Leafs Message Distorted

TORONTO (Jan. 18) — Though unlikely given the match–ups, it may happen as early as Tuesday night.

The “much–improved” Toronto Maple Leafs could assume sole possession of 30th place in the National Hockey League. It would require a Leaf loss in regulation time at Philadelphia (quite conceivable) and a regulation–time victory by Columbus at home to Washington (rather improbable, though the Capitals were blown out in Buffalo on Saturday night by the 28th–place Sabres). With Toronto losing five in a row by a combined score of 19–5, it seems as if the acclamation from fans and media has overcome at least one Maple Leafs player. “All that’s happened now is we’re playing well, but not getting results for it,” Nazem Kadri told Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun. “We understand that process, we have to stay with it.”

Five regulation losses. One goal per game. Nearly four against per game. And, the Maple Leafs are “playing well,” according to their No. 2 center. This dovetails nicely with general manager Lou Lamoriello — he of the three Stanley Cups in New Jersey — telling reporters last week that Leaf fans should “feel great” about what the club has accomplished. Lamoriello isn’t stupid — he was referring to the competitive instinct adopted by the Leafs since October; not the club’s position in the standings. But, the overall message and tone of reporting in the weeks after Halloween has been largely distorted. Records indicate that just about every bad team will experience an up–turn during the 82–game NHL schedule. Just as most good teams will slide for a period of time — to wit, the Dallas Stars currently foundering with a 3–5–2 mark in their past 10 games. The bar, however, is set so meagerly here in Toronto that any form of perspective gets destroyed.

16-kadriedited-XNAZEM KADRI HAS PERFORMED ADEQUATELY FOR THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS THIS SEASON, BUT HE CANNOT POSSIBLY BELIEVE THE CLUB IS “PLAYING WELL” RIGHT NOW. CAN HE?

The Leafs did not aim to prosper this season. The club isn’t as dreadful as the combined record of 1–12–2 from October and the past five games, and not nearly as proficient as the 8–2–2 illusion of November and December. This was a year for Mike Babcock to invoke his message: that energy and defensive structure will one day lift the club from its decade–long quagmire. But, not with this team. The string of over–achievement — while appealing to fans and clearly a sign of what Babcock hopes to implement — was mistakenly interpreted as progress. Something to “feel great” about. Instead of a blip on the radar screen.

Perhaps now, with the Maple Leafs 11 points out of a Wild Card playoff spot (it will be closer to 20 by season’s end) and a measly point from dead–last in the NHL, reality will begin to prevail. That the 2015–16 schedule was one to lay the bricks of foundation; to further compile prospects and potential draft jewels.

Under Brendan Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock, the Leafs have finally adopted a sensible construction blueprint. Winning, even for a brief period, is nice, but it cannot alter the forward–thinking plan.

Through it all, a voice of reason has come from the man most impinged by losing: Babcock. The first–year Maple Leafs coach would have preferred a wildly–delusional campaign in which his shallow roster battled for an outrageous berth in the Stanley Cup tournament. Instead — and virtually every time a zealous reporter invoked the “p” word — Babcock was quick to reply with, “Let’s not get carried away.”

The coach has maintained an accurate posture through the first half of the season.

Others should follow his lead.

