HALTON HILLS, Ontario — Frank Mahovlich was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967 when they last won the Stanley Cup. And he says he feels they are close to ending their 52-year drought.
“I thought they should have won the Stanley Cup [last season],” Mahovlich said at the NHL Alumni Celebrity Golf Classic at Glencairn Golf Club on Monday. “I think they’ve got a good enough team to do it.”
The Maple Leafs, who went 46-28-8 and finished third in the Atlantic Division last season, lost to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round for the second consecutive year. It was the third straight season Toronto qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs but failed to reach the second round (it lost to the Washington Capitals in 2017).
Mahovlich, who won the Stanley Cup four times with the Maple Leafs (1962, 1963, 1964, 1967) and twice with the Montreal Canadiens (1971, 1973), said the next step is building cohesiveness throughout their young core and applying the lessons they have learned through playoff failures.
“Now it’s just building chemistry, getting the fellows together and playing together a little more,” said Mahovlich, a forward who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. “That’s what you have to do to win Stanley Cups. It’s chemistry, some teams get it, some teams don’t, but I think they definitely have the potential to win. They’ve got so many good players there.”
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Among Toronto’s core are forwards Auston Matthews, 21; Mitchell Marner, 22; and William Nylander, a 23-year-old restricted free agent.
Darcy Tucker, who helped the Maple Leafs reach the conference final in 2002, when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games, said he expects all three to take significant steps forward this season now that they are well established in the NHL. (Matthews and Marner each is entering his fourth NHL season; Nylander is entering his fifth.)
“Absolutely, that’s just part of a young guy’s progression coming into the National Hockey League,” the former forward said. “You get your feet wet and then become a veteran and take the next step in your career. They’ve still got great leadership with older guys like John Tavares, but at the end of the day, sometimes people want progression to be a little bit quicker than it is, but I think they’re moving in the right direction. It’s a great young hockey club.”
Tucker said he believes Matthews, despite having 205 points (111 goals, 94 assists) in 212 games over his first three seasons, has only scratched the surface of his potential.
“I think (he is capable of) 50 goals, 100 points,” Tucker said of the center, who has NHL career highs of 40 goals (2016-17) and 73 points (last season). “At his peak, he’s going to score 50 goals in a season during his career, whether it’s this year or down the road. He’s got a ceiling that is just through the roof. He’s such a good young man and he’s got talent that most guys don’t have. I’m looking forward to seeing come playoff time from these guys to get to the next step, which is winning a round or two, and then you never know what happens.”
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Mahovlich said he quickly started admiring Matthews after watching him score four goals in his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12, 2016.
“He really opened my eyes,” Mahovlich said. “I thought he was great and he’s only gotten better. He’s got great balance, a great skill set, everything that a player needs to be successful.”
A common question about the Maple Leafs is whether they are physical enough to endure four rounds in the playoffs. Tucker said it is an important ingredient for success but that it needs to develop organically.
“It’s necessary but I see it more as a mindset,” Tucker said. “It’s not something where you say, ‘We need this player or that player.’ Come playoff time, it’s just a mindset. Look at Boston with guys like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. They elevate their game during the playoffs because they’ve learned to do that as they’ve become battle-hardened.
“That’s what the Leafs’ next progression is. They’ve got to get a little more battle-tested come playoff time.”