Leaf Fans Losing the Love

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 20) – Somethin’ is changin’ in Leafs Nation.

After years – even decades – of falling and remaining unconditionally in love with players wearing the blue and white, the ground is finally beginning to shift. And, not so subtly. It is borne of exasperation; of hope and promise gone awry. As George Allen – legendary coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins – used to say: “The future is now.”

A small, yet profound, sample-size occurred to me as I fielded reaction to my blog on Friday – suggesting the Maple Leafs ought to trade with Colorado for sluggish veteran Paul Stastny. Concern over the idea focused on the apparent decline of Stastny as an elite, play-making center with the Avalanche – having rung up season totals of 79, 78 and 71 points between 2006-07 and 2009-10. Given that Stastny has only one year remaining on the $6.6 million-per-season contract he inked in the summer of ’09 – and that Colorado unquestionably ranks Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly ahead of him on the depth chart – I proposed a deal that would bring Stastny to the Leafs for Nikolai Kulemin, Carl Gunnarsson and a third-round draft pick.

In the majority of years past, any such notion would have unleashed a torrent of defiance and dismay over Leafs potentially breakin’ up the old gang. Never was this more apparent than in the summer of 2006, when a preponderance of Leaf rooters declared on-line distress over the potential of John Ferguson trading Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to Edmonton for Chris Pronger.

OH, WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, LEAFS NATION.

The first-ballot Hall of Fame defenseman – having led the Oilers to a shocking Stanley Cup engagement with Carolina – asked out of northern Alberta for reasons still debated. A league-wide auction ensued with Brian Burke ultimately prevailing in Anaheim – shipping Joffrey Lupul; Ladislav Smid; a first-round draft pick in 2007 and a second-rounder in 2008 to the Oilers for Pronger on July 3, 2006. Eleven months and three days later, Burke triumphantly elevated the Stanley Cup on the ice at Honda Center – his team having vanquished the Ottawa Senators in five games.

Though other components may have been involved, every dispatch of information concluded the Leafs could have landed Pronger had Ferguson ceded to Kevin Lowe’s demand for Steen and Colaiacovo. When Fergie refused, the sigh of relief around here could have toppled a redwood.

Not anymore.

With Leafs having finally broken a franchise-record playoff drought of seven years, the inclination toward  change – tough and emotional though it may be – is stronger than at any time in recent memory. And, Leafs may have the model custodian in general manager David Nonis.

Whereas Ferguson, in the near-complete absence of job security, felt most comfortable re-upping with players – Alex Ponikarovski, Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov, Tomas Kaberele and Bryan McCabe among those he retained after losing had set in – Nonis appears not to have a sentimental bone in his body. Which is precisely the doctrine required by a good general manager in the NHL, particularly while functioning in the complex, salary cap era.

In my blog on Friday, I wrote about the Maple Leafs advancing to a level whereby they could follow the Chicago Blackhawks’ blueprint. That model requires identifying and securing a cadre of three to five young, elite players, at the likely expense of other functional components.

After kocking off Philadelphia to win the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Hawks concluded that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook had to be locked up, come hell or high water. It cost Stan Bowman the services of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and goalie Antti Niemi – all of whom had been critical to Chicago ending its 49-year championship drought.

Blackhawks took the assumed hit and went into decline for a couple of seasons. But, look where they are now.

As we observed this year, the Leafs are well on their way to amassing a nucleus of indispensable players. Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel and Jake Gardiner could embody 60% of the unit, providing Nonis believes, long term, in Kessel, who has one year remaining on his current pact. The fourth spot is reserved for Morgan Rielly, considered a potential superstar on the blue line. I’m intentionally omitting Joffrey Lupul – already secured for three more years – as he turns 30 in September. Core players in this model have to be in their 20’s. Currently missing, in my vehement opinion, from Leafs’ group is a front-line, play-making center. To wit: Paul Stastny and spot number five.