JANUARY BLAHS: The first month of the calendar year has not been kind to the Leafs and their fans. After a 1–11–1 disaster under Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek last season, the club is 1–6–0 this January for a combined 2–17–1. Games against Philadelphia, Montreal, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay are on the slate before the All–Star hiatus in Nashville. I’ll let you determine how bleak or bright the prospects appear… The Leafs were upended in the final minute at Boston Saturday night because Martin Marincin put the puck directly on the stick of Brad Marchand with a large portion of the net vacated by Jonathan Bernier. Apparently, Morgan Rielly had gone to the bench, or was temporarily unavailable because of an issue with his helmet. That’s curious enough. More perplexing is why Marincin — a marginal player — was on the ice to begin with. Isn’t that situation (away from home in the last minute of a tied game) one for which the Leafs are paying Dion Phaneuf $7 million? Clearly, something at the visitors’ bench went awry at the most inopportune moment… Montreal defenseman Alexei Emelin absolutely demolished forward Paul Stastny of St. Louis with a terrific open–ice check on Saturday night at the Scottrade Center. It was perfectly timed; perfectly legal, and Stastny went flying. Naturally, Emelin had to defend himself from a swarm of St. Louis players. That’s the absurd mentality in the game today and the NHL allows it to continue without batting an eyelash. Nothing else within the rule–book spawns physical abuse; imagine a player having to defend himself after scoring or setting up a goal. Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues received a roughing penalty in the skirmish. It’s not enough. The league should adopt harsher sanctions for players engaging in this irrational trend. Or, it should eliminate body–checking. Having it both ways doesn’t work… Poor Ron MacLean. In a frantic attempt to cram all of his material into Coach’s Corner on Saturday night, Don Cherry repeatedly admonished MacLean to introduce the next subject, failing to recognize that MacLean — on site in Grand Prarie, Alta. for Sunday’s Hometown Hockey telecast — was subjected to a communications delay. Someone should have warned Cherry about this beforehand. If Cherry was aware, he didn’t handle it properly. In defense of both men, executing a live, split–screen conversation while 3,900 km apart is a phenomenal challenge. When MacLean has to be several time–zones from Toronto for the Sunday telecast, he leaves on Saturday. Otherwise, he and Cherry do Coach’s Corner together and MacLean travels on Sunday morning… Cherry appeared to be suffering from a throat ailment, which may have added to his grumpy demeanor.

16-cherryedited-XDON CHERRY WASN’T IN A PARTICULARLY ROSY MOOD ON SATURDAY NIGHT.

SEEMS ILLOGICAL: I can understand and empathize with the Montreal Canadiens and their fans, who are suffering dreadfully in the absence of Carey Price. But, calling for the head of coach Michel Therrien doesn’t make sense. Therrien hasn’t gotten “dumb” since the club’s 9–0–0 leap from the gate this season. And, the Canadiens — as a group — aren’t nearly as mediocre as their 14–19–4 record since the hot start. What gets lost in all the emotion, I believe, is the peripheral effect of being without the NHL’s most valuable player — that which extends beyond Price’s ability to stop the puck. As with an elite quarterback in football, no element of hockey is more important than a front–line goalie. Both are the absolute foundations of their team. When either is lost for an extended period, confidence takes an immeasurable hit. Imagine the New England Patriots without Tom Brady; the Carolina Panthers without Cam Newton. Consider the emotional impact it would have on every player. Only then can you adequately appreciate what the Canadiens are going through without Price. This is a time in Montreal for the Canadiens; the hockey media and the fans to remain grounded. It is impossible to counteract the absence of the NHL’s best stopper. Just as it’s unreasonable for the predictable downturn to be blamed on the coach — or anyone else.

OW CANADA: Only once in the 99–season history of the NHL has the Stanley Cup playoffs been without a Canadian team. That was back in 1969–70, when the league was comprised of 10 American clubs and two north of the border. The Maple Leafs and Canadiens failed to qualify in the East Division. It is too early to consider such an outcome in the much–larger NHL this season. But, neither can we ignore the possibility. As of today, only Montreal resides in playoff territory — hanging on to the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference by a point over Pittsburgh and New Jersey. A regulation–time victory by the Penguins tonight at St. Louis would temporarily exclude all seven Canadian teams — Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal — from the playoff picture. This is a nightmare scenario for Rogers Communications, which holds national TV rights to the NHL in Canada. At the same time, only the Maple Leafs, as of now, are virtually assured of missing out — though the Oilers would have to go on quite a binge once Connor McDavid returns. But, there’s still lots of hockey to be played.

RSCN0107edited-XONLY ONCE HAS THE NHL NOT HAD A CANADIAN TEAM IN THE PLAYOFFS: THE SPRING OF 1970.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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