By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 10) — After “guiding” the Maple Leafs to 11 consecutive losses, interim coach Peter Horachek figured it was time to get tough. He removed $4.75–million of payroll and $5.25–million of salary cap from his degenerate line–up. As if by magic, the “new–look” Maple Leafs ended their month of misery by slapping around the Edmonton Oilers, 5–1, on Saturday night. Perhaps Horachek was on to something. Finally.
Of course, banishing David Clarkson to the upper reaches of the Air Canada Centre took neither courage nor clairvoyance. Were such a move permitted, Horachek could have swapped the Leafs for the Marlies and still prevailed over the abominable Albertans. Had the coach decided to punish underachieving and over–compensated players, Edmonton may have stood a chance given that four or five members of the home team would have been in uniform. As it were, Clarkson got the boot for the first time in his 1½ ignominious seasons with the Blue and White. “I didn’t look at the contract,” insisted Horachek about Clarkson.
Right. And teenage boys never look at the center–fold.
DAVID CLARKSON: TAKING THE FALL FOR MAPLE LEAFS INEPTITUDE.
There was no “message” in sitting Clarkson. Nor will there be if — as expected — he’s again wearing jacket–and–tie during Tuesday night’s home game with New York Rangers. Scratching one of the club’s highest–paid players would normally be considered an act of boldness. But, not on this team. And not after Horachek helped to author arguably the most miserable string of results in franchise history. Banishing Clarkson and his albatross contract for a night got noticed. As Horachek knew it would. And, the Maple Leafs actually won a game.
But, how often, since the third week of December, had Horachek and Randy Carlyle turned a blind eye to such malingerers and/or bumblers as Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Dion Phaneuf? The club’s core players — any of whom could have been scratched for a game much earlier in the season–killing streak. How is it that Kessel and Bozak deserved to play against Edmonton after so lazily surrendering on Patrick Elias’s 400th career goal at Newark Friday night? You’ve seen the replay… the Maple Leafs No. 1 center and winger slumbering toward the defensive zone, entirely oblivious to the future Hall–of–Fame winger. What message did Horachek impart by not even sitting Kessel and Bozak for the following shift, let alone the next evening’s game?
No, the choice of Clarkson was easy and convenient. Imagine the audacity of accepting, as he did in July 2013, the Leafs seven–year, $36.75–million free agent pact. Any one of us would have surely declined such an offer, right? If truth be known, Clarkson — though unproductive beyond anyone’s imagination when he signed the contract two summers ago — rarely mails in a shift. He plays more physically than most of his teammates and seems to at least care when he’s on the ice. Which is a hell of a lot more than we can say — for the most part — about Kessel, Bozak and van Riemsdyk since Dec. 16. Of course Clarkson isn’t “worth” the multi–year deal he agreed to, but whose fault is that? And, which Leaf players that date to last season — beyond Cody Franson, Morgan Rielly and Jonathan Bernier — are worth what they’re getting paid?
To me, this was easy pickings for Horachek, who will sit Clarkson again on Tuesday against New York to preclude disrupting a “winning combination.” Yes, indeed, Leafs are 1–0–0 without Clarkson in the line–up. And 4–18–1 with Clarkson and everyone else since mid–December.
Hardly a game–changer.
Having miraculously survived a debilitating stroke last October, Gordie Howe made what his family called a “final public appearance” at a charity dinner in Saskatoon Friday night. Wayne Gretzky was among the honored guests. As such, this wonderful photo is almost certain to be the last ever taken of the NHL’s two greatest all–time forwards. I posted it Saturday on my Facebook page; it had been “shared” 401 times as of late Monday night. The iconic first image of Nos. 9 and 99 together was snapped at a banquet in 1971 when Howe was 43 and Gretzky 10.
THROUGH MANY YEARS
Unfortunately, neither Pat Park nor I have a dollar for every same mile we traveled between 1994 and 2011. Otherwise, we’d be written up in Forbes Magazine. Pat (left) was media relations director of the Toronto Maple Leafs during all of my years covering the team for The FAN–590. It was terrific catching up with him at a lunch on Monday.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [HUMBER COLLEGE]
LINKEDIN: HOWARD BERGER [BROADCAST MEDIA]