Maple Leafs trying to follow the Blackhawks’ model of success

TORONTO — We’ve heard this one before: A couple of young, budding superstars, having almost instant success in the NHL, trigger high expectations for sustained dominance.

First, the 2013-14 Avalanche, with Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, were the 2009 Blackhawks. Then, the 2014-2015 Stars, with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, were the 2009 Blackhawks. Now, the Maple Leafs, with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, are the 2009 Blackhawks.

But the Avalanche are now the worst team in the NHL. The Stars are going to miss the playoffs one year after winning the Central Division. So Leafs coach Mike Babcock isn’t buying it just yet — even if Joel Quenneville is.

“Well, you hope there are similarities,” Babcock said. “Q told me the same thing this morning, ‘You remind us of nine years ago.’ In the meantime, they’ve won three Cups and they’ve kept it going and they’ve found a way to change out players and find new players, and the core players have been so good. Everybody has a plan. But not many teams win three Cups in the time they did it. Let’s just get better today.”

Rookie Auston Matthews has 31 goals and 24 assists in 69 games for Toronto. (Getty Images)

Matthews, the top pick in the draft last June, entered the game Saturday against the Hawks with 31 goals and 24 assists in 69 games. As a guy who grew up idolizing fellow center Jonathan Toews and fellow American Patrick Kane, he sees the similarities, too.

“I think so,” Matthews said. “We’re still in our first season, we’re trying to make a push for the playoffs, and I think that’s the most important thing. When you look at their core group of players that have been there since those guys first came in the league, they’re still together and they’re still winning. It’s definitely something you look at when you look at our team and this young group of core players and say we want to be able to do that, as well.”

The 2009 Hawks made a surprise run to the Western Conference final before winning their first Stanley Cup in 49 years the next season. The Maple Leafs haven’t won a Cup in 50 years, but they entered Saturday in the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. So it’s possible this really is the next dominant team in the NHL.

But they have a long way to go.

“Obviously, they have a really talented and young lineup,” Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “But at the same time, there are a lot of other teams in the league that have the same thing. That’s the new NHL. The league is getting younger and younger, and faster and faster, and more talented. It’s a plus that it’s happening in a hockey city like Toronto that’s been having a tough go lately. It’s fun to see them do well.”