No Enforcer For Maple Leafs?

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Sep. 22) – A fan of the Maple Leafs will notice quite a change in the hockey club this season if the 23-man roster evolves as projected. For the first time in 40 years, the team may not deploy a dedicated enforcer. Having obtained – over the summer – a cadre of players with experience and moderate skill to narrow the gap between top and bottom forwards, the Leafs might not have room for Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.

Not only would such a development provide Don Cherry material for a full month of Coach’s Corner, it would interrupt a club pattern that started midway through the 1974-75 National Hockey League season when Maple Leafs general manager Jim Gregory called up a rambunctious rookie named Dave (Tiger) Williams. Nearly four decades later, two Leaf players – Williams and Tie Domi – are among the top three in all-time NHL penalty minutes: Williams first with 3,966; Domi third with 3,515. Dale Hunter stands between them with 3,565 PIM.

As such, it would be quite a departure – and, frankly, a gamble – for a team whose most skilled players at the moment are generally smallish and not difficult to square off against. In the absence of Orr and McLaren, which Leaf regulars will deter the opposition from taking liberties with Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner? And, even if some of the top skaters can look after themselves, can they afford to be taken off the ice by opposing scrubs?

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TIE DOMI EARNS FIVE OF HIS 3,515 NHL PENALTY MINUTES.

This element of hockey becomes increasingly marginal in the playoffs but it occupies a somewhat critical role during the 82-game regular season – like it or not. As mentioned, the Maple Leafs haven’t been without an enforcer since Williams arrived on the scene in January 1975. Amid the following progression of Toronto hockey names are players with no skill; some skill and vital importance to the team. How many ring a bell for you in this chronology of the past 40 years?

Dave (Tiger) Williams ??? Kurt Walker ??? Dave Hutchison ??? Bob McGill ??? Dan Maloney ??? Jim Korn ??? Jeff Brubaker ??? Wendel Clark ??? Brad (Motor City) Smith ??? Al Secord ??? Dave Semenko ??? John Kordic ??? Brian Curran ??? Kevin Maguire ??? Craig Berube ??? Ken Baumgartner ??? Tie Domi ??? Kris King ??? Shayne Corson ??? Wade Belak ??? Andre Deveaux ??? Colton Orr ??? Frazer McLaren.

Will the string be broken this season?       

RANDY WAS JUST DANDY: I’ve got to hand it to Randy Carlyle. He thoroughly anticipated the angle and tone of lip-smacking reporters when the Maple Leafs training camp opened on Thursday — assuming a light-hearted stance that appeared to disarm the inquisitors. In so doing, he became — for a brief time — the anti-Carlyle, rather than the snorting, one-dimensional coach that repeatedly called players “brain-dead” after losses a year ago. I found his performance impressive.

From the Kensington neighborhood here in Toronto to the Great Wall of China, the Leafs coach ranks No. 1 on the “Most Likely To Be Fired” list. It stems from the ignominy at the end of last season, when a 2-12-0 face-plant took the club out of playoff territory for the eighth consecutive 82-game schedule. Time appeared to stop for a few seconds when it was announced that Carlyle had been granted a two-year contract extension. Office workers stared at one another in disbelief. Trading was suspended on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Flights were delayed at Pearson Airport. Wolf Blitzer began The Situation Room with images of people going hysterical on Yonge St. 

Though typically moving forward, Carlyle’s jocular stance leaves the impression of someone resigned to fate. Can’t you imagine the scene after a mid-October loss in which the Leafs have lousy puck possession? Kyle Dubas, Brandon Pridham, Cam Charron, Darryl Metcalf and Rob Pettapiece swarm the coach, pointing maniacally to data on their open lap-tops as James Mirtle cheers in the background. Carlyle is rescued by assistant Steve Spott, who begins to argue with Phil Kessel over break-out patterns. Tim Leiweke walks by pinching his nose at Kessel and mumbling “off-the-chart numbers… no character.”

Such would appear to be Carlyle’s lot this season.

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RANDY CARLYLE: “HELP!!!!”

Mentally scanning the ages, it has been a long time since a Leafs coach has embarked upon camp in Carlyle’s predicament. I’m going to exclude the Harold Ballard years in the embarrassing 80’s, as neither rhyme nor reason prevailed under his decrepit ownership. We may have to go all the way back to the 1958-59 season for a comparable circumstance.

Coming off a last-place finish in the six-team NHL, Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe was in the mood for change. From the Boston Bruins organization, he hired the indomitable George (Punch) Imlach as assistant general manager. Smythe asked for advice about his doddering team and Imlach “advised” that he be in full control of the hockey operation. Once Smythe acquiesced in early November, the incumbent coach, Billy Reay, had no chance. Imlach fired Reay and installed himself behind the bench of a team that won only five of its first 21 games (Reay would go on to coach Chicago Blackhawks from 1963-64 to 1975-76). Not until late-October of 1990 would another Leafs coach be fired so early in the season: Doug Carpenter succumbing to a 1-10-1 train-wreck in favor of Tom Watt. But, Carpenter’s job had not been in jeopardy to begin the 1990-91 schedule — Maple Leafs having improved by a whopping 18 points under his direction the previous year.

Carlyle would appear to have no-such cushion.

He does, however, seem poised to handle the circus.

