By DAVID SHOALTS
Wednesday, February 14, 2018
TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs enjoyed only fleeting success with star scoring duos over the 51 years since their last Stanley Cup.
While there were some great individual statistics posted by the likes of Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald and Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk, team success was another matter. The SittlerMcDonald combo in the 1970s made it to one Stanley Cup semi-final and, during the Gilmour-Andreychuk years in the early 1990s, the Leafs made it to two conference finals.
But now, there is the tantalizing prospect the latest duo - Auston Matthews and William Nylander - may be the greatest.
Even better, today's Leafs sport two such pairs, as Nazem Kadri and Mitch Marner are lighting it up since the pairing was formed late last month.
After Kadri and Marner, plus left winger Patrick Marleau, combined for 10 points in a 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators last weekend, Matthews and Nylander took over the Leafs' bus in Monday's big 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL's first-place team. They finished with three points each against the Lightning. They will try to make it a perfect five-game home stand on Wednesday night when the Columbus Blue Jackets pay a call.
The Leafs won the first four games at Air Canada Centre and the Blue Jackets wrap things up with their visit.
"I think there's chemistry there and we complement each other in different ways," Nylander said. "Auston knows how to score goals, obviously, and [left winger] Zach Hyman gets on the fore-check and creates space for me and Auston to make plays."
At this point, though, Nylander says he is not day-dreaming about seeing their act have as long a run in Toronto as some of their predecessors.
"Right now, you're just thinking about the next game," he said. "You don't think about the future so much."
Given the depth of the current Leafs and the strength of its management of the players and how to work with the cap, the Matthews-Nylander and Kadri-Marner duos offer the prospect of being the most rewarding in franchise history. All of the previous pairs, with Sittler-McDonald the longest-running act at 61/2 seasons, were ultimately undone by management or ownership failings.
Harold Ballard's chaotic ownership, combined with Punch Imlach's disastrous second act as general manager, sunk the Sittler-McDonald run when the latter was traded in 1979. Steve Stavro, Ballard's successor as majority owner, was responsible for the Gilmour-Andreychuk breakup after 31/2 seasons when Andreychuk was traded in March, 1996, and Gilmour followed him out the door a year later.
Stavro's fight to gain control of the franchise and its arena proved costly when he lost a court fight with a group of minority shareholders over the value of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. He had to fork over tens of millions of dollars to the shareholders through the company, so budgets were slashed to accommodate the payout. Goodbye Andreychuk and Gilmore.
The spectre hanging over the current Maple Leafs and their burgeoning duos is the salary cap. Of the four star players, only Kadri is signed long-term with four more years after this season at a cap-friendly hit of US$4.5million a year. Matthews, Nylander and Marner all make around US$900,000, but all of them will be restricted free agents within the next two years.
Nylander is up first, as his entry-level contract expires at the end of this season. Matthews and Marner will be restricted free agents at the end of 2018-19. Matthews will command the biggest pay raise, with his stipend headed to north of US$10-million while the other two can be expected to demand a million or two less if the Leafs are fortunate.
That represents a jump in the Leafs' payroll of at least US$26million, which means plenty of tap dancing ahead for club president Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello, even if next season's cap rises US$7-million to the maximum projection of US$82-million.
In the meantime, Leafs fans are free to dream of the possibilities.
"They make plays, they shoot it," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said of Matthews and Nylander. "There's a right-handed faceoff guy, there's a left-handed faceoff guy, there's two guys who can play down low in their zone, there's good speed and talent coming at you. It's a good line that, for the most part, can dominate lots of nights.