Leafs Begin With A First

TORONTO (Oct. 7) — In a season that is all about next season and beyond, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Maple Leafs open tonight, for the first time in franchise history, without a truly elite player on the roster.

Not that the presence of one–such commodity guarantees anything — simply recall the embarrassment and dishonor of last season with Phil Kessel in the fold. But, having traded Kessel to Pittsburgh in a mandatory addition–by–subtraction move, the Maple Leafs face off against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre (7:00 p.m. Sportsnet) with a small nucleus of above–average skaters… and nothing more.

Never before — not in their Stanley Cup years or in their lone season of the modern era at the bottom of the National Hockey League standings (1984–85) — has this been the case. From such–mythical hockey figures as Charlie Conacher, King Clancy and Red Horner in the 1930’s… to the halcyon era of the late–40’s and early–50’s with Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Max Bentley and others… to the Punch Imlach dynasty of the 1960’s that included Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, Tim Horton and Frank Mahovlich… the Darryl Sittler–Lanny McDonald–Borje Salming teams of the 70’s… the inferior clubs that featured Rick Vaive, Bill Derlago and Al Iafrate in the “lost decade” of the 1980’s… to the brief spurt under Pat Burns, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark in the early–90’s… and continuing through mostly lean years with Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph and Kessel, the Maple Leafs have possessed at least one truly elite player — up front and/or in goal.

RSCN0466editedTHE MAPLE LEAFS HAVE ALWAYS STARTED THE SEASON WITH A TRULY ELITE PLAYER ON BOARD.

The lone exception may have been in 2008–09 — at the beginning of the post–Sundin era and after the last training camp during which the head coach uttered “pain” to portent the immediate future. It was Ron Wilson then; Mike Babcock today. The ’08–09 schedule began with a future elite player (Alex Steen) and a trio of formerly–elite players (Cujo, Jason Blake and Tomas Kaberle). But, nothing current. That team, predictably, finished 24th in the overall standings and 14 points shy of playoff territory in the Eastern Conference. Or, slightly higher than where most forecasters believe the current club will reside in April.

You may argue that James van Riemsdyk belongs in the “elite” category; that Morgan Rielly will one day graduate to such a level. If so, you’re batting .500 — with Rielly. Van Riemdsdyk is an above–average scorer and an impact player… when the mood overcomes him. Which isn’t near–frequently enough. Nazem Kadri possesses elite–player skill. Can Babcock nudge him beyond the level achieved under Wilson, Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek? Only time will tell. Might Jonathan Bernier advance toward stardom in goal? Probably not behind this team, but the possibility does exist in the foreseeable future.

Otherwise, the Leafs begin 2015–16 with 18 skaters and two goalies merely because the rules call for it. This is a group of pluggers and grinders that will earn Babcock the Jack Adams Award if it garners 75 points in the standings — or a seven–point improvement over last season. Pittsburgh brought up the rear in the Eastern playoff order with 98 points. The Leafs won’t be within dog–sniffing range of that total for at least two or three seasons; and, only then, if their prospects mature. The “Shanaplan” goes into effect tonight.

Let’s hope the baseball playoffs are fun.

KINGS/PENGUINS WILL PLAY FOR CUP

RSCN0448edited-XFOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE JOINING THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE AS EXPANSION TEAMS (ABOVE) IN 1967–68, THE LOS ANGELES KINGS AND PITTSBURGH PENGUINS WILL MEET IN A PLAYOFF SERIES — THE 2016 STANLEY CUP FINAL. LOS ANGELES AND CHICAGO HAVE ALTERNATED CHAMPIONSHIPS SINCE 2010 — EACH CLUB NEEDING A YEAR TO RE–CLAIM THIRST AND DESIRE FOR THE GRUELING CUP TOURNAMENT. THE KINGS WILL CONTINUE THAT TREND IN THE COMING SEASON.

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