With the offseason moving along to a calmer time and Leafs news maybe winding down a little, we’ve decided to spend some of our time looking at the team that was, is, and will be moving forward. Yesterday Jeff looked into the 2000-01 season and today we’ll be talking about the 2001-02 Leafs team, a roster that could arguably be the most talented they’ve assembled in the last twenty years.
Second in the Northeast, Fourth in the Eastern Conference, Third Overall
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. The Leafs were third overall in the NHL, one of three teams to crack 100-points or more on the season, with the other two being Boston (101) and Detroit (116).
Somewhat surprisingly, if we look a little deeper, the Leafs’ special teams weren’t really impressive that season. Their penalty-kill was 16th league-wide at 84.4-percent, and their power-play was pedestrian as well at 15.4-percent, good for just 15th. I would have figured a team with an 80-point scorer (Mats) and seven players with 45 points or more would have raked in points off the strength of their powerplay, but obviously that wasn’t the case.
Heading into the 2001-02 season the Leafs made a few substantial moves. Their big signing of the summer was Alexander Mogilny, who was coming off a 43-goal season with the Devils, to a four-year deal worth 22-million. And on the trade market they shook up their forward group a little by shipping off Sergei Berezin for Mikael Renberg, and also added some depth by dealing fan favourite Danny Markov from the back-end for Travis Green and Robert Reichel.
In-season their moves were minimal, and the only notable ones included trading Dave Manson to Dallas for Jyrki Lumme in November, then making a play for Tom Barrasso in a deadline deal. [Alright, does anyone else call Barasso “Barasshole”, or is it just me? He might be the nicest guy on the planet for all I know, but that nickname was just too easy for my friends and I when we were in junior high school I suppose.]
As we mentioned up top, the Leafs finished the regular season as one of the top teams in the league and basically only hit one real skid around December and January where they dropped nine of sixteen games. Even then, throughout the entire season they only lost two in a row five times and only two of those streaks would go to three.
The Wings were far and away the most impressive team in the NHL that season, but you could make an argument the Leafs may have been the second-best, at least in the regular season. [Forsberg missed the entire year for the Avalanche and didn’t return until the playoffs].
Boston edged the Leafs by one point in the Eastern Conference standings but the Bruins’ goal-differential (+35) wasn’t as impressive, and they went on to be ousted by the Canadiens in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.
Toronto ended the regular season with a four-game winning streak to roll into the postseason where they’d take on the Islanders in the first round. This is the series where the infamous Tucker on Peca hit went down, and it’s also where Sundin would get knocked out of the lineup with a wrist injury from being struck with a puck in game one, which would have major implications on their run.
Oh yeah, and this happened.
The Isles series went all the way to the wire, with the home team winning every game and the Leafs eventually putting things away at the ACC in seven, which meant Toronto would then be moving on to take on the Senators in round two. This would arguably be the best series the Battle of Ontario has seen.
On to Ottawa.
Tucker again was at the center of some controversy in this one, except now on the receiving end, as in game five he was crushed from behind by Daniel Alfredsson and lay on the ice as the Sens’ captain tapped in the overtime winner. Leafs fans know the moment well. Ottawa was in control of the series, leading 3-2 heading back to the Corel Centre, but that Mogilny scoring touch would pay off in game six.
The Leafs would go on to roll over the Senators in game seven with a 3-0 shutout – Curtis Joseph’s fourteenth in his postseason career – setting up a date with the Carolina Hurricanes in the conference final. Carolina had finished the season with 91 points, which was good for seventh among Eastern Conference teams, but because that was enough to win the Southeast, they would enjoy home ice as the third seed. Thanks a lot, NHL.
Now, I’m not sure if I just eventually decided to put this series out of my mind, but for some reason I didn’t realize how close it really was until I went back to look at it recently. For example, the Hurricanes won THREE OVERTIME GAMES.
Like we mentioned above, Sundin went down with an injury in the opening round against Long Island, and while he was clearly still hurting, managed to return to score a goal and three assists in five games of this series. He’d play 25:49 in the final game and tie it late with only seconds remaining, but Martin Gelinas ended the series in overtime (surprise, surprise) and sent the Canes to the slaughterhouse, also known as “a seven game series against the 2002 Detroit Red Wings.”
Team Leading Scorers
This was Sundin’s second of two 40-plus goal seasons with the Leafs (the other coming in 1996-97.) As you can see though, the Leafs had some nicely balanced scoring after Mats, with seven more teammates above the forty-point line.
Their offseason additions from the previous summer worked out well, with Renberg and Reichel both pouring in over 50 points, and Travis Green producing nicely in his depth role. Unfortunately Renberg would miss most of the playoffs due to injury, and Reichel’s production dried up almost completely in the postseason – only three points in eighteen games. The Leafs instead relied heavily on Gary Roberts, who really turned things up and scored at a point-per-game clip in the playoffs, which isn’t all that surprising since we know he would have killed someone with a trident for a win.
Rethinking the Team
Before I went back to look into the 2001-02 season I don’t think I realized just how good this team was. They managed 100 points in the regular season and an appearance in the conference final but as a Leafs fan looking back on those years, you start to chalk a lot of winning entirely up to goaltending and Sundin. That wasn’t really the case here, the supporting cast delivered.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Leafs didn’t have an impressive team save-percentage in the regular season (.901), and given their goal differential was +12 better than Boston’s (a team with the same save-percentage), you could easily argue they were the best team in the east that year. Now, this isn’t to say they got robbed against the Canes – that’s what the playoffs are all about. But given they dropped three games in overtime in that series, with a little luck it could have been the Leafs getting their teeth kicked in by the Wings in the final. Who knows, maybe with a healthier Sundin they would have even put up more of a fight.
If we dig into some of the players’ production from that Leafs team a further than the boxcars on NHL.com, we can get a better picture of how they performed. For example, Darcy Tucker, who I would have assumed used some added powerplay time to inflate his numbers that year really didn’t. In fact, at even-strength he clipped along at 2.75 points-per-sixty-minutes (P/60), which was actually good for second on the team to Renberg (2.81). Yes that’s right, Tucker out-produced Sundin at even-strength that year.
Overall though, Sundin obviously set the pace. In all-situations P/60 he clipped along at 3.03, with Renberg (3.01) and Mogiliny (2.94) close behind. Mogilny led the way for powerplay production rates at an obscene 4.77 P/60, which was far and away the best, next to Renberg (4.18) and Sundin (4.03).
But how about Renberg? He ranked so highly in those rates categories and was added for a player ready to fizzle out. And for Reichel, 51 points is a nice return on essentially a depth defenceman. As “going for it” moves, these were obviously smart adds, it’s just too bad things went south when it mattered most.
As I said as the beginning of this thing, there’s a strong argument that this was the best team the Leafs have assembled since those ’93 and ’94 runs, which admittedly isn’t saying much considering the last decade has been a wash. But either way, of those Quinn years, these guys came the closest to Cup-winning glory, and I guess in recent years I’ve started to forget how close they were.