Leafs Go One Better Than Blues

New boss; same as the old boss.

— From Won’t Get Fooled Again — The Who

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (May 27) — After a full and exact month of searching, the St. Louis Blues found their coach on Tuesday. Turned out to be the same guy we last saw on the afternoon of Apr. 26, standing forlornly behind the visitors’ bench at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

That veteran coach’s “reward?” A one–year, lame–duck, “win–at–least–one–playoff–round–or–you’re–history” extension.

Some will suggest Ken Hitchcock deserves better. Others will say he’s escaped with his coaching life after the Blues were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the lower–seeded Minnesota Wild. Both conclusions are reasonable for a coach with a Stanley Cup on his resume (1999 with the Dallas Stars) and three failed attempts in four years to nudge a talented St. Louis team beyond the first round of the post–season. But, I’ve never been sold on a one–year contract extension.

For a player, it’s okay. For a coach or general manager, not so much.

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AFTER A FIRST–ROUND ELIMINATION, KEN HITCHCOCK GETS ONE MORE YEAR.

The reason is obvious: A position of authority requires corresponding clout; the full and unequivocal shelter of a superior. Otherwise, authority can be compromised. Say what you want about the Toronto Maple Leafs arrangement with Mike Babcock. Eight years and $50 million does seem a bit over–the–top. But, the Leafs haven’t left a scintilla of doubt with respect to their unwavering confidence in Babcock, or his long–term command of the hockey club. Babcock also has one Stanley Cup to his credit (2008 with the Detroit Red Wings) and has similarly been dispatched from the opening round of the playoffs in three of the past four years. Moving forward, however, that’s where the similarities end.

I have unlimited personal and professional respect for Blues GM Doug Armstrong. He was Bob Gainey’s right–hand man with the 1999 Stanley Cup team in Dallas and he knows Hitchcock very well. Armstrong has assembled a deep and gifted St. Louis roster — particularly on defence — yet one that seems unable to procure reliable goaltending in the playoffs. Last spring, a mega–trade with Buffalo that landed Ryan Miller proved of no consequence. This season, partly as a result of injury, there was vacillation between Brian Elliott (46 starts) and Jake Allen (37 starts); such indecisiveness leading the club to start Allen against the Wild in the Stanley Cup tournament. The Fredricton, N.B. native performed decently overall (a 2.20 goals–against average) but suffered from a case of the yips — allowing a good Minnesota team a trio of killer, soft goals before Hitchcock turned, much too late, to Elliott.

So, perhaps the Blues merely need goaltending to step up at the most important juncture of the season. Their new assistant GM, Martin Brodeur, knows a thing or two about the subject. He finished his brilliant Hall–of–Fame career by playing seven games for the Blues in 2014–15. There’s not much a coach can do about goaltending, other than cross his fingers. It’s the GM’s responsibility to provide skill at all positions, but particularly between the pipes. As such, retaining Hitchcock makes sense; his NHL track–record behind the bench is pretty darn good. But, why only a one–year extension? And, why the pursuit of Babcock?

“I didn’t want Ken to feel he was coming back out of anger and disappointment,” Armstrong told the St. Louis Post–Dispatch. “I wanted him to come back out of excitement and energy and when we talked, I felt that… and I felt it talking to members of his staff. It can take a lot out of you physically and mentally during the season. I wanted to make sure Ken and I were on the same page, that he had a desire to head down that path. We went through a long process over the past few weeks. Probably the majority of it was spent on detoxing from a disappointing end to our season and putting that in perspective with the last four years here under Ken’s guidance and leadership.”

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ST. LOUIS BLUES GENERAL MANAGER DOUG ARMSTRONG.

All sensible stuff. And maybe Hitchcock wanted just another year. But, it’s not a healthy situation. Too much of the spotlight is on a coach with a lame–duck contract — particularly one like Hitchcock that stands fourth all–time in the National Hockey League with 700 wins, trailing only Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Joel Quenneville. With players locked into lucrative, mega–year deals in a salary–cap system, coaches are behind the eight–ball to start. We saw it with Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle here in Toronto. One year of contract security provides no cache, regardless of prior achievement (Wilson is eighth in NHL coaching wins). It allows players a built–in vehicle to constitute change.

