TORONTO (Jan. 28) — “T’is the season to be ghastly… “
Yes, indeed, the Toronto Maple Leafs, for a second consecutive year, have taken the post–holiday “blues” to an entirely different level. In their final ten games of January — this season and last — the club is a combined 2–15–3. It was 1–8–1 a year ago and has currently matched the playoff–killing 1–7–2 mark of this past October. The 10–game nosedive last January saw the Leafs score 12 goals (five of them in a lone victory over Columbus). The tally has slipped to 11 this year. We are ten days away from the 40th anniversary of the Leafs erupting for that total in one night — an 11–4 demolition of Boston on Feb. 7, 1976 during which Darryl Sittler amassed the existing National Hockey League record of 10 points (six goals, four assists). Somewhere, Peter Horachek must be looking in a mirror and saying, “Couldn’t have been me!”
While losing is difficult on players, fans and especially an accomplished coach such as Mike Babcock, the Maple Leafs are back to following the “Shan–a–plan.” The absurd playoff chatter of December — largely triggered by myopia in the mainstream media — has given way to concession and common sense. The Leafs were designed to be no better than a bottom–five team in the NHL this season and the club is once again out–doing itself. If not for games–in–hand over Columbus and Edmonton, Toronto would be dead–last in the overall standings at the All–Star break. The Blue Jackets, Oilers and Maple Leafs have 43 points; the Leafs an NHL–low 17 victories. And, get ready… because the worst — or best — is likely still to come.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS BACK–UP GOALIE JAMES REIMER GLANCES BEMUSEDLY AT AN ASTRONAUT/FAN BESIDE THE VISITORS’ BENCH IN TAMPA WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Sportsnet Image
General manager Lou Lamoriello has sharpened the ax and will soon begin to chop away at whatever is keeping his club in the mix with Edmonton, Columbus and Buffalo. At season’s end, and barring a miracle, the Leafs should rank 30th in the NHL by a fairly comfortable margin. The aforementioned rivals will not be in evisceration mode at the trade deadline as they await the maturity of young players already in the league. Lamoriello’s club should be in the same position a year from now — still hovering about the nether regions, but almost certainly with blue–chippers William Nylander and Mitch Marner on the NHL roster.
In that regard, the Leafs have again become delightfully dreadful.
The Auston Matthews spread has taken a hit with the NHL rigging its draft–lottery format, but the Leafs could still be the odds–on favorite to land the number–one prospect at the June gathering in Buffalo. If not Matthews, then surely one of the fabulous Finns: Jesse Puljujarvi or Patrik Laine. It would require some incredibly bad luck for the 30th–place team to fall out of the top three in the draft, though it’s more conceivable this summer than ever before. With Nylander, Marner and another prime selection, the Leafs will be in position to start ascending. Thus, the “wonderful” pain of January for a second consecutive year.
And, through it all, are signs of the Babcock effect.
For example, energy and commitment in the third period of consecutive–night games on the road. It happened at Los Angeles on Jan. 7 — the Leafs, 24 hours after blanking the Ducks in Anaheim, pressuring the Kings with a late–game assault on Jonathan Quick. L.A. prevailed, 2–1, but not for lack of effort by the visitors. Same applied in the 1–0 loss to the Lightning Wednesday at Amalie Arena. Despite a clunker across–state the night before, the Leafs were the pluckier team in the final 20 minutes. Their ignominious lack of finish, and a strong performance by Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, precluded extra time.
So, all is not lost, Maple Leaf fans, even if it is lost. The post–All–Star portion of the schedule — 34 games — may not be particularly festive, but you’ll be a happy lot in June. As per the plan from the outset.
JANUARY 28, 1986
For those like yours truly that remember the tragic events of 30 years ago today, it is difficult to comprehend that such time has passed since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 74 seconds after departing the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All seven astronauts were lost, including school–teacher Christa McAuliffe of Concord, New Hampshire. It was one of those days — akin to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich; the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton by John Hinckley in March 1981 and, of course, the terror attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 — during which people my age sat transfixed (and horrified) in front of their TV’s.
I’ve kept my newspapers from the Challenger disaster:
GOD BLESS THE MEMORY OF THE CHALLENGER SEVEN.