By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 22) – After consecutive victories over Montreal early in the season, the Maple Leafs lost a game to the Canadiens on Saturday night and hockey observers here are reacting the way sports fans, in general, did to that first taped phone-message from Tiger Woods.
Yes, Leaf fans, the Habs have distantly trailed your team all season; yes, the Canadiens were 1-3-2 coming in and had gagged on a third-period lead in Pittsburgh the night before; no, it is never fun to lose to the storied rival.
But, as the oldest saying in sport goes: That’s why they play the games.
A snapshot today of the National Hockey League standings details the bigger picture – typical in almost every way. A handful of teams [Detroit, New York Rangers, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston] are playing at an elite level, 15 or more games over the .500 mark. Columbus, Edmonton, Anaheim, Buffalo and Carolina – at the moment – are in a scramble for the No. 1 draft pick next June. In between, is the pack of clubs, Leafs and Canadiens included, that will liberally exchange position as the final half of the season unfolds – 13 points separating 10th-place San Jose from 25th-place Tampa Bay – a gap likely to narrow, given the unmistakable, post-lockout pattern.
As it pertains to a trend, the Leafs have been in lock-step since the infant portion of the schedule – one we have often illustrated in this corner: After a 4-0-1 break from the gate on home ice, Toronto is a .500 hockey club (19-19-4) in 42 games, just more than half of its season allotment. Look up the word “ordinary” today and you might find a Leafs logo next to it… flanked by the logo of 20 NHL rivals.
So, we ask again: Why the shock over Montreal beating Toronto on a Saturday night in late-January?
HABS’ FORWARD RENE BOURQUE – ACQUIRED LAST WEEK FROM CALGARY FOR MIKE CAMMALLERI – IS SANDWICHED BETWEEN JONAS GUSTAVSSON AND DION PHANEUF AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE ON SATURDAY. (Abelimages/NHL.com)
When I emailed Brian Burke this morning about the angst I’m sensing in Leaf Land – and the growing expectation that he’ll pull off a season-altering trade – the Leafs’ general manager replied with two words “No panic.” And, that’s exactly the way it should be, considering the likely absence of a magic wand in Burke’s desk at the Air Canada Centre. Were double-B part of a six-team league without salary restraint, perhaps magic could be anticipated. Given, however, the number of clubs in the capped, 30-team NHL that figure to remain in the playoff hunt, there is virtually no chance that one manager can send his team rocketing through the standings. Player demand far outweighs supply and too many GMs are endeavoring to make that all-important move.
There is no implication here, of course, that Burke is sitting idly in his office… or that he’s incapable of executing a prominent transaction. He has twice been part of deals that made league-wide news: acquiring Phil Kessel from Boston in September 2009 and Dion Phaneuf from Calgary four months later. A trade that is more significant on reflection brought Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner here from Anaheim last Feb. 9.
Considered separately, each move has worked out rather well. Kessel is scoring close to the level expected of him; Phaneuf provides the Leafs a strength-of-personality they lacked, while Lupul has rebounded fervently from a long absence with a back infection that threatened his career. As a team, however, the Leafs are just marginally better than they were before these trades were made – providing a clear indication how difficult it is to separate from the mushy middle in the NHL.
The Leafs have been rather confounding this season, yet no more confounding than most other clubs. For a time, it appeared Leafs could simply out-gun the opposition, possessing – as they do – a high-scoring tandem in Kessel and Lupul. This has not been a frequent luxury in the post-1967 era. Only four-such combinations have clicked for the club: Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald in the late-‘70s; Bill Derlago and Rick Vaive in the early-‘80s; Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk in the early-‘90s; Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas (or Gary Roberts) in varied intervals under Pat Quinn.
What the above-mentioned tandems lacked is also a deficit on the current team: scoring balance or, at least, reasonable support from other lines and combinations. Had the best Leaf trio from a year ago performed at a comparable level, this team might be closer to challenging for a division title than a bottom playoff seeding. Unfortunately for Burke; coach Ron Wilson and the legion of Blue and White supporters, Mikhail Grabovski has blown hot and cold; a sequence of interruptions has limited streaky Clarke MacArthur to 12 goals in 40 games (none in the past seven), and Nikolai Kulemin has been invisible in a contract year. As such, Kessel and Lupul have received only a trace of support; not nearly enough to sustain the club as an offensive threat.
The other deficit has come between the pipes – disappointingly for Leaf fans but not a colossal surprise. Any reasonable projection for James Reimer would have included the caveat of sophomore difficulty – even before a head and neck injury cost him a quarter of the schedule. I’m confident [more-so than others] that Reimer will regain much of what he offered in his exceptional rookie year, though it seems unlikely to happen before next season. Therefore, raise your hands – both of you – that figured Jonas Gustavsson to be the Leafs’ No. 1 goalie 48 games into the current season. Less than three months ago – in early-November – it appeared Gustavsson had played his way off the team; Ben Scrivens briefly dropping him to third on the organizational depth-chart. Kudos to the Monster for scrambling back, but this wasn’t the pre-season goaltending recipe in Leaf Land, was it?
JONAS GUSTAVSSON LOOKS ON AS CANADIENS CELEBRATE LARS ELLER’S GOAL AT 11:25 OF THE THIRD PERIOD ON SATURDAY THAT PROVIDED MONTREAL ITS FINAL MARGIN OF VICTORY. (Abelimages/NHL.com)
Consequently, what do you believe is not happening for the Blue and White that reasonably should be? I can’t think of much. This is essentially a two-forward team with a big, mobile defense prone to error, and an arrangement between the red-painted iron that conjures mystery each night. Do you really think Burke can reverse that with a lone, significant deal (providing there’s one to be made)? Or, is the tricky building process simply one that requires additional time and more of this region’s legendary patience?
Tough as it may be to swallow, the only rational option – barring the unforeseen – is Door No. 2. And that’s why a late-January loss at home to a foundering rival should not send the edginess of Leafs Nation spiralling out of control. There is way too much company in the standings.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]