By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 5) – Though a defensive malaise has been holding back the Maple Leafs for as long as anyone can remember, the club right now is either too small or not skilled enough at the key center-ice position. An upgrade is essential.
Tyler Bozak flourished nicely this season alongside Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk while Nazem Kadri, the club’s most talented pivot, struggled with mostly incompatible line-mates. Peter Holland and Trevor Smith filled in adequately but neither is a top-six forward. Dave Bolland and Jay McClement are legitimate big-leaguers – both heading toward unrestricted free agency next month. We can therefore assume Leafs will try to add at least one established center-man before training camp.
Depending on how the roster shakes down, the open market could provide Maple Leafs with several good options. Those that visit this site with any regularity will know that I’ve been on the Paul Stastny bandwagon for three years now – even while so many others contended he had lost his offensive touch. Turning 29 next month, Stastny is in his prime hockey years and coming off a very good season at Colorado with 25 goals and 60 points in 71 games. If the Avalanche chooses not to (or cannot afford to) re-sign Stastny, he’ll be the plumb of the UFA contingent in July. Another $6-million-per-season contract is not out of the question. Leafs would probably have to move out a big salary to obtain Stastny but he’d be an absolutely ideal component for the club.
PAUL STASTNY: POTENTIAL CREAM OF THE UFA CROP.
Veterans David Legwand and Derek Roy are also available and serviceable, though well past their prime. If fully healed from surgery to repair a torn labrum, Mike Santorelli could be enticing. Now 28, Santorelli was preforming strongly with Vancouver Canucks (10-18-28 in 49 games) before suffering his shoulder injury. He played well against the Leafs on several occasions while a member of the Florida Panthers.
My sense is that Bolland will look around after July 1 and probably find a taker elsewhere. If the price is reasonable, Toronto will re-sign McClement. But that still leaves a prime hole up the middle – one the club must fill with a gifted player if it wants to move into contention.
Paul Stastny could be there for the taking.
SKYDOME BASEBALL OPENER
The first baseball game at SkyDome – now Rogers Centre – was played 25 years ago tonight (June 5, 1989) between the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers. The visitors prevailed, 5-3. Toronto left-hander Jimmy Key threw the first pitch to Paul Molitor of the Brewers. Four years later, Molitor would be MVP of the World Series for the Blue Jays, who defended their championship in ’93 against Philadelphia.
Here is the official program from 25 years ago tonight with some contents – including several ads that reflect the era technologically.
THE NEXT MORNING
COVER OF THE TORONTO SUN – TUESDAY, JUNE 6, 1989.
AND WHAT ABOUT TODAY?
SPORTSNET TV IMAGE
BASEBALL’S HOTTEST TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays are commemorating the historic first night at SkyDome with one of the greatest streaks in franchise history. After sweeping Detroit Tigers to end a three-game series this afternoon at Comerica Park (above), Toronto has the third-best record in the Major Leagues – 37-24 .607 – trailing only San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. The Jays have won five in a row; are 14-2 in their past 16 games and an astounding 25-7 since the beginning of May. Blue Jays lead the Majors with 84 home runs – nine more than Colorado and 58 more than Kansas City, the team with the fewest. Left-handed starter Mark Buehrle leads the Majors in victories with 10. Might there be meaningful September baseball here in Toronto for the first time in 21 years? Long way to go, but it sure looks promising.
SO LONG TO POPEYE
Don Zimmer, one of the most beloved figures in the history of baseball, died Wednesday at 83. Veteran baseball and hockey writer Mike Shalin passed along these words about the man they called Popeye:
BOSTON – My buddy, Howard Berger, asked me to pound out a few words on the passing of Don Zimmer. Howard thought I was close with this near-legendary figure. I wasn’t. But anyone who talked to Zim even once knew enough to say a few words about him.My first connection with Zimmer was when I was an 8-year-old. Zim was a member of the miserable 1962 Mets, a team that would go 40-120 with a collection of cuddly has-beens that included Zim, Gil Hodges and Marvelous Marv Throneberry. Even watching as a little kid, I knew Zimmer, who actually appeared in only 14 games for Casey Stengel’s team (and went 4-for-52 for an .077 average), was different even then – he didn’t LOOK like an athlete. Later on in both our lives, Zim continued to look different, but the legend grew as he stayed in the game for the rest of his life. He managed in Boston when I was still living and working in New York and had a famed battle with Boston radio talk show host Glen Ordway. He won a ton of games as the Red Sox manager but was also presiding over the collapse of 1978 – and he was the manager when Bucky Dent hit the playoff home run, a chip shot over the Green Monster by a guy who didn’t hit homers. On opening day the following year, Zimmer looked out at the wall, his round face and uttered the famous words, “Bucky Bleepin’ Dent.” Years later, Zim was a Yankee coach and we were talking around the batting cage (he never turned down the chance to talk) before a game. I asked him about coming back to Fenway and off he went. I’m paraphrasing but it went something like this: “Wanna hear something funny?” Zim said. “I’m renting Bucky’s house in New Jersey.” OK, that was funny enough. But there was more. “I walk into the bedroom and there hanging right over the bed was a picture of that bleepin’ homer,” said Zimmer. “Right there in the bedroom. “I was pissed. So I made sure I stained his white shag rug.” He laughed. There was always a laugh when Zim held court. The man loved the game so much. It and horse racing were the only things he knew. Oh, and family. He LOVED his family. So long, Zim – the baseball world will miss you!!! – MIKE SHALIN
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