Mike Babcock won’t have that issue with the Leafs.

Ken Hitchcock, in my view, deserves the same with the Blues.

FIND THIS BOOK — IF YOU CAN

Jack Batten wrote THE LEAFS IN AUTUMN during a simpler time, when the notion of spending a day or two with your boyhood hockey heroes seemed more plausible. Four decades ago, in 1974 and 1975, Batten drove and flew hither–and–yon to interview ten of the players he’d grown up watching at Maple Leaf Gardens. He produced a literary masterpiece.

From a Leaf standpoint, going back 30 years would be impractical today. No company in its right mind would publish a book about Maple Leaf “heroes” of the 1980’s; with the exception of Rick Vaive, there were no–such beings. Under the wobbly stewardship of Harold Ballard, it was the “lost decade” in franchise history. For Batten, however, 30 years prior to the mid–70’s offered a gold mine. Between 1945 and 1949, the Maple Leafs won four Stanley Cup titles in five years. It was arguably the finest epoch in Toronto sporting annals. And, ol’ Jack had his pick of the litter.

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In a splendidly–written volume of memory, Batten, now 82, visited with Howie Meeker, Sid Smith, Gus Mortson, Syl Apps, Phil Samis, Cal Gardner, Hap Day, Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki and Teeder Kennedy — all “heroes” of varying scope with the dynastic Leafs of the 40’s. A separate chapter is dedicated to each player. And to Day, the Toronto coach.

Batten took himself to the homes and businesses of the one–time Maple Leafs, traveling to such places as St. John’s, Nfld., Timmins, Ont., Delisle, Sask. and Bolton, Mass. (50 miles northwest of Boston). While visiting Mortson in Timmins (717 kilometers north of Toronto) — its immediate area a production factory for the NHL — Batten wrote:

It wasn’t minerals that took me to the town one cold day in early February; it was the only other product that northern Ontario turns out: hockey players. They began to arrive in the NHL from the north in the mid–40’s, and before long there was hardly a team in the league that didn’t count on at least a couple of kids from Cochrane or Haileybury or Kirkland Lake… For Toronto, there came a long tradition of Northern Ontario players — Gus Mortson, Dick Duff, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Mike Walton. And of them all, it was Mortson, born in New Liskeard, the son of a railroad man, raised in Kirkland Lake, now a resident in Timmins, who led the way south.

Such is the folksy tenor of the entire book.

I’ll never forget reading it — quickly and enthusiastically — in late–February 1976 while at Toronto General Hospital awaiting surgery for Crohn’s Disease. I was 17. My late mom, Sandee, God bless her soul, had walked across to the old Eaton’s–College St. department store and picked it up for me; the sale–sticker (below) remains on the front of the book to this day. Try finding a new, hard–cover book in 2015 for $9.95. In fact, try finding a paperback for that price. Times have sure changed. 

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I read the book for a second time this past week. And, again, I couldn’t put it down. With its rich Maple Leafs history — and sentimental, intrinsic connection to my mom — THE LEAFS IN AUTUMN is a treasured volume. If you can find it on Amazon or E–Bay, spend the money.

And, then put it away… for keeps.

TWO MORE WINS: On more than a few occasions, I have been certain my pre–playoff selection of Anaheim and the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup final would not happen (Apr. 14 blog here: http://bit.ly/1H4GQyI). But now, each team is one win removed from making the prediction come true. The Ducks can advance with a victory over Chicago later tonight in Game 6 of the Western Conference final at the United Center. The Rangers seem incapable of losing elimination matches and host Tampa Bay, Friday night, in Game 7 of the East final.

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THE RANGERS ROUTED THE LIGHTNING 7–3 IN TAMPA TUESDAY NIGHT TO AVOID ELIMINATION FOR THE FOURTH TIME THIS SPRING. MIKE CARLSON GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

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