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Dave Keon excited by playoff showing of young Maple Leafs

Hockey Hall of Famer impressed by former team's performance against Capitals

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- In 10 of the past 11 seasons prior to this one, the Toronto Maple Leafs were either on the golf course or dusting off their clubs by this time in April.

As he headed out to play 18 holes in Florida on Wednesday, Dave Keon listened to the ugly statistic over the phone.

"Well, that's not exactly a revelation, is it?" he said with a hearty laugh.

There are no tee times in the immediate future of this season's edition of the Maple Leafs, who lead 2-1 in their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Washington Capitals heading into Game 4 in Toronto on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2, CSN-DC).

It has been as remarkable a season for Keon as it has been for the franchise for which he starred, winning Stanley Cup championships in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 en route to his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986.

Since September, Keon has been enshrined in the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame, been voted the greatest Maple Leafs player of all time and had his statue added to the team's Legends Row the evening before Toronto's home opener, at which his No. 14 was retired to the rafters of Air Canada Centre. The 77-year-old has since had a banner raised in his hometown of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, in the arena that bears his name, been selected to the list of the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian and been celebrated at NHL gala events in Toronto and Los Angeles. Last month in Ottawa, he took part in the 125th anniversary homecoming of the Stanley Cup.

Finally having caught his breath, Keon is back home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, with his wife, Jane. Like the rest of the hockey world, he is deeply impressed by the Maple Leafs, who have been giving the Capitals, winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team, all they can handle and even a little more.

Keon says he's had his eyes opened especially by the play of 20-year-old center Willian Nylander and by goaltender Frederik Andersen, "who has been there to pull them out of trouble when they make a mistake.

"At the end of the season, they were struggling to finish it off, which they did," Keon said of qualifying for the playoffs. "Now that they're in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they seem to be more relaxed and confident. They know that it's a challenge, but they're up for it.

"They seem to be not fazed by the Capitals' success, and they're using all the skills they have. They skate very well, and I think that's posing a problem for Washington. They don't seem to get discouraged when they get down. They just keep grinding away and trying to put pressure on Washington, and it seems to be paying off."

There is something to be said, Keon said, for the fact that a dozen or so players of these Maple Leafs had never been in the playoffs.

The average age of the team going into Game 4 was 26.4 years, five years younger than the 1967 Maple Leafs that featured 42-year-old goalie Johnny Bower and 41-year-old defenseman Allan Stanley on the improbable and most recent run of the organization to the Stanley Cup title.

"They just go out and try to do the things they've done all year but it seems they're more relaxed in doing them," Keon said of this edition of the Maple Leafs. "They're enthusiastic about this. They're young. They've been through a tough season that was successful and now they have a chance to do something pretty special. They're all embracing it. Playing Washington is not easy but they seem to be rising to the challenge."

Keon is also impressed by the management group of president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock, and the path they're charting to rebuild the Maple Leafs from the ashes of decades of underachievement and heartbreak.

Video: Dave Keon led Toronto to three straight Cup titles

"They had a blueprint of what they wanted to do and they've stuck to it," he said. "Probably what's happening now is a little more accelerated than they thought it was going to be, but I'm sure they're pleased with what's happening. They understand it just doesn't happen overnight. You have to put in the work and assemble the building blocks. Hopefully you stay healthy and your players improve. When that happens, you're in the process of building a contender. Obviously, this is the first step."

As well as anyone, Keon understands the long-suffering Toronto fan base, and he's delighted for these loyal followers of an organization that has crushed fans' spirits for so many years.

"The fans look at their team and they see the young guys they have, quality guys," he said. "Barring injury, they're going to be there for a while and the expectations are that they're going to try to play for the Stanley Cup. It seems that they're moving on that road."

Keon will continue to enjoy the games from Florida. No matter how far the Maple Leafs go this postseason, he has no plans to come north for a closer look.

"No, I wouldn't do that. There's no reason to go there. It's their time," he said of this season's team.

Following a round of golf Wednesday with his brother and sister, Keon was looking forward to Game 4, to see what entertaining story would be written, win or lose.

"There seems to be an optimistic sense after three games of, 'Hey, maybe we can do this now,' " he said. "They think they belong here. They don't have any scar tissue from the playoffs.

"For the majority of the young guys, this is all new and fun for them and they think this is great. You know, they just don't have any bad memories."

The same can be said for the management architects of this roster, helping a fan base forget the past and enjoy not just a terrific early run this playoff season, but a very promising future.

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