Leafs Perfect But Haven’t “Started”

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 6) – It’s an old gripe on my part; familiar to those that regularly populate this corner. And, it was right there in one of the local dailies after the Maple Leafs defeated Montreal, 4-3, to win their season opener Tuesday night:

LEAFS GOOD START COMES WITH MIXED REVIEWS

Yes, with 81 games remaining in the National Hockey League season, Leafs were off to a good “start.” This was an argument in which ex-Leaf coach Ron Wilson and I were completely on the same page. I think it began in the opening weeks of the 2009-10 schedule, when Wilson could not extort a single triumph from the Blue and White. Leafs staggered to an 0-7-1 record before winning a game in Anaheim 26 nights into the season. The coach – claiming he pushed the re-set button (to no avail) after the third or fourth loss – grew resentful toward those in the media that questioned his club’s terrible “start.”

Same applied a year later – this time after a 4-0 burst from the gate. Reporters and headline writers gushed over the Leafs breathtaking “start” with a mere 78 games left on the schedule. After practice one day at MasterCard Centre, I finally asked Wilson for his definition of a “start” to the hockey season. “I’d say 16 to 18 games,” the coach replied. “That takes us to – and a bit beyond – the one-fifth point of the schedule. By then, we have a pretty good handle on our team.”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

NAZEM KADRI AND CARL GUNNARSSON OF THE MAPLE LEAFS CELEBRATE A GOAL DURING 5-4 VICTORY OVER OTTAWA IN 2013-14 HOME OPENER SATURDAY NIGHT. SENATORS CAPTAIN JASON SPEZZA IS NOT AS HAPPY. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

The 4-0 “start” in 2010-11 catapulted Leafs all the way to tenth place in the Eastern Conference – a full eight points shy of playoff territory. The 2011-12 season “started” with a 4-0-1 record and ended with the club 13th in the East – 12 gargantuan points out of the playoffs. Noticeable improvement in the lockout-shortened term under Randy Carlyle adds credence to the 3-0 surge from the gate this year, but Leafs are nowhere close to “starting” the season. As per Wilson’s premise, that will come – at the earliest – on Fri. Nov. 8, when New Jersey invades Air Canada Centre for Game 16 on Hall of Fame weekend.

VERY PERTINENT TOPIC TODAY in Steve Simmons’ Toronto Sun notes column, wondering about the ominous relationship between Carlyle and young, talented defenseman Jake Gardiner. In the playoffs last spring, there were moments when Gardiner looked equal parts Bobby Orr and Raymond Bourque. Burgeoning confidence and blatant disregard for the challenge of his first Stanley Cup experience allowed Gardiner to unnerve Boston Bruins with his skating and puck-moving skill. After a mostly erratic sophomore season, it appeared he had come of age as an optimal threat on the blue line. Not so fast, apparently.

Gardiner followed with a dismal training camp and exhibition schedule and has spent prolonged time on the Leaf bench in the opening week. Normally, this would be of minimal concern, as Carlyle is a seasoned coach and one-time Norris Trophy winner in the NHL with Pittsburgh. He has a fairly sound grip on the defense position and Gardiner plays an attacking game similar to Carlyle’s best years in the early-80’s. Teacher and pupil should therefore mesh rather nicely. I do, however, have some concern about Carlyle’s patience, or occasional lack thereof. What threat does it pose to the Leafs if Carlyle determines he doesn’t “like” a particular athlete – personally and/or professionally?

In the example of Mikhail Grabovski, it led to a very questionable buyout for a team that is not overly gifted with soft hands up the middle. Grabovski isn’t likely to run up 140 points this season in Washington (his early pace), but he has made an immediate impact. If healthy; frequently on the ice with reigning Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, and properly nurtured by coach Adam Oates, it would not be difficult for Grabovski to surpass his career-best mark of 58 points with the Leafs in 2010-11.

Gardiner is considered by many – myself included – a cornerstone of the Blue and White; along with Cody Franson and Morgan Rielly, potentially one-third of an enviable nucleus on the back end. But, not overnight. Gardiner still has much to learn about the defensive responsibility of a Top 4 player at the position. Leafs have to strike a delicate balance between demanding such acuity and detracting from Gardiner’s flair for skating with and head-manning the puck.

