Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are enjoying what are the most successful days the franchise has seen since the infamous 2004-05 lockout, when six years of consecutive playoff berths came to a crashing halt.
The team’s longest-tenured fans know what it’s like to be an annual contender, but also the feelings of being a perennial bottom feeder. With so much young talent on the Leafs’ current roster, their fan base has expanded dramatically in the last few years, away from just the hometown diehards.
So, for those who are new around the Leafs franchise, and even those who have stuck through the tough times, it’s time for a reminder of just how far this team has come. Before last season, Toronto had made the playoffs just one year in the 10 post-lockout seasons (2012-13).
Where Were the Leafs 10 Years Ago?
One decade ago, in the 2007-08 season, the Leafs were reeling from missing the playoffs by just two points and one point respectively in the previous two campaigns. The team still had the majority of its core in place from six years of making the playoffs but had also brought in some new faces that were expected to bring the franchise back to glory again.
Mats Sundin remained the leader of the team on and off the ice as his career was winding down, and newcomers Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft were looked upon to be a tremendous goaltending duo. Raycroft, a 2003-04 Calder Trophy winner, was acquired from the Boston Bruins in exchange for Tuukka Rask a year earlier and was given the starter’s role in 2006-07, but an .894 save percentage over 72 games had lost the faith of team management. Instead, Toskala was brought in over the offseason for a few draft picks and thrown into the crease, with Raycroft serving as his backup.
Along the blue line, a solid top-four had emerged around Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Bryan McCabe, and Hal Gill. All four were in some of the best years of their careers, giving the Leafs a reliable defensive game that could carry them towards a playoff berth.
Aside from the timeless Sundin, the Leafs boasted a below-average top-six made up of the likes of Nik Antropov, Jason Blake, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Darcy Tucker. They also had a few young up-and-comers like Jiri Tlusty, Alexander Steen, Matt Stajan, and Kyle Wellwood.
In the end, the team was relatively average, playing to a 36-35-7-4 record, which was good for 12th in the Eastern Conference and 24th in the league. Sundin led the team with 32 goals and 78 points. In net, Toskala would play 66 games en route to a .904 save percentage.
Where Are Those Leafs Now?
Only a handful of players from that team are still playing professional hockey. Most notably, Dominic Moore is actually back with the Leafs for 2017-18 as a fourth-line center. Steen has seen a rejuvenation in St. Louis with the Blues and continues to play a top-six role. Likewise, Stajan remains with the Flames but has seen his production dip from his heyday. Anton Stralman has flourished into quite the defender since his rookie season in 2007-08, currently starring for the Lightning in a top-four role.
Elsewhere, Ponikarovsky continues to play in the KHL, now with the Kunlun Red Star as a 37-year-old. Interestingly, Raycroft actually got into a gig behind the bench at the University of Connecticut as an assistant coach for two years.
In any case, looking back on the Leafs’ roster from just 10 years ago goes to show how difficult it is to stay in the league for a long time, and can offer some extra respect to Jaromir Jagr, who first entered the NHL in 1990.
How Do the 2017-18 Leafs Compare to 2007-08?
Well, it’s about night and day. A decade ago, the Leafs’ core was an aging one with few to no true NHL prospects. The team was coming off of a string of playoff berths and was attempting to get the most out of its lineup while it still could. Of course, we know now that it didn’t work out, as the organization wouldn’t see playoff hockey again until 2013.
Today’s team is a total contrast in terms of style of play. Led by a core in their late-teens and early 20s, the Leafs are a fast-paced team with oodles of skill. Auston Matthews represents the team’s first true superstar since Sundin left, and a supporting cast of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nikita Zaitsev, and so many more offer the Leafs a glimpse into what is sure to be a future of tremendous success.
For the new generation of Leafs fans, enjoy the luxury while it lasts because there’s no telling how long this city and franchise will be on cloud nine. The diehards can vouch for how short-lived success in the NHL is, and also how much of a struggle it is to rebuild properly from the ground up without having to start all over before reaping any rewards.