Those poor old Toronto Maple Leafs. Even when they do something right, they get it wrong.
We speak of the Leafs’ sudden improvement this season, their melding of a new commitment to defensive hockey with pugnaciousness and timely scoring. The problem is, they picked the wrong season to show unexpected improvement.
Normally in the NHL, a doormat-turned-playoff-contender gets a full 82 games to sneak up on the other 29 teams. Even after a team starts knocking off opponents and climbing the standings, others really don’t start taking it seriously until at least the playoffs, and even then maybe not until the second or third round.
It’s just human nature. The other players still think of them as the same old sad sacks they were the year before and approach their games as an easy night. Improving teams can spend months under the radar and pick up some easy points.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, they picked a lockout-shortened, 48-game season to show they are ready to challenge for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That means the rest of the league is already paying attention – because 48 games means no-one can afford to coast.
The Maple Leafs don’t have the good fortune of the Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals of the early 1980s (two examples of really awful teams that quietly became really good).
In the 1980-81 season, the Jets finished last in the old Smythe Division with a 9-57-14 record and a mere 32 points. It was their second season in the NHL after a distinguished run in the defunct World Hockey Association.
But the robber barons running the NHL stripped the WHA teams of almost all their good young players as a condition of membership. The Jets lost Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg to the New York Rangers the year before they joined the NHL, and then saw young stars Kent Nilsson and Rich Preston sent to the NHL teams who originally drafted them.
But in 1981-82, the Jets gave Tom Watt his first job as an NHL head coach and were able to add their own draft picks and signings – youngsters like Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Dave Christian and Paul MacLean (a fellow who is gaining some fame these days as the Ottawa Senators coach).
Watt guided the Jets to a .500 record, 33-33-14, which was a 48-point improvement, taking them to second in their division. While much of that was due to a large group of young players who eventually had excellent NHL careers, it was also thanks to the fact it took the rest of the league a while to take them seriously.
It probably didn’t hurt that the Jets also switched divisions that season, moving from the Smythe to the Norris, which gave them a little more anonymity. But their record would have placed them second in the Smythe as well, albeit a distant second to the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers, thanks to some guy named Wayne Gretzky, made a similar jump that season, going from 29-35-16 and 74 points to 48-17-15 and 111 points in 1981-82. But their improvement was not nearly as surprising, as Edmonton’s cast of future Hall of Famers drew a lot more attention.
A year later, the Capitals were in the same surprise category as the Jets. They endured years of misery as an expansion team, finishing last in the Patrick Division in 1981-82, with a 26-41-13 record and 65 points.
But thanks to a new general manager, David Poile, who fleeced Montreal Canadiens counterpart Irving Grundman in a deal to get Hall of Fame defenceman Rod Langway, and new head coach Bryan Murray, who introduced the Caps to defensive responsibility, the big jump came in 1982-83. The Caps, thanks to lots of nights when the opposition came in thinking two points were in the bag, showed a 29-point improvement in 1982-83.
This does not mean these teams went on to playoff success, though.
The next step in an NHL team’s development – turning that initial success into sustained excellence – is much more difficult.