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WE HAVE TO GO BACK TO FEBRUARY 1959 – THE MONTH I WAS BORN – FOR A MAGAZINE STUDY OF THE LAST TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS COACH TO ENTER A SEASON ON SUCH TENTERHOOKS AS RANDY CARLYLE. IT WAS BILLY REAY. AND, HE DIDN’T LAST TOO LONG UNDER NEW BOSS PUNCH IMLACH.

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WILL THESE QUOTES APPLY TO RANDY CARLYLE AT SOME POINT?

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MONDAY THOUGHTS: In recent weeks, both Tim Leiweke and Steve Spott have discovered the peril of speaking forthrightly in this berserk hockey town. Whether it’s among business students at Ryerson University; minor league coaches at an apparently private function or in front of your cleaning lady from El Salvador, know that anything Leafs related can make it beyond the room in which you are standing… The annual Road Hockey To Conquer Cancer event at Ontario Place will happen this Saturday – September 27 – with more than 80 NHL alumni taking part. The opening ceremony, hosted by Glenn Healy and Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet, is slated for 9:30 a.m. Canadian hockey legend (and tough-as-nails cancer survivor) Paul Henderson will be one of several speakers. Drop by if you’re in the Toronto area. You’ll have fun and help raise money for a critical cause… Some have wondered, with apparent fear, how frequently Sportsnet NHL games will be interrupted by commercial plugs and the recurrence of “drop-ins” that we see during Blue Jays telecasts. I would suggest you take the baseball games and multiply by four. Rogers will need to hawk any and everything in order to counterbalance a $5.2-billion outlay for 12 seasons of NHL rights. Get used to it… Long-time NHL fans might be surprised by the full name of the retiring New York Yankees’ shortstop. Derek Sanderson Jeter played his last Major League game against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. Derek Michael Sanderson of the Boston Bruins won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie-of-the-year in 1967-68 and later executed a give-and-go with Bobby Orr for one of the most famous Stanley Cup-winning overtime goals. Jeter’s final at-bat against the Blue Jays was an RBI double into the left-field corner off reliever Todd Redmond during the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium. Jeter would score on a two-run homer by catcher Brian McCann in the 5-2 New York victory. Jeter amassed 341 career hits against Toronto…

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DEREK JETER’S FINAL AT-BAT (A RUN-SCORING DOUBLE) AGAINST THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS (ABOVE) AND A LAST LOOK AT THE RETIRING YANKEES’ SHORTSTOP ON A BLUE JAYS TELECAST (BELOW) AS SPORTSNET SIGNED OFF FROM SUNDAY’S GAME.

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The Canadian Football League office has to be breathing easier today after the dismal East Division finally pushed back against the West Division this weekend. Toronto Argonauts proved the benefit of staying and practicing out west with a 40-23 rout of the B.C. Lions in Vancouver on Friday. Argos had suffered the worst collapse in club annals the previous week, coughing up a 29-3 lead at Calgary and losing to the Stampeders 40-33. Recovering together on the road from that horror clearly helped the Boatmen manage another big lead against the Lions. On Saturday, the surging Hamilton Tiger-Cats won their third consecutive game at the new Tim Horton’s Field, clipping Edmonton Eskimos 25-23. A colossal upset occurred in Montreal on Sunday when the Alouettes hammered the 10–1 (though injury-stricken) Stampeders 31-15. And the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks nearly made it a clean-sweep for the East in Regina later on Sunday – the defending Grey Cup-champion Saskatchewan Roughriders needing double-overtime to prevail 35-32… In the name of all things holy, what has the CFL done to the poor Roughriders? Uniform and helmet heritage means nothing in Canadian football anymore. Potential third-jersey cash grabs are far more important. But, the sacrilege in Saskatchewan is beyond anything imaginable. Compare the classic Roughrider uniforms of Ron Lancaster and George Reed in the 1960’s (bottom-left) to the dog’s breakfast (bottom-right) worn by the club on Sunday…

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Speaking of jerseys, why, prey-tell, did the Buffalo Bills switch colors for Sunday’s NFL home game against San Diego? For those that ascribe to superstition – and sports teams are usually near the top of any list – the Bills had beaten Miami the previous week while wearing their predominantly white uniforms at Ralph Wilson Stadium (Miami wore its aqua jerseys). Having the home choice again yesterday, the Bills decided to wear their predominantly blue uniforms (with San Diego in white). Buffalo lost, 22-10. NFL jersey superstition normally involves the Dallas Cowboys, who have crafted several dynasties while wearing their white uniforms at home. When they travel, the Cowboys are often compelled to bring their predominantly dark-blue jerseys.

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BAD CHOICES: THE BUFFALO BILLS FIDDLED WITH THEIR UNIFORMS AT HOME, SWITCHING FROM WHITE LAST WEEK IN A VICTORY OVER MIAMI TO BLUE (ABOVE) YESTERDAY IN A LOSS TO PHILIP RIVERS AND SAN DIEGO. THE DALLAS COWBOYS WERE FORCED TO WEAR DARK-BLUE IN ST. LOUIS (BELOW) BUT TONY ROMO STUCK OUT HIS TONGUE AT THE RAMS AND PREVAILED 34-31.

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WEATHER/SKY SHOTS-OF-THE-WEEK

From my trusty NIKON…

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AIR CANADA BOEING-787 DREAMLINER CLIMBS OUT OVER TORONTO.

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AIR CANADA BOEING-777 ON FINAL APPROACH TO PEARSON AIRPORT.

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