By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 10) — Where on Earth did time go?
As I was penning the headline to this blog, I nearly wrote, “Debating the Leafs — One Week Later.” Then it hit me: The Connor McDavid draft gathering in Florida was already a fortnight ago. I imagine it’s another aspect of growing older. The clock does tick faster… or so it seems.
In any event, I received a call today out of the blue from a person everyone in the game knows, but is neither in the media nor affiliated with any of the 30 National Hockey League clubs. I hadn’t spoken to this man since last summer and we caught up on the blower for nearly 45 minutes. Our conversation quickly turned to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the events of the past couple of weeks — the 2015 draft in Sunrise and the trade, on July 1, of Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Though he’s open to all possibilities, my friend wasn’t impressed with the Leafs’ selection of London center Mitch Marner, fourth overall.
“Toronto had an opportunity to draft one of two potentially franchise defenceman and took a small forward,” he began, referring to Noah Hanifin (drafted fifth by Carolina) and Ivan Provorov (seventh by Philadelphia). “I like Mitch Marner and think he has a chance to become a top NHL forward. But, let’s say he develops into another Patrick Kane. Where would Kane and the [Chicago] Blackhawks be without Duncan Keith? We saw it through the playoffs — Keith is the guy that everything on that team evolves from. And, on a contender, it almost always has to be that way… coming from the blue line. What made Toronto’s choice even more puzzling to me is that Mike Babcock pushed hard for [the team to draft] a defenceman. As would any coach of a rebuilding club.”
DUNCAN KEITH SKATES OFF WITH THE 2015 CONN SMYTHE TROPHY AFTER CHICAGO WON THE STANLEY CUP OVER TAMPA BAY, JUNE 15, AT THE UNITED CENTER. NHL.COM
In that regard, my friend was preaching to the choir.
As I often spoke about during my years on radio at The FAN–590 — and as I’ve written numerous times in this corner — Stanley Cup winners almost exclusively possess at least one Norris Trophy–caliber defenceman. We can go back 45 years to Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. Then move forward with the Big 3 of the Canadiens — Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe. To Denis Potvin and the New York Islanders; Paul Coffey and the Edmonton Oilers; Coffey and Larry Murphy of the 1991–1992 Pittsburgh Penguins; Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer of New Jersey’s championship teams; Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit; Drew Doughty of Los Angeles… and Keith of the Blackhawks.
There have been exceptions: The Philadelphia Stanley Cups of 1974 and 1975 were won by Bernie Parent in goal. The 1990 Edmonton Oilers no longer had Coffey. Patrick Roy won the 1993 championship for Montreal. As he did for Colorado in 1996. The 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes were hardly stacked on the blue line. But, that’s it.
Seven deviations in 45 years.
Even the non–dynasty Cup teams have been endowed with at least one Norris Trophy type: Al MacInnis and Gary Suter on the 1989 Calgary Flames; Brian Leetch on the 1994 New York Rangers; Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov on the 1999 Dallas Stars; Rob Blake and Raymond Bourque on the 2001 Colorado Avalanche; Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger on the 2007 Anaheim Ducks; Kris Letang on the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and big Zdeno Chara on the 2011 Boston Bruins. I’m not suggesting, of course, that a Norris defender can win a Stanley Cup alone — as occasionally can a goaltender — but it’s nearly certain that a team will not prevail without at least one–such commodity.
The Leafs, as we know, aren’t close to being a championship — or maybe even a playoff — team. Nor would they be in the short term had they drafted either Hanifin or Provorov. It is also understood that Hanifin and Provorov must prove themselves worthy of their draft potential before we lop them in among the blue–liners of Stanley Cup lore. But, it will be interesting to see how the Leafs develop over the next three or four years in relation to the Hurricanes and Flyers. And, if Toronto’s choice to by–pass defense in the 2015 draft becomes a long–term factor.
Also to be answered: Do the Maple Leafs already have a Norris Trophy contender in Morgan Rielly? And, if so, would it not have been wise to pair him with a second blue–liner of such potential? We shall see.
FROM BOBBY ORR (ABOVE) IN 1970 TO DUNCAN KEITH IN 2015, THE VAST MAJORITY OF CUP TEAMS HAVE POSSESSED AT LEAST ONE HALL–OF–FAME–CALIBER DEFENCEMAN.
As for trading Kessel, my friend was fully on–side with the decision but wondered if the issue involved player or team here in Toronto.
“Kessel was fat and out of shape last season and did not play close to his ability. But, I often felt he was poorly cast by the Leafs. He is not a leader and will never be a leader. What he needs is what I think he’ll have in Pittsburgh — a buffer; a supporting cast of three established players [Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang] into which he can assimilate. Without needing to be the guy — which he was in Toronto when [Brian] Burke acquired him and after [David] Nonis signed him to that extension. Kessel hadn’t played to a level worthy of [an $8 million cap hit] for eight years. He was simply the Leafs’ best forward — which may not be saying a whole lot. I’ve also wondered how possible it was for him to stay motivated last year with a team that had no chance and decided to make moves for the future. Kessel is only human.”
Which may have answered my devils’ advocate question: Didn’t the Leafs fail largely as a result of Kessel’s indifference?
“It doesn’t matter in which order you put it,” replied my friend. “Either way, the Leafs weren’t good enough and Kessel had too much of the onus on him from the first game he played in Toronto. They had to trade him and they did. I think, into a much better situation.”
So, was my friend suggesting Fast Phil will not continue to be the wildly streaky goal producer he was in Toronto… and in Boston, beforehand? “I can’t predict that but I’ll tell you this: Every goal he scores for Pittsburgh will be more important than virtually any goal he scored for the Leafs. With the Penguins, if Kessel has a dry spell, others will likely fill the void. And, Pittsburgh is a much–better team than Toronto. As such, all of Kessel’s goals — however many he scores — will be more significant.”
Let the games begin — in three months.
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