By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 1) – If one were to rank media/fan chatter about the Maple Leafs during training camp and exhibition games, it would likely evolve something like this:
1) Factoring injury, how the revamped third and fourth-line units will shape up for the start of the regular season, Oct. 8, against Montreal.
2) Whether Jonathan Bernier can take a further step toward becoming a truly elite goaltender in the National Hockey League.
3) How long Randy Carlyle will keep his job as head coach once the team begins to struggle, as it surely will at some point.
4) That the Maple Leafs could start the season without a legitimate enforcer for the first time in nearly 40 years.
5) How the new-found proclivity toward analytics will impact the team.
Surprisingly, there has been virtually no attention paid to the element of the hockey club most lacking in recent years: Toughness. And, we don’t mean fighting toughness; the Maple Leafs have been rather adept at trading blows during many years of playoff inactivity since 2004. Instead, we’re talking about a team-wide ability and resolve to physically neutralize the opposition (as an example, find a clip of Brendan Shanahan muscling toward the goal during his Hall-of-Fame career). Playing “soft” can account – as much as anything – for one of the most unfulfilled decades (2004–2014) in Maple Leafs history.
THE MAPLE LEAFS COULD USE, ON THE ICE, THE WIDE-EYED VIGOR OF THEIR NEW TEAM PRESIDENT — BRENDAN SHANAHAN, HERE, SKATING FOR DETROIT.
Perhaps there is simply an understanding that the Leafs do not possess toughness and, therefore, why make it a point of conversation? On the flip-side, there may be observers who claim the Leafs – by adding Leo Komarov and Roman Polak – have resolved the issue. My contention is this: When the club’s best players – Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf and either Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly – are on the ice together, there is a singular lack of toughness. Phaneuf can throw a dandy open-ice wallop but he is not particularly difficult to conquer in the defensive zone. Nazem Kadri, to his credit, tries to play “big” without the requisite size and strength. Joffrey Lupul is a shooter. David Clarkson hasn’t been close to the obnoxious presence he was in New Jersey. The bottom-six forwards may be more robust this year but they aren’t nearly as integral as the passive skaters among the top six.
How, then, will the Maple Leafs improve their position during the regular season and – more importantly – evolve into a team capable of withstanding the rigor of four playoff rounds? Obviously, expectation is minimal this year but make no mistake: The Leafs will vault into contention only when they establish a physical presence throughout the line-up. Much else has changed in hockey since the Blue and White last challenged for the Stanley Cup. And, I’m not referring to 1967, when the club last played for the Cup. We need only reflect on the Pat Quinn years, just more than a decade ago, to understand the playoff dynamic of a team with sand-paper from top to bottom — and how that aspect of the game is no-less paramount today in the Stanley Cup tournament.
If you want to see true playoff combat, find a videotape of the Maple Leafs/New York Islanders opening-round series in 2002. Just 12 years ago. A seven-game “war” in which the home team held serve – Leafs winning the finale, 4-2, at Air Canada Centre. It was easier to “buy” a hockey club prior to the advent of a salary cap, and the Leafs did well in free agency. The Quinn era offered a good mix of rugged players signed and traded for. Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts, Shayne Corson, Tie Domi, Kris King, Dmitry Yushkevich and the late Wade Belak made the Leafs a nasty bunch to encounter at playoff time. Mats Sundin, for all the talk about his Scandinavian dispassion, was also a horse at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds — not to mention one of the most skilled players in the NHL.
The Maple Leafs of that era were the epitome of team toughness.
THE PAT QUINN MAPLE LEAFS COULD COUNT ON SHAYNE CORSON TO STAND UP AGAINST SUCH OTTAWA BEHEMOTHS AS ALEXEI YASHIN AND ZDENO CHARA (ABOVE) IN THE EARLY-2000’s. THE BIG AND EDGY LEAFS, NOW-LEGENDARILY, SWEPT THE SENATORS IN FOUR PLAYOFF ROUNDS BETWEEN 2000 AND 2004.
Quinn’s line-up also permitted the luxury of individual match-ups. Against Pittsburgh in Round 2 of the 1999 playoffs, defenseman Yushkevich shadowed Jaromir Jagr and drove the Czech star to utter distraction. Leafs prevailed in Game 6, at the old Civic Arena, when Garry Valk scored in overtime. During playoff conquests of Ottawa in 2001 (four-game sweep) and 2002 (seven games), Quinn instructed Corson to pester the Senators’ top scoring threat and Alexei Yashin – though not inclined to push back – was thoroughly neutralized. Rules that govern obstruction are different than 12 years ago but size and malevolence are still part of a long playoff run, particularly during the four-round bid for outright survival in the dominant Western Conference.
Among that breed of skater, who could Carlyle count on today? The Russian Missile — Komarov — is certainly of that mindset and the flavor-of-the-week at training camp, Brandon Kozun, appears to be as well. Problem is, neither Komarov (5-foot-10, 187 pounds) nor Kozun (5-foot-9, 162 pounds) have a size advantage and could wear down against bigger opponents. Corson (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and Yushkevich (6 feet, 180 pounds) weren’t monsters but they stood up very well against such big men as Yashin and Jagr. Corson, Domi and Belak were also exceptional fighters – adding another unpleasant element to the Leafs of 1999–2004.
The current club matches up well against the Quinn teams in skill and scoring — minus the big, No. 1 center (Sundin). There is no comparison, however, in size and physical resolve. Until Shanahan and David Nonis address that issue, the Maple Leafs will not be a threat to end their nearly half-century-old Stanley Cup drought.
NOVEMBER 2, 1968 — Montreal/Toronto
Continuing, now, with my blog series on NHL Pages-of-the-Past, we look at hockey programs from the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens in the second year of expansion: 1968-69 — an historic night (Nov. 2, 1968) during which the Canadiens hosted Detroit in the first game at the completely re-modeled Forum. Renovation began literally moments after the Habs’ sweep of St. Louis in the ’68 Stanley Cup final and were not completed until the fourth week of the following season. As such, the Canadiens began 1968-69 with a gargantuan road swing through Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston and Toronto from Oct. 12–30. Coincidentally, as the Canadiens and Red Wings were inaugurating the new Forum, I was attending a Toronto–Philadelphia game at Maple Leaf Gardens. The visual evidence:
THE NOV. 2, 1968 MONTREAL FORUM PROGRAM FEATURED DICK DUFF (8) AND JACQUES LEMAIRE (25) COMBINING TO SCORE ON ST. LOUIS GOALIE GLENN HALL DURING THE ’68 STANLEY CUP FINAL. THE COVER IS AUTOGRAPHED BY CANADIAN-BORN PITCHING LEGEND FERGUSON JENKINS OF THE CHICAGO CUBS.
INSIDE STORY AND PHOTO ?? OF THE RE-MODELED FORUM.
EARLY 1968-69 NHL SCHEDULE SHOWING MONTREAL’S LENGTHY ROAD TRIP.
CANADIENS–RED WINGS CENTER-SPREAD LINE-UPS.
NOVEMBER 2, 1968 — Toronto
While the Habs were edging Detroit 2-1 in the first game at the new Montreal Forum, I was at Maple Leaf Gardens with Dad — three months before my 10th birthday — watching Philadelphia beat Toronto 3-2.
MLG PROGRAM COVER FEATURED CENTER MIKE (SHAKY) WALTON.
MAPLE LEAFS—FLYERS CENTER-SPREAD LINE-UPS. DON CHERRY’S YOUNGER BROTHER — DICK CHERRY — WORE NO. 5 FOR PHILADELPHIA.
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