What particularly impressed me about the torrent of reaction to my Friday blog was how Leaf fans no longer seem attached to players. There was much debate over Stastny, and whether he’d be the optimal addition, but hardly any fuss over manipulating other elements to effectuate the Chicago design. Under the salary cap, I warned that Leafs would also have to relinquish players integral to the current team: Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Dion Phaneuf, Matt Frattin, James van Riemsdyk and John-Michael Liles perhaps among them. A couple of people called me nuts, but many more understood that tough calls are material to progress and prosperity in today’s NHL.

In summation, I believe Nonis would do very well this summer by trading Kulemin and Gunnarsson for Stastny; obtaining David Clarkson through a preemptive deal, or in free agency; hanging onto Bozak only at a figure well beneath his expected asking price of $5 to $6 million and considering Mikhail Grabovski for an amnesty buy-out if Bozak returns.

I maintain that now is the perfect time and opportunity for Leafs to acquire Stastny – rather dormant on a mediocre team in Colorado that is bound to have cap issues in the next calendar year. It’s difficult for me to believe that Stastny – at 27 – has lost his inherent skill as a playmaker and presence around the goal. Anyone that watched his commanding performance on behalf of the United States at the World Hockey Championships last week would concur. Stastny tied for the tournament scoring lead with 15 points. And, that is my point: a fresh, invigorating challenge could easily restore the brilliance we saw from him, not long ago, in his early NHL seasons.

As for the outlay – well, you already know that Kulemin (14 goals in 181 games) needs a uniform change as much as Stastny and that Gunnarsson will be Leafs’ sixth defenseman within two years.

You ain’t bitchin’ about it, either. 

U.S.A. CAPTAIN PAUL STASTNY SETS UP A GOAL BY MIKE STAPLETON AGAINST LATVIA AT THE I.I.H.F. WORLD HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIPS LAST WEEK IN STOCKHOLM. STASTNY TIED FOR THE TOURNAMENT SCORING LEAD WITH 15 POINTS.

ALWAYS DREAD THE RED

   

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IT SOUNDS FAR-FETCHED – PERHAPS, EVEN SILLY – BUT A “SURVIVOR’S” STANLEY CUP BETWEEN DETROIT AND OTTAWA IS  HARDLY BEYOND IMAGINATION. RED WINGS, IN THE POST-SEASON WITHOUT NICK LIDSTROM FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1992, HANDED CHICAGO ITS MOST CONVINCING LOSS OF THE SEASON ON SATURDAY. THE 4-1 VICTORY AT UNITED CENTER  THAT EVENED THE WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL 1-1 WAS NO FLUKE. DETROIT OUT-SHOT THE BLACKHAWKS 30-20 AND CARRIED THE PLAY ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY AFTER PATRICK KANE’S FIRST-PERIOD GOAL. NOW, THE WINGS ARE AT HOME FOR TWO GAMES, BEGINNING TONIGHT (7:30 EDT, CBC/NBC SPORTS NETWORK), AND THE BEST TEAM FROM POLE TO POLE IN THE REGULAR SCHEDULE IS SUDDENLY UP AGAINST IT. LET’S SEE HOW THE HAWKS RESPOND.  

TRIUMPHANT RED WINGS AND DISAPPOINTED BLACKHAWKS AFTER SATURDAY’S 4-1 DETROIT ROMP IN GAME 2 OF WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL AT THE UNITED CENTER. PIERRE McGUIRE INTERVIEWS CAPTAIN HENRIK ZETTERBERG AFTERWARD. NEVER COUNT OUT THE WINGED WHEELERS. NBC IMAGES

CAPITAL GAIN

IT CAME AS QUITE A SURPRISE TO TV VIEWERS SUNDAY NIGHT WHEN DANIEL ALFREDSSON OF OTTAWA SCORED SHORTHANDED AT SCOTIABANK PLACE WITH 29 SECONDS LEFT IN REGULATION TO RUIN A SHUT-OUT BID BY TOMAS VOKOUN AND SEND GAME 3 OF THE EASTERN SEMIFINAL INTO OVERTIME. QUICK NOTE TO PENGUIN FAN: DO NOT BE TAKEN ABACK BY THE SENATORS, WHO PERFORMED MARVELOUSLY ALL SEASON IN THE ABSENCE OF THEIR TWO BEST PLAYERS, ERIK KARLSSON AND JASON SPEZZA. IT TOOK AWHILE, BUT OTTAWA PREVAILED ON A GOAL BY COLIN GREENING AT 7:39 OF THE SECOND OVERTIME PERIOD AND PENGUINS NOW LEAD THE SERIES 2-1. VOKOUN REACTS (ABOVE) TO THE WINNING GOAL AND SENATORS BID ADIEU UNTIL GAME 4 ON WEDNESDAY. REMEMBER: ALWAYS DREAD THE RED. CBC IMAGES

