Thursday, July 22, 2004
Updated: July 23, 11:32 AM ET
Leafs' elusive goal: Playoff success
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
Toronto is the last place to look for perspective in the National Hockey League.
Last season, for the third time in the last five, the Maple Leafs hit the 100-point mark, setting a franchise record with 103 points, a total highlighted by a franchise-best 16-game point streak in November and December. The streak came after an unsuccessful road trip which prompted widespread rumors that coach Pat Quinn's job was on the line. And for the fifth time in the last six playoffs, the Leafs won at least one round, dispatching Ottawa in an emotional seven-game set before bowing to Philadelphia in six games, the second straight season the Leafs have fallen to the Flyers.
But many fans and critics view last season as another failure, another in a long line of disappointments stretching back to 1967, the last time the Leafs won a Stanley Cup.
For the second year in a row, the Leafs made bold moves at the trade deadline in the hopes of ending the second-longest Cup drought in the league (Chicago holds the current mark for championship futility at 43 years). Brian Leetch, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, arrived from New York and another future Hall of Famer, Ron Francis, was added from Carolina. Chad Kilger and Calle Johansson were also late additions, joining veteran offseason additions Ken Klee and Joe Nieuwendyk.
But as they did two years ago when the Leafs added Owen Nolan, Glen Wesley, Phil Housley and Doug Gilmour, the aged Leafs suffered a variety of injuries and fell far short of their final goal.
Nolan once again proved to be a significant question mark, sometimes providing a dominant element in the Leaf lineup but missing 17 regular-season games and all of the playoffs with injury. Alexander Mogilny also missed more than half the season with a hip injury and mustered just six points in 13 playoff games.
Rookie general manager John Ferguson completed his first year on the job this offseason by re-inking the team's most valuable player, netminder Ed Belfour and childhood friends Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts.
Ferguson spoke with ESPN.com about the disappointments of the playoffs and the confidence that this aging, veteran-laden squad has the makings of a champion.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
So, what prompted the 16-game unbeaten streak? I think really the chemistry. There was good chemistry and good energy. That particular road trip we were still two games above .500. There was more made of that than frankly there needed to be. It was a five-game trip. We got four points, not enough for an elite team, but there certainly was an undue spotlight on what really was a small segment of the season.
Overall, we got strong contributions from different people different nights. I think our depth was better than some people expected. We had some younger players take strides forward. Mats had a tremendous year. Roberts and Nieuwendyk combined for 50 goals and 100 points, in that range. And our back-line production was the best in the league throughout the year. We got contributions up and down the lineup. You need that to have success in an 82-game season and then optimize it in the playoffs where there really is no choice but to succeed.
Ferguson: Being my first camp with the club, it took some time to get an idea of who we had and what some of their capabilities were. Obviously, we had good strength in goal and offensive capabilities from the back line were real strong, and some real good capabilities up front.
ESPN.com: How about the playoffs -- first Ottawa, then Philadelphia?
Against Philadelphia, Game 5, obviously that was the turning point in the series. We felt our play warranted a better outcome than coming out of Philadelphia being down 2-0. We came back and held serve. But give them credit, they dominated Game 5 and then were able to do what they needed to do in overtime in Game 6. You can look at that (OT) goal and it certainly changed everything that came before it and everything that came after. Not only series-changing, but in some ways, life-changing, for those who had the opportunity to move on. That goal by (Jeremy) Roenick changes everything.
Ferguson: Eddie Belfour's goaltending. Nieuwendyk had, I think, five goals (against Ottawa). Mats, prior to the injury, was leading the team in points. Our team play, our penalty kill was very strong, (as was) our competitiveness throughout the lineup. It was tremendous hockey.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on your team?
Ferguson: Eddie had 10 shutouts in the regular season. That's a significant mark. The singularity of his focus is a rare trait. His competitiveness. Mats led the league in third-period points -- clutch scoring for us. We had some great comebacks. That really gave me tremendous confidence heading into the playoffs. Bryan McCabe had a career year for himself, as well. Matthew Stajan was a real bright light from the youth side of things and Alexei Ponikarovsky made great strides. But Eddie and Mats were big contributors.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Ferguson: We, as a whole, need to be better. That means everyone has to be better, different, throughout the organization frankly, myself included. There are players on our club who had statistically off years. Everyone needs to do more.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
As for others, is it (defensemen) Pierre Hedin or a Carlo Colaiacovo? There's going to be opportunity. Their play and their progress will dictate who earns that position. It's very important to our continued commitment to player development. At the same time, the opportunity is there but there are more than one who seek to take advantage. That healthy competition is an integral part of developing our players. That's the exciting part of infusing some capable young players into our group. In that respect, the organization's taking a long-term view relating to the identification, procurement and development of long-term assets. At the same time, it's important for our players to understand the urgency of what they're expected to do.
Ferguson: Mikael Tellqvist played 10 or 11 games for us. He appears ready to prove that he can do the job behind Ed. He'll have an opportunity to prove that in camp. I don't want to put the cart before the horse. He's got to prove he can handled the duties of a No. 2 goaltender. He falls into the category of having more than one suitor for the position.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Ferguson: The team-wide commitment to defense is always an area, to improve your goal differential. Our ability on the attack and in transition is real strong, but team defense and taking care of our own zone always puts you in better stead.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Ferguson: There is more than one. Obviously Game 7 against Ottawa is the biggest moment for me and for our organization. But there were others, some of the comebacks. Our win in Ottawa was a great comeback win. Our comeback in Buffalo springs to mind. Against St. Louis we scored in the last minute short-anded, to tie a game.
Ferguson: Game 6 against Philadelphia.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Ferguson: My wife's from Rhode Island, so I get back there on the weekends some time. Really spending time with my family does that for me.
Scott Burn side is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.