Toronto Maple Leafs now own NHL's longest Cup drought; Will it end soon?

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Thumbnail image for oopsburke.jpgAfter nearly 50 years – most of which were spent falling pretty far from victory – the Chicago Blackhawks broke their drought (“The curse of Espo,” maybe?) and hoisted the Cup last night. So, the question is, who is the new team to wait the longest at the old Championship Deli Counter for a pound of cured, thin-sliced glory? (Hey, at least I didn’t drop this weird analogy on you at lunch time, right?)

The “winner” is the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team who hasn’t won it all since 1967.* The kicker, though, is that the Leafs haven’t even made it to the final round since ’67, either. Yikes.

Fans of other Canadian teams/syrup-haters in general might enjoy the semi-sadistic piece TSN wrote about their struggles since that point. Here are a few choice cuts.

The Leafs have also missed the playoffs 16 times since 1967, and in 26 campaigns since 1984, they have missed out on the postseason on 12 occasions – almost every other year since.

And of course, the Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs each season since the end of the NHL lockout.

Oh, but it gets worse. I don’t fault Leafs fans if they scroll to the next post/close their browser right about now …

In 1997, Toronto traded defenceman Kenny Jonsson, forwards Sean Haggerty and Darby Hendrickson and a first round pick to the New York Islanders for prodigal son Wendel Clark, Mathieu Schneider and D.J. Smith.

“Draft Schmaft,” general manager Cliff Fletcher told a Toronto reporter when questioned about dealing his first rounder.

And with a deep draft class that summer, the Islanders used their pick to select netminder Roberto Luongo.

Ouch, that stings. After the jump, I take a look at the future of the Leafs. Can they break the slump anytime soon?

* – The St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings are on a similar drought but there’s one difference: they’ve never won a Cup at all.

neuf.jpgUnfortunately – in my opinion – the team isn’t in great shape
to be more than low-seed  playoff fodder in the near future. While
Brian Burke is a bright hockey mind, he’s either under too much pressure
to deliver a winner right away or overvalues a few big name,
medium-result players.

I’ll get deeper into the nuts and bolts stuff during the summer, but
the team already has a lot of money locked up in a mediocre core. For a
whopping $32.6 out of a (ballpark expected) $58.8 million, the team
received Dion Phaneuf, J.S. Giguere, Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek,
Mikhail Grabovski, Francois Beauchemin and Jeff Finger. Really the only
decent news is that Giguere’s contract expires after next season.

The funny thing about the Tomas Kaberle rumors is that he’s one of
the team’s few decent contracts. He might not do everything at an elite
level, but he’s a very good offensive defenseman for the price ($4.25
million) and his contract is set to expire. Kaberle and Luke Schenn are
among the few bright spots on a rough hodgepodge of overpaid players and
borderline AHL’ers.

That’s not to say that the Leafs are ruined, mind you. They still
have $10 million in cap space and Burke clearly loves making splashy
moves. Unfortunately, his splashy moves have been either shaky or awful
lately.

If the Leafs hope to end what is now the league’s longest Cup
drought, they’re going to need to clean up a messy roster. It shouldn’t
be easy, but if the Blackhawks taught us anything, a team can go from
the basement to the penthouse pretty quickly in today’s NHL.

(Of
course, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were top-3 picks in the draft so
… just be patient, Leafs fans. As usual.)

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.