STRAIGHT FROM THE MULLET

TWENTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, LOS ANGELES KINGS AND TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS WERE PLAYING IN THE 1993 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS. BARRY MELROSE – A LEAF DEFENSEMAN IN THE EARLY-80’s – COACHED L.A. TO A MEMORABLE, SEVEN-GAME TRIUMPH OVER THE LEAFS AND THEN LOST TO MONTREAL IN THE CUP FINAL. MELROSE, NOW AN OUTSPOKEN HOCKEY ANALYST WITH ESPN, HAS A BOOK ON THE MARKET (JACKET-PHOTO ABOVE) IN WHICH HE CANDIDLY WRITES ABOUT ALL ASPECTS OF THE GAME. LEAF FANS, IT APPEARS, WILL NEVER FORGET GAME 6 OF THE L.A. SERIES – AT THE OLD FORUM IN INGLEWOOD, CALIF. WITH A WIN, LEAFS WOULD HAVE ADVANCED TO THE STANLEY CUP FINAL AGAINST THE CANADIENS. IN OVERTIME, WAYNE GRETZKY FOLLOWED THROUGH WITH A SHOT AND OPENED A GASH ON THE CHIN OF LEAFS’ DOUG GILMOUR. BEING ON HAND, I REMEMBER HOW THE FORUM WENT DEATHLY QUIET, AS REFEREE KERRY FRASER AND HIS LINESMEN HUDDLED – GRETZKY’S BANISHMENT FROM THE GAME A REAL POSSIBILITY. FRASER ULTIMATELY CONCLUDED HE DIDN’T SEE THE INFRACTION AND GRETZKY SCORED THE WINNING GOAL EARLY IN OVERTIME.

IN HIS BOOK, MELROSE RECALLED THE SITUATION:

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“THEY STILL DISCUSS IT IN TORONTO. A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK GRETZKY GOT AWAY WITH A HIGH STICK ON GILMOUR THAT WASN’T CALLED. KERRY FRASER STILL TAKES HEAT ABOUT IT. BUT, HOCKEY IS THE FASTEST GAME IN THE WORLD. THINGS HAPPEN IN A SPLIT SECOND. FRASER DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING. REFS ARE TAUGHT THAT IF THEY DON’T SEE IT, THEY CAN’T CALL IT. IF THEY SEE A GUY CUT, THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO THINK SOMEONE MUST HAVE CUT HIM, AND IT MUST BE THE OPPOSING TEAM, SO THEY’LL GIVE L.A. A PENALTY? I DON’T THINK SO. FRASER DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING, SO HOW COULD HE CALL IT? I’M ALWAYS AMUSED LISTENING TO LEAFS PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THE NON-CALL LIKE IT MEANT THE SERIES. TORONTO HAD US 1-0 [IN GAMES OF THE BEST-OF-SEVEN]. THEY HAD US 3-2; LOST GAME 6, THEN GAME 7 WAS IN THEIR BUILDING AND THEY STILL COULDN’T CLOSE THE DEAL. AND [LEAF FANS] ARE BLAMING FRASER?”

