Defense, Coaching Begins in Goal

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Jan. 7) – It ranks among the oldest of hockey cliches: “Give me a good goalie and I’ll show you a good coach.”

Bench masters from any era will be the first to agree. Toe Blake had Jacques Plante. Punch Imlach had Johnny Bower. Fred Shero had Bernie Parent. Scotty Bowman had Ken Dryden. Al Arbour had Billy Smith. Glen Sather had Grant Fuhr (and a bit of fire-power). Jean Perron, Jacques Demers, Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley had Patrick Roy. Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns had Martin Brodeur. No Stanley Cup-winning coach ever had Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala or Jonas Gustavsson.

As he embarks on his first full season as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Randy Carlyle preaches defensive acumen. Just as we thought he would. But, Carlyle knows – as well as any of his above-mentioned colleagues – the requirement for rock-solid dependability between the pipes. He has to reflect only 5½ years to the delight of winning a Stanley Cup in Anaheim. Though at the tail-end of his prime as a goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere put up a wall for the Ducks – as he had four years previous while earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as losing netminder in a seven-game final against New Jersey.

To the best of our knowledge, Carlyle has no-such assurance with the Leafs. It would hardly rank as a shocking development were James Reimer to provide flashes of brilliance. He did just that as an eye-popping rookie two seasons ago; in fact, two years ago right now, during a terrific road swing through Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix that garnered Ron Wilson his 600th career victory as a coach in the NHL. But, Reimer hasn’t gone through enough wars to be considered a General. For the benefit of a playoff-deprived club like the Leafs, front-line combat experience is essential.

Enter Roberto Luongo.

Whether or not you believe he is the Taj Mahal of NHL goalkeepers, there is no denying he has engaged in war-fare at the summit of hockey – prevailing with Team Canada during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and succumbing to Boston in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final. There is also no denying – as we speak – that Luongo is far-more accomplished than Reimer. In fact, there is no credibility, as yet, to any such comparison.

ROBERTO LUONGO IN ACTION AGAINST CAPTAIN DION PHANEUF AND THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS ON FEB. 18 OF LAST SEASON. VANCOUVER CANUCKS ROMPED TO A 6-2 VICTORY ON A SATURDAY NIGHT AT ROGERS ARENA. JEFF VINNICK GETTY IMAGES-NHL.COM

Acquiring Luongo from Vancouver would provide Leafs their biggest jolt of proficiency and confidence between the pipes since Curtis Joseph arrived – July 15, 1998 – as the best free agent in club history. Though Cujo had lifted Edmonton to unforeseen heights in the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs, he had neither appeared in a Cup final nor prevailed in a prime international tournament before donning a Leafs jersey. Luongo has done both.

After months of demurral – and with a condensed NHL season on the immediate horizon – Luongo has acknowledged he will accommodate the Canucks in any reasonable trade scenario. After Vancouver made it clear that Cory Schneider is the future in goal, Luongo spoke wistfully about returning to his original NHL club in Sunrise, Fla. A no-trade provision in his multi-year contract allows for such license. It appears, however, the Leafs may offer Vancouver a more appealing exchange than Florida – and that Toronto may also provide Luongo his best opportunity to a) perform regularly, and b) rescue a foundering, yet beloved team in a desperate hockey market.

The impact such a move may have on the future of general manager Brian Burke is largely irrelevant. As with anyone in his position, Burke recognizes a glaring flaw and is entrusted with the chore of improving his – and the team’s – capacity for success. Having missed the playoffs in all four of his seasons at the helm of the Blue and White, Burke may feel a heightened sense of urgency. The task, however, is no different than when he assumed the managerial reigns from Cliff Fletcher in November 2008.

An embodiment of Curtis Joseph would certainly improve matters.

COVER OF THE HOCKEY NEWS YEARBOOK AFTER LEAFS SIGNED CURTIS JOPSEPH.

Moreover, there are parallels between the current Leafs and the club Joseph signed with in 1998. Understanding he was doomed to failure with Felix Potvin between the pipes, coach Mike Murphy – en route to missing the playoffs in consecutive years behind the bench – instructed Leafs to assume a strict defensive posture; trapping in the neutral zone, a custom that evolved among many clubs back then. Potvin had shone earlier in the decade, backstopping the Leaf teams of Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark at al to Stanley Cup semifinal appearances in 1993 and 1994.

By 1997-98, however, he had glaringly declined – unable to recover, it seemed, from a bizarre moment on Nov. 17 of that season, when Al MacInnis of St. Louis sent a two-bouncer past him from centre-ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for the winning goal at 19:58 of the third period.

Determining he had no viable choice, Murphy went to a defensive system that failed miserably. With 194 goals in 82 games, Leafs were among the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL (ahead of only Chicago, Ottawa and Tampa Bay). Potvin could not compensate for such impotency and Murphy was canned after consecutive finishes in the basement of the Central Division.

The goal-scoring deficiency, however, proved a mirage.

Upon inheriting Joseph, new coach Pat Quinn – as per his inclination – turned loose the Leaf forwards, knowing Cujo would atone for inevitable mistakes. With virtually the same cast as the previous year, Leafs added 74 goals to their attack (a total of 268 ranked first in the NHL); improved by 28 points in the standings; ended a two-year playoff absence and went all the way to the Cup semifinals before losing to Buffalo. Confidence provided by Joseph enveloped the team and Quinn was runner-up to Ottawa’s Jacques Martin for the Jack Adams Trophy as NHL coach of the year.

The potential for such a turnaround cannot be ignored by Burke – or by Carlyle, who stands to most benefit from stability in goal. A puck-stopper of Luongo’s caliber would enable Carlyle’s defensive system and allow the capable Leaf attack to flourish with a measure of immunity.

Fourteen years may seem like an eternity in hockey. But, Leaf fans that remember the 1998-99 NHL season – and three years thereafter with Joseph between the pipes – should be pining for Roberto Luongo.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

TWITTER: BERGER_BYTES

FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.