What if Carlyle becomes disgruntled with Gardiner’s progress and concludes he doesn’t “like” the youngster? Leafs GM David Nonis has bent over backward to provide Carlyle his brand of player – buying out Grabovski; allowing Clarke MacArthur to walk in free agency; yielding three draft picks for David Bolland and granting plucky David Clarkson a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. Would Nonis wave the white flag on Gardiner if the blue-liner doesn’t evolve quickly enough for Carlyle?

It’s certainly a fair question.

THOUGH PERVERSELY ENTERTAINING, I’m not sure why anyone familiar with Patrick Roy was surprised by his coaching debut melt-down in Denver on Wednesday night. Roy reacted violently to an accusation by Anaheim counterpart Bruce Boudreau that he was talking trash with Ducks players – assaulting the glass partition between the benches while yelling obscenities at Boudreau. Afterward, he met reporters and called Boudreau “classless” for apparently fabricating such a claim.

COLORADO AVALANCHE COACH PATRICK ROY LOSING HIS MIND OPPOSITE BRUCE BOUDREAU AT THE PEPSI CENTER IN DENVER WEDNESDAY NIGHT. CBC IMAGE

Roy, you should know, is a bit of a lunatic. He was as a player and apparently will be as a coach. The trait was brutally apparent in his son, Jonathan, who was charged with assault after going ballistic on an opponent while tending goal for the junior Quebec Ramparts in March 2008. Video of the crazed onslaught made TV headlines across North America. Jonathan plead guilty; expressed remorse, and was somehow granted an absolute discharge by a provincial court judge.

The game I’ll pay top dollar to see is on Sunday, Dec. 8, when Colorado plays at Vancouver – marking the first coaching encounter between Roy and equally maniacal John Tortorella. For good measure, I hope the New York Post sends Larry Brooks to cover the match.

WATCHING THE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS late Saturday night brought to mind the adventures I’ve had in the Oakland Coliseum. By far the most memorable was covering Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series when Roberto Alomar of the Blue Jays smacked that legendary home run to right field off Dennis Eckersley. But, neither will I forget my first-ever visit to the Coliseum in August 1978.

I was in California for the first time on a trip with my life-long pal, Jeffrey Spiegelman. We were staying in San Francisco but decided to take the BART train across the Bay into Oakland. As grade schoolers in the late-60’s and early-70’s, Jeff and I would often have sleep-overs when the Maple Leafs were playing in Los Angeles and Oakland. No such games were televised back then; instead, we would listen to the radio – beginning at 11 p.m. Eastern – as Bill Hewitt or Ron Hewat called the action on CKFH-1430 (now Sportsnet-590). Almost never were we able to stay awake for the entire match.

During that summer trip in ’78, Jeff and I vowed to see the Los Angeles Forum and Oakland Coliseum-Arena, where the Kings and Seals played. Thus our journey across San Francisco Bay. Adjacent to the arena in Oakland was (and still is) the stadium in which the baseball A’s and football Raiders played (and still do). Security wasn’t exactly of post-9/11 measure and we simply wandered through an open gate onto the grass field at the Coliseum. You can imagine what it was like for a pair of 19-year-old’s to be standing – alone, we thought – in the stadium where Reggie Jackson and the A’s had won three consecutive World Series earlier in the decade, and where John Madden, Ken Stabler and the NFL Raiders played their home games.

We were walking about in disbelief and taking photos of one another when a loud voice boomed toward us from the upper deck beyond the left-field foul pole. It was a man – clearly, a stadium employee – ordering us, in no uncertain terms, off the field. This joker was 300 feet and four stadium levels in the distance, so we first ignored him, and then defied the agitated man by grabbing our crotches. Like I said, we were 19.

Finally, the man gave up and disappeared through a ramp in the top deck. Even if he was coming after us, Jeff and I figured we had four or five more minutes to enjoy the remarkable surrounding. Not 30 seconds later, however, did the sprinkler system beneath the Coliseum grass gush to life – absolutely drenching us. Every square-inch of the field was being cascaded upon, so we had no refuge. Running for our lives through the same gate in which entered the ballpark, Jeff and I endured a rather uncomfortable train ride back to San Francisco.

FIELD AT THE OAKLAND COLISEUM (ABOVE) WAS BONE-DRY LATE IN SATURDAY NIGHT’S AMERICAN LEAGUE PLAYOFF GAME BETWEEN THE A’s AND DETROIT TIGERS. IT WAS NOT SO DRY 35 YEARS AND TWO MONTHS AGO, AFTER A COUPLE OF ADVENTUROUS TORONTONIANS CRASHED THE STADIUM. TBS/SPORTSNET IMAGE

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