TORONTO (Dec. 14) — The “overachieving” Toronto Maple Leafs could resume play on Tuesday night dead–last in the National Hockey League standings. All it requires is Columbus getting to extra time at home against Tampa Bay on Monday for a 26th point. Toronto, with 25, would fall to 30th place.
This isn’t startling news, given the Leafs have been idle a full week in the regular season for only the second time that did not include a stoppage for the All–Star Game or Winter Olympics. During the club’s record 0–7–1 first month in 2009–10, there was a seven–day hiatus (Oct. 17–24) that ended with a 3–1 loss at Vancouver. This time around, the Maple Leafs host the Lightning — with four games in hand on the Jackets.
Jonathan Bernier is expected back with the big club after a two–week “conditioning stint” in the American Hockey League. The beleaguered goalie recorded shut–outs in three of four starts with the Toronto Marlies (sitting atop the overall AHL standings), though he came back to Earth on Sunday in a 5–4 overtime loss to the Utica Comets. Bernier has either regained his confidence… or found his niche as a minor league stopper. We’ll know more once he straps ’em on against real teams — possibly beginning Tuesday, as James Reimer is still hobbling with the groin injury he aggravated at St. Paul, Minnesota 12 nights ago.
One thing you can take to the bank: Bernier’s leash with coach Mike Babcock is mere centimeters. If he plays against Tampa and has a bad game, his chance of returning to goal two nights later against San Jose is about the same as Donald Trump leading the afternoon prayers at Mecca. Should Reimer still not be healthy enough to face the Sharks, an intriguing decision will likely have to come from the hockey club.
How dreadfully ironic it would be for the Leafs if Babcock and the medical staff rushed Reimer back into play with the always–tricky groin ailment. That’s exactly what Randy Carlyle did with Bernier in March 2014 — allowing the gimpy netminder to face his former teammates in Los Angeles. The Leafs were on a 14–4–3 run and challenging for the Northeast Division lead. Bernier quickly pulled up lame; missed five starts, and the club death–spiraled at 2–12–0 to end the season. Bernier then had a sports–hernia operation.
The jury is still out on Reimer’s injury, but he was nowhere to be seen on Saturday, and Babcock did not provide an update. If Reimer was still unable to practice a full ten days after the Minnesota game, it was obviously imprudent to hurry him back against the Wild — even with Garret Sparks being shelled the previous night in Winnipeg. Whether this is Bernier redux from 2014 remains to be seen… or maybe it doesn’t really matter. Expectation for this season wasn’t such that we should be hotly debating personnel decisions. The closer to 30th place the Leafs remain, the better chance of gaining balls for the draft lottery.
And, wasn’t that the unstated plan from the outset?
(NOTE: Reimer was on the ice this morning with goalie coach Steve Briere. Not known, yet, if he’ll take part in the full Maple Leafs practice. Update later).
SLATS A TRUE HOCKEY LEGEND
The City of Champions put on a championship display while feting Glen Sather late last week. Architect of the legendary Edmonton teams in the 1980’s that featured Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr, Sather was honored in a ceremony before Friday night’s game at Rexall Place between the Oilers and New York Rangers. In a truly wonderful concept, the former GM and coach — a five–time Stanley Cup winner between 1984 and 1990 — began a trek from his long–time perch in the press box (cigar between fingers); through two levels of seats (where he shook hands with fans); to rink level (where such former players and associates as Dave Semenko, Bruce MacGregor and Craig MacTavish greeted him) and onto the ice, where ex–Oilers personnel and rival managers were seated.
A series of hand–held cameras cleverly followed Sather on his descent.
At center ice, Sather was enveloped by family and hockey royalty. To see, for example, Bill Torrey and Cliff Fletcher next to one another was to visit the third round of NHL expansion, in 1972 (Torrey the first GM of the New York Islanders; Fletcher, the Atlanta Flames). Also on hand were Doug Risebrough and Serge Savard (playing teammates with Montreal in 1974–75); Lou Nanne (teammate with the Minnesota North Stars in 1975–76); Craig Patrick and David Poile (lone GM in the history of the Nashville Predators).
Messier, Anderson, Kurri, Coffey and Fuhr were seated in another row, with the legendary, now–retired TV voice of the Oilers, Rod Phillips. Gretzky had been in town but had to return to Los Angeles before the ceremony. His recorded message was shown on the Rexall Place video–board. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman flew in for the celebration, as did Bettman’s long–time associate, Colin Campbell, who played defense for Sather in the Oilers first NHL season of 1979–80.
I remember Sather as a haughty, intimidating presence while coaching the Oilers early in my career.
I covered my first Stanley Cup final in 1985: Edmonton against Philadelphia. On a night between games in Edmonton, I went for dinner at the Empress of China restaurant with hockey photographer Bruce Bennett and several others. Sather was dining with a huge party and we casually waved as we passed his table — not realizing if he had seen or recognized us. Not 15 minutes later, a waiter came over and said, “Mr. Sather would like to buy you fellas a round of drinks.” Suddenly, the Oilers’ coach didn’t seem so haughty.
Congrats, Glen, on a wonderful hockey life.
THE SATHER FILE
From my collection of hockey cards and program line–ups — 1967 to 1976:
IN HIS FINAL NHL SEASON, SATHER CAME TO TORONTO (ABOVE AND BELOW) WITH THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS. THIS WAS A PROGRAM (FEB. 8, 1976) FROM THE NIGHT AFTER DARRYL SITTLER’S NHL–RECORD 10–POINT PERFORMANCE AGAINST BOSTON AT THE GARDENS. DARRYL’S SIX GOALS AND FOUR ASSISTS WERE NOT YET RECORDED IN THE LEAFS–MINNESOTA LINE–UPS.