Give Leafs Some Latitude

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 5) – Coaches and players in the National Hockey League have such an aversion to blaming injuries for sub-par performance, they will rarely do so even when warranted.

Allow me, hence, to go there on behalf of the Maple Leafs.

First, a disclaimer: There is absolutely no alibi for mailing in 20 minutes of hockey, as Leafs did in the opening period against San Jose on Tuesday. If anything, the compete level must rise in the absence of key players; instead, the Sharks likely enjoyed their most leisurely frame of the season thus far – crafting a 2-0 lead en route to a 4-2 triumph.

That said, Maple Leafs are in a world of hurt – literally and figuratively. A 1-4-2 record in their past seven games threatens to become the spiral that demolished playoff opportunity in years past (we’ll skip the “18-wheeler” analogy, for now). This slump, however, has been difficult to avoid, with the club’s nucleus either missing in action or playing through injury. Against San Jose, Leafs were without Nazem Kadri (whose grandfather had passed away), Joffrey Lupul, David Bolland and Cody Franson. During the match, Tyler Bozak – having just returned from a lengthy absence – re-injured himself and appeared for only a handful of shifts after the opening period (he is out again for an “extended time,” according to Leafs). Phil Kessel, playing with a tender wrist, scored a goal in the loss but had to leave practice early on Wednesday.

Among skaters, Kadri, Lupul, Bolland, Franson, Bozak and Kessel merely represent six of the Leafs’ ten most valuable assets; James van Riemsdyk, David Clarkson, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson subjectively being the others (with honorable mention to Mason Raymond). There isn’t a team in the NHL that could withstand – for any length of time – such a burden, particularly at center, where Bozak, Kadri and Bolland top the pecking order. Kadri and Franson will return for tonight’s Air Canada Centre engagement with Dallas, but Bozak, Bolland, Lupul and Kessel are out of the line-up or playing hurt.

MAPLE LEAFS HAD NO DESIRE TO ENGAGE SAN JOSE SHARKS IN THE FIRST PERIOD TUESDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. EVEN WITHOUT SEVERAL KEY PLAYERS, THERE WAS NO ACCOUNTING FOR SUCH LETHARGY. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

Leafs, therefore, deserve a bit of latitude. How much depends on your point of view. In October, before Bolland went down – long-term – with a severed ankle tendon, the club compiled one of the more deceptive 10-4-0 records in recent memory. Bionic goaltending from James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier shrouded an otherwise middling performance in which Leafs were heavily out shot and out chanced. With injuries mounting, this vulnerability has been exposed. Fatigue appears to have caught up with Reimer and Bernier – not physical weariness, but the mental wear and tear of knowing that games are lopsidedly dependent on their brilliance. For reasons that are largely unexplained – but do not reflect well on Randy Carlyle – a form of lethargy has overcome the team on many nights, particularly during the 4-7-3 slide since October.

The question is: Would a healthy Leafs team avoid such languor? No one can be certain, for the club has not yet been fully intact. Given its splendid crop of talent, however, I think it’s fair to suggest the team has been heavily compromised by aches and pains. Soldiering on during bouts of adversity often separates contenders from pretenders. Those that recall the sand-paper Leaf teams of the Pat Quinn era will concur.

The resiliency of this year’s club – even when relatively unscathed – has not been nearly as evident as it was last season. Again, that falls within Carlyle’s bailiwick. But, the coach is handcuffed, to some extent, when his top guns are unavailable. So, let’s give the Leafs a bit of time to heal before panic becomes justified. Even in this hockey town.                

IN THE YEAR 1969

The NHL was a 12-team league in the second year of expansion and space enthusiasts eagerly anticipated man walking on the moon; the late Neil Armstrong would take his “one small step” on July 20, 1969. In Part 3 of a series looking at historic photos and stories from THE HOCKEY NEWS, we take you back to January and February of the 1968-69 season. Phil Esposito of Boston was on his way to becoming the first 100-point player in NHL history and Montreal Canadiens were building toward their second consecutive Stanley Cup (defeating St. Louis). I acquired this batch of newspapers more than 20 years ago and, sadly, THE HOCKEY NEWS wrecklessly pasted the mailing address on the front page. As such, headlines and photos are partially obscured. In this segment, you will also see advertisements from the era, including promos for the various summer hockey camps. Enjoy:   

LOOK AT ATTENDANCE (ABOVE) FOR THE PHILADELPHIA AT OAKLAND GAME. IMAGINE HALL-OF-FAMER BERNIE PARENT TENDING GOAL BEFORE LESS THAN 2,000 FANS.

THE ABOVE REPORT TURNED OUT TO BE PREMATURE.

DARRYL SITTLER AND MARCEL DIONNE WERE AMONG THE TOP SCORERS IN ONTARIO JUNIOR ‘A’ WITH LONDON NATIONALS AND ST. CATHARINES BLACKHAWKS.

A NOW-FAMILIAR NAME STOOD 7th (ABOVE) IN ROCHESTER AMERICANS SCORING.

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