Could the Toronto Maple Leafs finally be building toward long-term success? Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville certainly thinks so

Tonight’s Chicago Blackhawks game offers an interesting contrast in organizations. While the Blackhawks are in the midst of great success, having won three Stanley Cups in the last seven seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs (tonight’s opponent) have been trying to build toward that ever since the 2004-05 lockout.

The Leafs are currently sitting in the East’s second wild card spot with 78 points, a point ahead of the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. However, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had some high praise for Mike Babcock’s group ahead of tonight’s tilt.

This comes from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus:

Now, you could take this comment to mean the 2008-09 Blackhawks or 2009-10 Blackhawks. I’m choosing to go with the former, because the latter won a Stanley Cup. I don’t see the Maple Leafs as a Stanley Cup contender this season.

However, it’s very easy to see them in the mold of the 2008-09 Blackhawks, the team with a few veterans and several promising youngsters putting it together and challenging some of the league’s better teams in the postseason.

Let’s take a closer look at this comparison and see just how apt — or not — it is.

Comparing the teams — records

If we do this purely from a spot in the league standpoint, it’s not an apt comparison. I think Quenneville’s words go far deeper than that, of course, but it’s only fair we look at this from multiple angles.

The 2008-09 Blackhawks piled up a surprising number of points, especially considering they switched coaches four games into the season. Denis Savard gave way to Quenneville, who led the Blackhawks to 104 points and second place in the Central Division — resulting in a 4 seed in the Western Conference.

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are going to need to work hard to get into the postseason right now. As previously mentioned, they hold just a one-point edge for the East’s second wild card, though with the right results they could bump up to third place in the Atlantic Division.

With 13 games remaining, the maximum number of points the Leafs could acquire this season is … 104. Odd coincidence there, but it’s pretty unlikely that will happen, and far more likely they’ll be on the road to start the postseason (should they make it in). The Blackhawks opened at the United Center against the Calgary Flames.

Comparing the teams — personnel

Now what Quenneville was probably referring to in his comparison was the personnel of these two squads. Both the 2008-09 Blackhawks and 2016-17 Maple Leafs were/are led by veteran, Stanley Cup-winning coaches in Quenneville and Babcock. (Q won his first as an assistant, but still.)

The players offer an interesting comparison as well. The 2008-09 Blackhawks had some solid veterans, with Martin Havlat pacing all regular-season scorers at 77 points. They also boasted Brian Campbell (52 points), Andrew Ladd (49) and Patrick Sharp (44), in addition to having Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet in net.

But this was a growing young team as well. Patrick Kane (70 points) and Jonathan Toews (69) obviously were budding stars, but these Blackhawks also boasted Kris Versteeg (53), Dave Bolland (47), Duncan Keith (44), Brent Seabrook (26) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (3).

It was a perfect mix of veterans showing how to win and youngsters following through on it and learning in the process. It resulted in the team making the Western Conference finals against a strong Detroit Red Wings outfit.

For the Maple Leafs, you can see a similar setup. James van Riemsdyk (52 points), Nazem Kadri (51), Tyler Bozak (47), Frederik Andersen in net and newcomer Brian Boyle at forward are guys who have been around the block. Meanwhile, Auston Matthews (55 points), Mitch Marner (55), William Nylander (50) and Leo Komarov (25) are youngsters finding their way — but finding it impressively.

Comparing the teams — the future

The 2008-09 Blackhawks and 2016-17 Maple Leafs are two teams that had/have some of their key pieces in place already, it was just a matter of development.

Maybe the Leafs don’t have a guy like Keith on the blue line who you could see as a Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe winner, but they have promising pieces like Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly.

The Leafs are on pace to score about 251 goals this season, which isn’t far off what the 2008-09 Blackhawks produced (264). These two teams thrived/thrive on skill and speed in addition to the development of key youngsters.

Also, like there was for the Blackhawks back in 2008-09, there’s likely more good to come for these Maple Leafs. Khabibulin and Huet were holding ground ahead of young goaltenders in Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford who would come in to win the three Cups.

Andersen may or may not be a Cup-winning goaltender with the Maple Leafs moving forward, but I think their goaltender of the future is Garret Sparks. He posted some NHL experience last season and has a .923/2.21 statline with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season.

Additionally, the Leafs probably aren’t done adding to their group of key players. The Blackhawks added Marian Hossa after the 2008-09 season, a key piece to push them to the next level. Toronto is a great hockey destination, especially with the promise this team has. Who says they won’t make a big splash in the free agent market this offseason?

Conclusions

Overall, I think Q’s comparison between these two teams makes tons of sense. I think he made the comment based largely on the potential of these current Maple Leafs, and they clearly have plenty of that.

Q took over a potential-oozing Blackhawks squad that was stuck in the mud and gave it some solid direction. That, paired with good moves by the Blackhawks’ front office and continued development of youngsters, pushed the team to the next level.

There’s no telling exactly how the Maple Leafs will pan out moving forward, but there are pieces in place to push this team to the next level. Certainly things just need to go the right way.

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