Toronto Maple Leafs (1945-1950)

1949Leafs

The 1949 Toronto Maple Leafs, after their surprising Stanley Cup run

The Toronto Maple Leafs of the late 40s, were a simply solid team that really knew how to turn up their play in the playoffs. They were coming off a surprise Stanley Cup victory in 1945 and so they were hopeful going into the 1945-46 season. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to improve as much as other teams in the post-war era. Many teams had star players return to their team, but the most important Maple Leaf returning, goaltender Turk Broda, had a slow start adjusting to the season and Frank McCool actually played more games than Broda. The Leafs also had a lack of any star defensemen to go along with their solid offense. They had the second best offense in the NHL, but the second worst defense.

Giving them hope on offense were the likes of Gaye Stewart, who led the NHL with 37 goals, Billy Taylor, and Syl Apps. To go along with the young Stewart, 19-year old Gus Bodnar showed promise, though his numbers were dropping off from his stellar younger years. The Maple Leafs finished 5th out of six teams, missing the playoffs by 5 points with a 19-24-7 record.

The 1946-47 season was an entirely different one for the Leafs. Offensively, the Leafs lacked any star players, but they had impressive depth and despite having no players in the top four in scoring, they had the best offense in the league. The team had been fairly heavily revamped with many younger players and new to the team were Ted Kennedy and Howie Meeker, while Syl Apps, who finished second on the team with 49 points in 54 games, stayed for veteran leadership. The 1946-47 season was the first 60-game season, so many point totals saw increases. Ted Kennedy led the way offensively with 60 points in 60 games and also led the team with 28 goals on the season, finishing 5th in the league in points.

The Leafs had no stars on defense either, but again, had really solid depth, led by Wally Stanowski, who had 19 points in 51 games, respectable totals in that era. Their defense went from 5th to 2nd, partly due to a better defense core, but largely due to goaltender Broda finding his game again. Aside from Bill Durnan, who was dominating the NHL, Broda was the next best goaltender the NHL had to offer and he aided the Leafs greatly. The Leafs finished with a 31-19-10 record for 2nd in the NHL, and readied up for the playoffs. In the first round, they squared off against the Detroit Red Wings, who had just barely made the playoffs, the Leafs quickly knocked them off in five games, aided by a surprising offensive outburst from Nick Metz, usually more of a supplementary player, who scored 6 points in 5 games.

In the finals, the Leafs faced off against the only team with a better record than them, the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had easily handled the Boston Bruins in the first round and would prove to be a tougher challenge than the Red Wings. In this series, it was Ted Kennedy who stepped up offensively for the Leafs, but it was Broda who really stood his ground, shutting out the Canadiens in game 2 and limiting them to one goal in two other games. The Leafs went on to win the Cup in six games, their 6th Cup in franchise history.

The 1947-48 season was undoubtedly the greatest regular season of the late 40s for the Leafs. A large trade was made early in the season, sending Bud Poile and Gaye Stewart to Chicago for star centreman, Max Bentley. Bentley would finish 5th in the NHL in scoring, just behind Stewart (4th) and just ahead of Poile (6th). Despite getting on in years, Apps was still playing well, and had 53 points in 55 games. Kennedy had a slightly off year, but still scored 25 goals in 60 games. On defense, youngster Jimmy Thomson was huge for the Leafs, piling up 29 assists in 59 games, leading the NHL’s defensemen by far. Even though he didn’t score any goals, he led the NHL in points by seven among defensemen. Gus Mortson continued his ability to score goals, scoring seven in this particular season. One of the largest reasons for Toronto’s success however, was Turk Broda, who had a stellar season, stealing the limelight from Durnan for one season, leading the NHL’s goaltenders in GAA with 2.38 and winning the Vezina trophy as a result.

The 1948 playoffs were where Kennedy redeemed himself for his off year. In the first round, a five-game series against the Bruins, Kennedy scored a stunning 6 goals and 4 assists for 10 points, leading the Leafs to victory. In the finals against Detroit, Toronto flexed their muscles in a 4-0 sweep of the second place Red Wings, with Harry Watson and Max Bentley leading the way offensively. The Leafs took home their second consecutive Cup and began to establish themselves as a team to be feared and respected.

The 1948-49 season featured a lot of changes for the Leafs, the largest of which was the retirement of Syl Apps, who, despite getting on in years, was still one of Toronto’s best players. In his place, Ted “Teeder” Kennedy was named captain. However, the 1948-49 regular season was not a pleasant one for the Leafs. They struggled mightily out of the gate, but were just barely able to pull it together at the end of the season to squeak into the playoffs ahead of the Chicago Black Hawks. Harry Watson led the way offensively with 26 goals and 45 points in 60 games, but Bentley and Kennedy both had sub-par years, giving the Leafs the second worst offense in the league. The one saving grace for the Leafs was their defense, which remained decent and Broda, who helped carry the team through many victories. The Leafs finished with a 22-25-13 record for fourth in the League and were up against the second place Boston Bruins in the first round.

Out of nowhere, the Leafs were suddenly transported back in time to 1947-48 and were able to dominate the Bruins. In a shocking result, the Leafs stomped the Bruins 4-1 in the first round, led by Harry Watson and Ted Kennedy’s five points each. In the finals, the Leafs stunned the hockey world by winning their third consecutive Cup by absolutely smashing the 1st place Detroit Red Wings in a 4-0 sweep, led by Turk Broda, who allowed just five goals in four games.

The Leafs, now with three consecutive Cups, had established themselves as a dynasty, but there were still questions. Was the explosion of the 1949 playoffs just a blip? Was that just one final moment of glory before the end? The Leafs had a surprisingly average season. They were far from their glory days, but much improved over the 1948-49 regular season. However, if one thing was clear, it was that the age of the Detroit Red Wings had come, with the top three scorers all being members of the famed “Production Line”. Perhaps the thing preventing them from bursting out was the lack of a dynamic offensive forward, with no players in the top 10 in scoring. Sid Smith, who had performed admirably in the 1949 playoffs, led the Leafs in scoring with 45 points in 68 games with a notably low 6 PIM. Players like Bentley and Kennedy had decent seasons, but didn’t wow with their numbers. On defense, the story was much more of the same, with no star defenders, but decent seasons from Gus Mortson and Bill Barilko. As in the past, Broda was a large part of the reason for Toronto’s success, leading the NHL in shutouts with 9 on the season, and finishing with a 2.48 GAA, good for third among NHL starters.

The Leafs finished third in the NHL, meaning they had the misfortune of facing up against the deadly Red Wings and their Production Line. Surprisingly, the Leafs put up a strong fight, taking the Red Wings to 7 games when Broda was finally beaten in a 1-0 overtime loss. Bentley finally turned back the clock and scored 6 points in 7 games, leading the Leafs offensively.

The late 40s Leafs are an interesting dynasty in that they lacked the regular season dominance that most dynasties enjoyed, but were clearly made for playoff success, turning it on several times in the playoffs to bring their game to the next level. Kennedy would lead the Leafs on into the 50s where they would have one final hurrah, winning the Cup in 1951.

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