The Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the NHL's premier teams. They are the NHL's most valuable franchise. If you were to ask a casual hockey fan to name an NHL team, depending on where you are, chances are you're going to hear them answer the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even with all that said, it's no doubt that the Maple Leafs have been one NHL's worst teams in the past five years. They have fallen from a perennial playoff team to a perennial pretender.
The Maple Leafs' history is filled with times where they were the NHL's best team. They've also had times where they have been among the league's worst, like they are now. A look at that history shows it.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were born when Conn Smythe bought the Toronto St. Patricks from then-manager Charlie Querrie for $160,000.
Led by players like Busher Jackson, Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher, Toronto won its third Stanley Cup and first as the Maple Leafs in the 1931-32 season.
The Leafs would not win another Cup until the 1940s, but for the next eight years leading up to the 1939-40 season, they only missed the Stanley Cup Finals twice.
They would go on to dominate the NHL for the next decade. The Leafs would win their next Cup in 1942. They bowed out in the semifinals the next two seasons, but won another in the 1944-45 season.
After missing the playoffs in 1946, the Leafs would win the Stanley Cup three seasons in a row before winning the last Cup of their first dynasty in 1951.
The Maple Leafs' 1951 Stanley Cup win was clinched by defenseman Bill Barilko's overtime goal in Game 5.
Anyone who has heard The Tragically Hip's song "Fifty Mission Cap" knows what happened next.
Four months after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal, Barilko disappeared in a plane crash. His body was not found until 11 years later in 1962. Coincidentally, after not winning the Cup since 1951, the Maple Leafs won it all again in 1962.
That Stanley Cup would lead the Leafs into their second dynasty. Over the next six seasons, the Leafs would win the Cup in four of them, the last coming in 1967.
As we all know, that is the last Stanley Cup the Toronto Maple Leafs have won to date.
The darkest days of the Maple Leafs would follow, as Harold Ballard took control of the team after Conn Smythe's son Stafford died in 1971.
Gone were stars like Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, Andy Bathgate and Tim Horton. They were replaced by Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull, Borje Salming and others.
No amount of star power was able to help the Leafs during the Ballard years. The Leafs lost a lot of players because of Ballard, including Sittler and McDonald.
These are two decades that Leaf fans would like to forget.
After Ballard's death in 1990, the Leafs' fortunes made a change for the better. Under new general manager Cliff Fletcher, the Leafs added Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk to a lineup that was beginning to get better.
In the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons, the Leafs made it all the way to the Conference Finals before losing to the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, respectively. Things were starting to look good in Toronto again.
However, it took another five years for the Leafs to get back to being a playoff team. This time, it was a core of Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph, Steve Thomas, Tomas Kaberle and Fredrik Modin. The Leafs once again made it again to the Conference Finals, this time getting ousted by the Buffalo Sabres.
Adding players like Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny, Shayne Corson, Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe to the lineup over the next four years, the Leafs once again made it to the final four, where they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Overall, going back to 1992-93, the Leafs had made the playoffs in 12 of 14 seasons.
With the arrival of John Ferguson Jr. as general manager, things started to go downhill again. Bad trades, bad signings and no-trade clauses were the norm in Ferguson's time in Toronto.
While the Leafs made the playoffs in the first few years under Ferguson, that was more because of what Pat Quinn had done. Ferguson will be remembered for putting the Leafs in the position they have been in over the past few years.
Now, we're back to the current era of the Toronto Maple Leafs. While Brian Burke has done all he can to reform the Leafs into a contender, it has been a slow transition back to contention. The Leafs have improved, but it's getting harder to make the playoffs with other teams also improving.
With acquisitions of players like Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner, the Leafs have the beginnings of a good core that will grow together and get them back into their premier spot in the NHL.
As you can see, the Leafs have followed a path that has had them being successful for a decade or so, followed by a decade or two of being not that good at all. They are currently in one of those decades during which they are unsuccessful.
If history continues to repeat itself, the Maple Leafs will eventually get back to their spot as a power team in the NHL. It might take a little while, but they should return to their usual spot in the not-too-distant future.
The Leafs have the pieces in the lineup now and prospects for the future that will bring them back to the top of the NHL. Just a little patience and Leaf fans will be watching their favorite team get back to the playoffs and, one can only hope, win a Stanley Cup.
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