The Maple Leafs, while they weren’t focusing on it, entered Monday’s game in Montreal just four points behind Carolina for the Presidents’ Trophy, the bauble awarded to the team with the league’s top regular-season record.
They’re in the thick of a crowded battle. Seven teams had 70 or more points after the weekend, led by the Hurricanes’ 75.
Paul Patskou, a Leafs historian and the author of several books on the team, suggests the league’s COVID-altered divisions and 56-game schedule — down from the regular 82 — must be considered when discussing this season, but it shouldn’t take away from what could be a historical moment for the franchise. Toronto has never won the Presidents’ Trophy, which has been awarded since 1986. The Leafs last led the league in points in 1962-63.
“Even though they don’t play other teams, (the Presidents’ Trophy) still signifies strength and a superiority over other teams,” Patskou said. “For fans of the team, it’s still an accomplishment.”
The 1962-63 Leafs finished a point ahead of Chicago and three up on Montreal, the regular-season leader the previous five seasons. It was part of a changing of the guard that had started with the Leafs’ Stanley Cup win the previous spring. Montreal had won five straight Cup from 1956 to 1960; Toronto would win four from 1962 to 1967.
Patskou sees comparisons between the ‘62-63 Leafs and the current version of the team, which entered Monday with a nine-point lead atop the North Division. The teams of the 1960s were strong down the middle, with Red Kelly, Dave Keon and Allan Stanley centring the top three lines. Toronto’s current group includes Auston Matthews, the NHL’s goal-scoring leader, captain John Tavares and the speedy Alex Kerfoot. The biggest similarity, though, is success.
“It doesn’t feel the same as a full season, but I’m sure the Leafs will take it,” Patskou said. “Even with (the pandemic), Tampa didn’t give back its Stanley Cup win last season. It isn’t the Leafs’ fault that the league is different this season. Winning is an accomplishment, any way you look at it.”
The current Leafs are more concerned about finishing their season strong and getting ready for a potential first-round series with Montreal.
“I haven’t looked at (the Presidents’ Trophy race), to be honest,” Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin said. “But I think if we focus on ourselves and our team going into the playoffs, maybe that will look after itself. We’re trying to improve and be consistent in our games going down the stretch here, and if that results in (wins), then maybe we’re there at the end of the day.”
Nick Foligno said the Leafs’ strengths were central to his decision to accept a trade from Columbus, adding he sees “something special here.”
“It’s probably the most overly said thing when you come to a new team, but it’s how great the guys are,” Foligno said. “I’ve been on teams where you’ve had the it factor, you have that room that runs itself, the guys care a tremendous amount about each other … you can sense that in this room.
“That’s kinda what drew me to this team. I know firsthand how important that is to having success on the ice, when you have the chemistry, when you have that right mix in the room. Every one of those guys seems to get it … I can’t single out one guy, everyone has impressed me. I watch how they go about their business, I watch how they are on the ice, how they are on the bench, and all signs point to a real mature and understanding team of where we’re at and where we want to get to.”
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