By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (May 5) – Methinks the Toronto Raptors stole some hearts the past couple of weeks – and not by accident. For a brief time, this was an all-basketball city. With the Maple Leafs golfing (as usual); the Blue Jays’ arson squad blowing monumental leads and new-and-improved Toronto FC looking like old-and-decrepit Toronto FC, the Raptors took center-stage.
And, damn, it was fun.
More on that in a few moments.
But, now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
With the Maple Leafs’ high command huddling in Las Vegas this week (tough, huh?) – and with no more local basketball to interrupt – Brendan Shanahan is expected to put his first stamp on the team as president. Or, will he? With no indication that general manager David Nonis is to be stripped of authority, Shanahan has but one bullet: To insist on a new direction at ice level. That is clearly his prerogative and Nonis should be minimally despaired in having to hire his own man to coach the club (he inherited Randy Carlyle from Brian Burke; Shanahan inherited Nonis and Carlyle). If Shanahan is somehow content, the lethargic, spiritless team of March/April 2014 will return with the same fundamental leadership… plus a layer of expensive icing. And, perception of the Shanahan hiring as another distracting, whimsical measure will kick into overdrive.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS COACH RANDY CARLYLE.
Look, I’ll be the last person to tell you the Leafs do not require significant change on the ice. Given my expectation at the beginning of the season, it surprised me that Leafs fell apart so completely. But, the evidence was hardly circumstantial. This was a team without resolve and with no apparent willingness to absorb its coach’s strategy – in both ways, the antithesis of its basketball brethren. While Raptors responded to the pastoral leadership of Dwane Casey, the Leafs tuned out Carlyle. The look of complete exasperation on Carlyle’s face every time another goal went in was unmistakable. It said, “Don’t these knuckleheads get it?!” Well, apparently not. And, a GM in the National Hockey League today understands that flipping over a roster is hardly an option – particularly among such teams as the Maple Leafs that have locked up their playing nucleus and are faced with significant cap issues.
Barring an unlikely (though not impossible) trade, Dion Phaneuf returns as captain; Phil Kessel as most talented scorer; Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak up front; Tim Gleason and Carl Gunnarsson on defense; Jonathan Bernier in goal. With one or two exceptions, Leafs will be constructed around the aforementioned. That’s nine players with a combined cap hit of $43.95 million. Given the anticipated ceiling of $71.1 million, it leaves Nonis $27.15 million for 14 roster positions (less than $2 million per). Among them is Jay McClement and Jake Gardiner. The former should be retained at a reasonable cost; the latter comes off entry level and will expect a raise. So, it’s unlikely that any superstars will be joining Leafs in the off-season. With six unrestricted and two restricted free agents, a shuffle of interchangeable parts is assured. A face-changing overhaul is not.
Fundamental revision must therefore be obtained elsewhere. And, if the general manager is to remain in place (as it all-but certainly appears), the coach is last man standing. If Shanahan and Nonis agree that Carlyle will return, how can the Leafs be expected to perform much differently? What is there – beyond hope – for hockey’s most loyal fans to conclude that another late-season catastrophe can be avoided?
At least a fighting chance would be attained with a new voice behind the bench. This is not to castigate Carlyle or to suggest he wouldn’t quickly find another NHL job if the Leafs were to make a change. The man has a resume. He simply doesn’t fit with the composition of his team – and neither is that completely his fault. But, retaining the status quo in upper-management; coaching and (largely) on the ice doesn’t seem like a palatable option. It does seem like the path of least resistance and – if so – why again was Shanahan brought aboard?
We should have some answers soon.
RAPTORS WERE SPLENDID
Getting into basketball has always been difficult for me because of the way it overlaps with hockey. That wasn’t an issue – locally – in the past couple of weeks. And, what a kick it was to watch a Toronto sports team that refuses to surrender. Given what the Leafs coughed up late in the season, the Raptors were particularly appealing – and contrasting – while they battled the Brooklyn Nets to the final play of a remarkable best-of-seven series. Even casual sports fans around here went basketball-crazy… and for all the right reasons. Whether or not the Raptors can build on their impressive charge remains to be seen (re-signing Kyle Lowry is obviously paramount) but the club took a giant step by securing Dwane Casey as head coach for three more years. Again, and as is custom at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Casey was inherited by new GM Masai Ujiri. Unlike their hockey cousins, however, the Raptors got better as the season progressed and left no indication they are in need of a new voice or direction on the side-line.
MONDAY NEWSPAPER IMAGES
NO CONSPIRACY: As mentioned in an earlier blog, I really enjoyed watching the Raptors playoff games on TSN. Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong personified the passion of the entire city (perhaps the country) in the seven-game clash. Matt and Jack are a superb tandem and they serve the club very well. The only puzzling aspect of the telecast – to me – was the repeated harping on the officials and the notion that the men-in-stripes were somehow against a Canadian team advancing beyond the first round. I have never ascribed to a conspiracy theory involving officials – in any sport. There was, in my view, nothing atypical about the Toronto-Brooklyn series. Both teams moaned loudly about the officiating – as is custom in any sport – and Nets coach Jason Kidd took a $25,000 hit for his remarks after Game 5.
JACK ARMSTRONG (GREY SUIT) AND MATT DEVLIN ON TSN.
My ol’ pal Jack was particularly focused on the officials throughout the series and on the perceived “unfair” treatment of the Raptors. Again, his passion was delightful and I thought he crossed the line only twice: When he called Kevin Garnett of Brooklyn “a jerk” in Game 6 and when he said the officiating in Game 7 was “a disgrace.” Jack’s an old basketball coach so his loathing of referees is understandable. It’s in his DNA. But, even he knows – albeit deep down – the officials had nothing to do with Brooklyn prevailing. I mean, think about it: If there was even the most covert, unspoken desire among the men-in-stripes for Nets to eliminate the Raptors, how could the NBA account for Lowry having the series in his hands with 6.2 seconds to go? And, if the league did conspire for the Nets to move on, just imagine how the Raptors would have been pre-destroyed against LeBron James and Co. in the next round. Miami is the NBA’s meal ticket. It just doesn’t make sense.
Finally, God bless Aubrey “Drake” Graham for his involvement with the Raptors and for gaining world-wide acclaim in his role as a rap artist and songwriter. A Toronto native, Drake has helped to keep our city on the map. But, the TV shots of him standing alongside Dwane Casey grew old. I guess it’s a basketball thing – the actor, Jack Nicholson, has long sat beside the visiting bench at Los Angeles Lakers games and the obnoxious movie producer, Spike Lee, has goaded the opposition for years on behalf of the New York Knicks. It becomes tiring and it certainly could not be incorporated elsewhere. Given the staid and mostly traditional Maple Leafs, it’s difficult, for example, to envision Gordon Lightfoot standing beside Carlyle and lambasting the officials. Drake and Lightfoot are best on stage or in a recording studio.
RACISM CUTS HARD: Though P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens graciously dealt with the Twitter nonsense last week, it’s difficult to believe he wasn’t wounded by the bigoted posts.
Here’s a passage from a book written in 2011 by Georges Laraque – a fellow black NHLer who also skated with the Habs. When talking about the frequency of hearing the word “nigger” in his youth, Laraque wrote: “I’ve always been a very sensitive person, which means that every insult, every act of racism I was the victim of, hurt deep inside. But, my pride was stronger. I didn’t want anyone to see or even think that the xenophobic comments and attitudes were doing any harm to me. I would keep my anger and sadness inside until late at night – alone in my room – [when] I would cry my eyes out.”
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