Leaves Are Turning – Leafs Are Chirping

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 10) – “Can we talk?”

The late Joan Rivers would have been darned proud of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The answer to her signature, comedic question is a resounding “Yes!!” No team in the National Hockey League can chat up a bigger game in August and September. Were unfounded assurance gospel, Toronto would be in the midst of a Stanley Cup dynasty rather than the longest current drought. Late-summer bombast is a ritual in these parts – players and coaches gathered for charity golf tournaments wagging an index-finger at how “unacceptable” the collapse of the previous year had been. “It won’t happen again,” they vow, claiming to have learned from the humbling experience. Then along comes March and April of the following season and… well, you know the rest.

To be fair, the Maple Leafs contingent – recycled or relatively overhauled, as in this summer – merely responds to anticipated media inquiries. And how else are the principals expected to reply?

REPORTER: “Hey, Dion, is this the year the team will finally learn to build and carry some momentum down the stretch?”

PHANEUF: “We’ll play fairly well until the last 15 or so games. If we’re within range of the playoffs, I’d say our fans should expect us to fold.”

In other cities, less enamored by hockey, there is an altogether different line of questioning. Players in Los Angeles, for example, will be queried about a potential Stanley Cup empire, should the Kings repeat as NHL champion and win for the third time in four seasons. In Boston, there will be angst over a second-round playoff upset against rival Montreal and the Bruins’ absence from at least the Stanley Cup semifinal. And, Chicago media will wonder about the Blackhawks’ perplexing inability to become Conference champion for the third time in five seasons. Here, in the self-professed “center of the hockey universe,” players, coaches and management of the Maple Leafs will be required to mull over their maximum perennial goal: Somehow avoiding another late-season demise and appearing at the bottom rung of Eastern playoff qualifiers.

It happens every year – right about now.

And, the narrative will never change until the Leafs change.

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MAPLE LEAF FANS ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO THE RETURN OF SCRAPPY LEO KOMAROV – REFUSING TO SURRENDER HERE AGAINST CHRIS KELLY OF THE BRUINS DURING THE 2013 PLAYOFFS, EVEN WHILE BLINDED BY HIS JERSEY LOGO.

TOO MUCH EMPHASIS: I give Brendan Shanahan and David Nonis a lot of credit for their work this summer in potentially narrowing the enormous gap between the top-four or five and bottom-six Leaf forwards. The acquisitions (or re-acquisitions) of Mike Santorelli, Leo Komarov, Matt Frattin, Daniel Winnick, David Booth and maybe Petri Kontiola should improve that element of the team. Other than Komarov and Kontiola, these players are cast-offs from other NHL clubs, so expectation should be moderate. But, they do bring experience. In my opinion, however, there’s a bit too much media chatter about the supporting cast.

The prime issue confronting the Maple Leafs has nothing to do with the so-called third and fourth lines. It’s that the club’s top performers are way too easy to play against and they become less difficult to oppose as challenges increase. Bottom-six forwards, though important, are named as such for a reason. They cannot carry a team. There isn’t a contender in hockey that relies on a supporting cast to the exclusion of its best players, and how they respond to the incremental burden of the marathon NHL season. In that regard, the Maple Leafs have proven to be almost hopeless. There isn’t nearly enough size at center and the most-lavishly compensated players – Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf – wilt in the clutch. I am therefore skeptical about how the improved supporting cast will influence the team.

An article in the Toronto Sun by veteran Leafs reporter Lance Hornby quoted Shanahan as saying that Kessel must maintain his 30 to 40-goal output but also “grab an ore and start rowing.” In other words, pull a Doug Gilmour and carry the team when it matters most. It’s a good thought by the Leaf president but rather wishful. Fast Phil is an exceptional talent – one of the most naturally gifted skaters and scorers in the NHL. He provides the Maple Leafs everything he can. But, his limitations are as patently noticeable as his strengths. There isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Kessel can “will” teammates into performing at a higher level in a crisis, or when the stakes intensify – either by way of his own performance or another inherent capability. So, if Shanahan is expecting such a metamorphosis, he’ll be gravely disappointed.