HAND ME THAT WALKER

SOMEONE ASKED ME THE OTHER DAY HOW LONG I’VE BEEN SNIFFING AROUND THE LEAFS AS A QUASI-REPORTER. THE ANSWER IS BELOW – MY FIRST MEDIA CREDENTIAL FOR HOCKEY AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS (WITH HAROLD BALLARD’S AUTOGRAPH) AND MY FIRST IN RADIO, WITH CJCL AM-1430 – STILL FOUR YEARS AWAY FROM BECOMING THE FAN-1430 (LATER THE FAN-590; NOW SPORTSNET-590), CANADA’S FIRST ALL-SPORTS RADIO STATION. I WOULD TRAVEL WITH AND COVER THE LEAFS, FULL TIME, FROM 1995 TO 2010. IF SO INCLINED, YOU CAN BLAME BOB STELLICK.

“OY VEY, BLUE JAYS

  LET’S PLAY BALL!”

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS, IT CAN BE ARGUED, ENJOYED THEIR FINEST MOMENT OF THE SEASON ON SUNDAY – GETTING RAINED OUT IN NEW YORK. IT MAY HAVE PREVENTED ANOTHER CALAMITY AT YANKEE STADIUM (ABOVE), WHERE JAYS WERE THROTTLED, 7-2, ON SATURDAY (FINAL OUT, BELOW); HAVE LOST FIVE CONSECUTIVE GAMES THIS SEASON; NINE CONSECUTIVELY DATING TO LAST SEASON, AND 23 OF THEIR PAST 28 MATCHES. JAYS ARE AN INTRIGUING STUDY. HYPED BEYOND REASON BY OWNER ROGERS COMMUNICATIONS, THE TEAM HAD VIRTUALLY NO CHANCE OF LIVING UP TO ITS ADVANCE BILLING. THAT WAS EVIDENT FROM THE START.

ON TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY OF LAST WEEK, HOWEVER, JAYS TOYED WITH THE WORLD SERIES-CHAMPION SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS AT ROGERS CENTRE – SWEEPING THE MINI-SERIES BY AN AGGREGATE OF 21-9. GIVEN THE WAY GIANTS KICKED THE BALL ALL OVER THE STADIUM (COMMITTING FOUR ERRORS), ONE CAN ARGUE THEY SIMPLY CHOSE NOT TO TAKE THE FOUNDERING JAYS SERIOUSLY. NONETHELESS, TORONTO POUNDED OUT 29 HITS; BUILT UP 6-0 AND 5-1 LEADS IN THEIR FIRST AT-BATS, AND GENERALLY HUMILIATED THE DEFENDING CHAMPS. THEN THE JAYS WENT TO NEW YORK AND QUICKLY LAPSED INTO THEIR USUAL PATTERN.

HOW MUCH LONGER CAN FANS AND BASEBALL MEDIA HERE IN TORONTO CONTINUE TO FANTASIZE ABOUT THE JAYS TURNING IT AROUND? YES, WE’RE STILL IN MAY, BUT THERE IS PRECIOUS-LITTLE INDICATION – AFTER 43 GAMES – THAT WHAT WE’VE SEEN IS A MIRAGE. JAYS (17-26) ARE LAST IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST, WINNING AT A WRETCHED .395 PACE – FOURTH-WORST IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES (ONLY LOS ANGELES ANGELS, HOUSTON AND MIAMI ARE BENEATH THEM). THEY SIT 10 GAMES IN BACK OF THE DIVISION-LEADING YANKEES AND SEVEN OUT OF THE WILD-CARD CHASE. TO WIN 90 GAMES – THE ASSUMED MINIMUM FOR PLAYOFF QUALIFICATION – JAYS MUST GO 73-46 THE REST OF THE WAY. THAT’S A .613 WINNING PERCENTAGE. IN OTHER WORDS, A COMPLETE TURNABOUT. HARD TO COMPREHEND THAT IT’S EVEN REMOTELY POSSIBLE.  

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SENSE OF HUMOR INTACT?

TONIGHT MARKS ONE WEEK SINCE THE EXTRAORDINARY EVENTS OF GAME 7 IN THE MAPLE LEAFS-BRUINS OPENING-ROUND PLAYOFF SERIES. AND THOUGH I MAINTAIN IT WAS MORE OF A BOSTON COMEBACK THAN A TORONTO COLLAPSE, I COULD NOT BEAT DOWN A BELLY-LAUGH WHEN THIS WAS EMAILED TO ME:

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