By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 15) – It required 82 regular season and 26 playoff games – 8½ months of grueling hockey – for Jeff Carter to deliver a message to which the Toronto Maple Leafs and their gaggle of loyal fans should pay particular attention.
Moments after Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup Friday night, Carter was being interviewed on the ice at Staples Center by Scott Oake of Hockey Night In Canada. Toward the end of their chat, Oake asked Carter what it took for the Kings to overcome near-historic odds in the first round of the playoffs and win their second championship in three years. Carter answered quickly and unequivocally. “Management brought in character players who buy into the coach’s system,” he said.
JEFF CARTER BEING INTERVIEWED BY SCOTT OAKE AT STAPLES CENTER AFTER LOS ANGELES KINGS WON THE STANLEY CUP IN DOUBLE-OVERTIME FRIDAY NIGHT. CBC IMAGE
Such words should ring loudly in this hockey town. Given the Maple Leafs had absolutely no character during an epic collapse late in the season – and appeared to almost resist whatever coaching system Randy Carlyle had in place – it is crystal-clear what Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis should be pursuing this summer. While Leaf followers hope for nothing less than a big off-season splash (the acquisition of at least one star player), management would be much wiser to assemble three or four components that embody determination and a will to thrive under pressure. With no such ingredients, it is difficult to imagine – at this juncture – the Maple Leafs performing any differently next season when encountering a crisis… particularly in March and April.
Clearly, there will be change between now and October. It should have started behind the bench, but it didn’t. So, amendments will be confined to the playing roster. In my view, Shanahan and Nonis must avoid being blinded by the “star” syndrome. Leafs have enough such elements at the forward position and a trio of enticing prospects (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Matt Finn) on the blue-line. What the club desperately needs is an infusion of integrity, leadership and clutch performance.
The Conn Smythe Trophy this spring was not won by the most gifted player on the L.A. Kings. Instead, Justin Williams copped the award for his knack of exponentially flourishing in the Stanley Cup tournament. There is not a considerable difference between first and fourth-line elements of the Cup champs. With the Maple Leafs, that gap is enormous and the most talented players wilt under pressure. The former component has to change because the latter probably will not.
That’s why it’s an exceptionally good idea for Nonis to try and swap Dion Phaneuf to a team that would enable Leafs to move up in the NHL draft order. Such a trade with Florida Panthers for the first overall selection has been rumored. Phaneuf is a horse of a defenseman with the stamina to play big minutes. There is, however, a noticeable difference between quantity and quality of minutes. Phaneuf could not provide the latter in the final weeks of the season (though he was hardly alone). As such, the Leafs would likely benefit from addition by subtraction. Nonis should understand this as much as anyone.
LOS ANGELES KINGS CELEBRATE STANLEY CUP WIN ON FRIDAY. ?? TORONTO STAR IMAGES
As always, champions show the way. Good coaching communication; exceptional goaltending; the proper sprinkle of top-end talent and dependable support from a half-dozen players of lesser ability equals a Stanley Cup. Leafs have the goaltending and talent. But, they’re missing the intangibles. Jeff Carter unwittingly spoke on their behalf.
UNFULFILLED EXCITEMENT AND PROMISE
It was supposed to be different. But, it turned into a microcosm of the post-1967 Toronto Maple Leafs. When the hockey club – under general manager Jim Gregory – assembled such good young players as Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Errol Thompson, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull and, as it turned out, Mike Palmateer, there existed a great deal of anticipation here in Toronto. A few months earlier, in the spring of 1976, the Leafs had developed enough swagger and confidence to extend the two-time Stanley Cup-champion Philadelphia Flyers through seven games of an exhausting Stanley Cup quarterfinal. When Sittler scored the overtime winning goal in the inaugural Canada Cup tournament of September 1976, it seemed a harbinger of continued development for the Maple Leafs. Instead, there was enormous disappointment.
A 1-5-2 stagger from the gate in the 1976-77 season deflated virtually all of the enthusiasm among Leaf supporters. Upon reflection, there was a silver lining, as Gregory and coach Red Kelly quickly agreed on a necessary change in goaltending. Wayne Thomas could not duplicate his fine performance in 64 starts the previous year. As such, the Maple Leafs promoted Palmateer to the big club and he stopped the bleeding.
In my continuing look at NHL Pages-of-the-Past, I take you through my scrapbooks from early in the ’76-77 season. I turned 18 in February 1977 and it was the only year prior to my radio days in which I attended every Maple Leafs home game (exhibition, regular season and playoffs), 47 in all. Leafs began the season for the second time against the NHL expansion team that played out of Kansas City in 1974-75 and 1975-76. The Scouts played their first-ever game at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 9, 1974. After compiling a sickly record of 27-110-23 over two seasons, the franchise moved to Denver and became the Colorado Rockies.
That’s where Leafs traveled to open the Rockies’ first season at McNichols Sports Arena – adjacent to old Mile High Stadium.
This is the first of two parts:
GAME 1: Toronto at Colorado – Oct. 5, 1976.
GAME 2: Boston at Toronto – Oct. 9, 1976.
GAME 3: Los Angeles at Toronto – Oct. 13, 1976.
GAME 4: Toronto at Boston – Oct. 15, 1976.
GAME 5: Philadelphia at Toronto – Oct. 16, 1976.
GAME 6: Pittsburgh at Toronto – Oct. 20, 1976.
GAME 7: Toronto at Montreal – Oct. 21, 1976.
GAME 8: New York Islanders at Toronto – Oct. 23, 1976.
GAME 9: Minnesota at Toronto – Oct. 27, 1976.
GAME 10: Toronto at Detroit – Oct. 28, 1976.
HOCKEY’S ALL-TIME GREATEST PLAYER MOVED FROM BOSTON BRUINS TO CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS IN 1976-77. HIS CRIPPLED KNEES ALLOWED HIM TO APPEAR IN JUST 20 GAMES FOR THE HAWKS. HERE ARE SUMMARIES FROM TWO OF THEM.
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