they got at the deadline looked OK.
With Bishop (.924), the Lightning returned to the playoffs in 2013-14 but got swept by Montreal in the opening round. A combination of injuries and the Martin St. Louis trade controversy didn’t help.
In 2014-15, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov truly emerged as the triplets and Alex Killorn had a monster playoffs. Unfortunately for Tampa, the Blackhawks were too much in the Stanley Cup Final. The next year, the Lightning lost in Game 7 to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the Penguins.
This season the Lightning looked like an Eastern favourite until they suffered a cartoonish amount of injuries and sold at the trade deadline. Incredibly, they still only missed the playoffs by one point. Does anybody doubt that the Lightning will be favourites in the East next season?
THE YOUNG RETOOL – Calgary Flames
In 2013-14, the Flames had some nice, young pieces on the way but weren’t great just yet. Despite a nice rookie season from Sean Monahan, the Flames didn’t have a true dynamo up front.
The following season in, the Flames became the comeback kids and were must-see TV. Jiri Hudler went from 54 points to 76, Monahan went from 34 to 62, Johnny Gaudreau put up 64 points as a rookie, and Dennis Wideman had the best offensive year of his career with 56 points. Jonas Hiller (.918) and Karri Ramo (.912) weren’t the best tandem but they were respectable enough for a team that could score.
A combination of youth and a first-round victory over Vancouver despite the absence of an injured Mark Giordano made some think that the Flames were legit. The stats crowd however pointed out things like the Flames’ 44.5 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5, which was the third-worst mark in the league, as a warning sign.
Sure enough, the trio of Ramo (.909), Joni Ortio (.902), and Hiller (.879) weren’t strong in Calgary’s next season, and the Flames allowed 44 more goals. The Flames missed the playoffs despite the addition of Dougie Hamilton and it cost Bob Hartley his job.
This season under Glen Gulutzan, the Flames were a middle-of-the-pack possession team, Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott were an improvement on last year’s goaltending tandem, Mikael Backlund had a career year, and Matthew Tkachuk might have been the most underrated rookie in the league. The Flames may not have won a game in the playoffs but they did make it back. If the young pieces continue to progress and the goaltending gets figured out, they should return next year.
To be the next Penguins or Blackhawks would be nice but Tampa and Calgary are two examples of success not always being a straight line. How will the line of progress look for the Leafs?