It’s exactly why I have pounded away here since the end of last season for Nonis to at least partially dissolve the triumvirate of Randy Carlyle, Phaneuf and Kessel. The decision was made to keep it intact – in my view, to the club’s peril. Could the situation change? The most oft-repeated cliche on Earth suggests that “anything is possible,” though evidence, again, is completely lacking. Kessel is a wonderful hockey player – as talented as they come. His shortcomings are outlined in the above paragraph. Phaneuf gobbles up big minutes and has been – in many ways – an exemplary captain. But, he makes poor decisions with the puck. And Carlyle appeared to be on a different planet from his players late last season – the blame equally shared. This core returns, hoping for a different result. After missing the playoffs eight out of nine years, the Leafs would be better off pursuing something beyond hope.

Given that Kessel and Phaneuf are locked into massive, multi-year deals, Nonis did well to improve the bottom-six forward group. It was his only option and the skaters he added might help to upgrade the Leafs appalling performance on the penalty kill. But, a hockey team’s go-to personnel determines success or failure. Its supporting rung is vital so long as it plays a support role – augmenting what the top guys contribute. By itself, it cannot lift a team into contention, nor can it be expected to. That’s why I think the Maple Leafs are still in a quandary.

GOOD LINE: During the ceremony last Friday to present surviving members of the Leafs Stanley Cup dynasty in the 60’s with rings for each title, Ron MacLean did a quick interview with Jim Pappin. It was Pappin – skating alongside Bob Pulford and Peter Stemkowski – who sparked the Leafs attack in the 1967 playoff upsets of Chicago and Montreal. When MacLean asked Pappin about the current Toronto club, the former right-wing stared directly at Shanahan with a crooked smile and said, “So long as you have a top-notch goalie, all your analytics will work.” He may have been dripping with sarcasm but Pappin was bang-on. And while we’re at it, let’s extend a joyful diamond birthday to ol’ Pappy. Born in Copper Cliff, Ont. on Sep. 10, 1939, Jim is 75 today.

     

FORMER LEAF JIM PAPPIN – YESTERDAY AND TODAY. 

COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS: If you’re searching for a reason to still enjoy being a die-hard Leafs fan, here’s a good one: The Chicago Cubs. Oh my God is that team horrible. I’ve had a first-hand look at the north-siders during an intra-league series here in town against the Blue Jays. The Cubs, legendarily, haven’t won the World Series since 1908. Given what I’ve been witness to this week, that drought could last another 106 years, though baseball people are apparently high on a number of Chicago prospects. I’ve often heard – derisively – that the Cubs are the Maple Leafs of baseball. If so, that’s quite a compliment to the Cubs.

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EVEN A LONG-SUFFERING FAN OF THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS WOULD HAVE TO TAKE PITY ON THE DENIZENS OF WRIGLEY FIELD THIS SEASON. THE CALAMITOUS CUBS HAVE LOST FIVE IN A ROW AND ARE 64-81 OVERALL.

SAD BUT TRUE: Though the Ray Rice saga in Baltimore is clearly disturbing, all the righteous blather about the National Football League (and commissioner Roger Goodell) losing credibility is white noise. As long as millions of people are willing to bet hundreds of millions on games each week, the NFL will continue to be a monolith – bigger than anything else in sport; immune to thugs and potential felons.

STILL MOANING? While an 8-2 run against lousy opposition has Toronto Blue Jays hanging around the periphery, the club will not make the playoffs this season. There are ten games left against Baltimore and Seattle – two of the best teams in the American League – and the Jays’ pattern is to fall back after a good streak. That said, any “fan” watching the club that still thinks Alex Anthopoulos should have traded Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez (or Drew Hutchison) for some fly-by-night fix hasn’t a clue. Baseball is as much about starting pitching as hockey is goaltending. With a potential foursome of Stroman, Sanchez, Hutchison and Daniel Norris, the Blue Jays could soon be a legitimate contender. The dreamers, of course, will counter by rhyming off pitchers that did not achieve their potential. More brilliance. Let’s spend hundreds of thousands on scouting baseball players across the globe only to haphazardly trade away our best prospects… just in case they don’t make it. Sound familiar Toronto fans? It’s been the Leafs’ way for as long as most can remember. Only now has the hockey club chosen to preserve its top young players. Anthopoulos did the same by not getting coerced into an irresponsible move at the trade deadline.

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WHY, HELLO AGAIN: I ran into an old school chum I haven’t seen in 35 years – a terrific guy by the name of Steve Mandel. You may have heard of his brother, Howie (below). Do you see the resemblance?

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