TORONTO (Feb. 3) — During the All–Star hiatus in the National Hockey League, newspaper stories and columns wondered about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Are they the worst team among 30 in the NHL? The most boring Toronto club of all time? One that is selling false hope or real hope?
My take is simple: For once, the Leafs aren’t selling anything at all.
Well, let’s backtrack slightly. There is a cleverly re–designed logo to eventually “sell” on the front of a re–designed jersey. So, the club will continue to peddle — and prolifically — in a retail sense.
With respect to a theoretical claim, the Leafs have been rather genuine. One decade since the advent of a salary–cap, those running the club have caught on. It is remarkably sedate, therefore, around a team that should easily rival last year’s abomination for ineptitude and rank in the overall standings. The difference between then and now? Legitimacy. No quick–fix acquisitions. No knee–jerk stunts aimed at swimming against the playoff tide in the Eastern Conference. Instead, under the leadership of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, the Leafs have put forth an authentic and rather virtuous arrangement that even tepid followers can understand. To move forward with sustainable success, the club must patiently build through the draft while retaining its prime prospects. This is hardly a systematic breakthrough. Other teams have voluminously shown the way. Only now, however, is it being practiced here in Toronto.
BRENDAN SHANAHAN (LEFT) AND MIKE BABCOCK WERE ALL SMILES AT AIR CANADA CENTRE LAST MAY 21, WHEN THE FORMER DETROIT COACH SIGNED ON WITH THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
Of course, Shanny and Co. still need to pull it off. The Edmonton Oilers have proven — though rather exclusively — that perpetual luck in the draft lottery offers no guarantee. Not without dependable goaltending and a horse on the blue line. While stockpiling forwards in the draft (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent–Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid), Edmonton has not yet achieved the proper balance to contend for a playoff berth. This should serve as a cautionary tale for the Maple Leafs.
As far as “selling,” the requirement was strictly internal — getting the fractious Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to sign off on the long–term plan. All evidence, at the moment, points to a remarkably fruitful pitch by Shanahan. No more bogus expectation governed by the Board budgeting for X–number of playoff games. No more relinquishing of first–round draft picks in a desperate, futile attempt to achieve such a goal. If the Maple Leafs are selling anything to their fans, it’s convention — an honest attempt to build the club, once and for all, by the book. With solid coaching; exponential player development and the reasonable deployment of analytics. No longer with irremediable short–cuts or prevailing dollar–signs.
The enduring model is indisputable: Detroit.
The Red Wings, under the guidance of a “rookie” coach, will be in the playoffs for a 25th consecutive spring. It was supposed to be a struggle — remember? — in the post–Nick Lidstrom era, as the Wings moved forward without an irreplaceable component. But, it’s nearly impossible to fail with Detroit’s scouting proficiency. Every year, it seems, another product of the system emerges strongly in the NHL. First, it was Tomas Tatar. Then, Gustav Nyquist and Petr Mrazek. Now, it’s Dylan Larkin. Next, it will be Finnish defenseman Vili Saarijarvi, or someone else unearthed by European super–scout Hakan Andersson. And, the Red Wings generally do not rush their prospects — preferring them to acclimate with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League (where they groomed coach Jeff Blashill, who replaced Babcock this season).
CBC/HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA IMAGE FROM DETROIT AT TORONTO GAME OF OCT. 5, 1991. IT WAS THE MAPLE LEAFS SEASON OPENER AND NICK LIDSTROM’S SECOND OF 1,564 CAREER GAMES ON DEFENSE FOR THE RED WINGS. THE GREATEST EUROPEAN–BORN PLAYER OF ALL TIME RETIRED AFTER THE 2011–12 SEASON AND WAS INDUCTED INTO THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME LAST NOVEMBER.
No one is more familiar with the Detroit model than Babcock, and the promise of such likely convinced the future Hall–of–Fame coach to endure “pain” at the beginning of the process here in Toronto ($50 million over eight years also helped, but Babcock would have gotten a ginormous deal elsewhere).
If the Leafs are in conflict now, it’s during games. Under Babcock, the will to win is apparent nearly every night with a roster that cannot deliver. Former NHL executive Craig Button, now an analyst with TSN, provided a terse, no–nonsense appraisal of the team in the first intermission of Tuesday night’s game at Boston. “The Leafs do not have enough skill to put a scare into any opponent,” he stated accurately, yet coincidentally on a night the club rebounded from a 3–1 third–period deficit to win, 4–3, in overtime. The surprising result (even if the Bruins are pathetic at home this season) delivered temporary emotional relief to Babcock, the players, and fans of the hockey club — all of whom wish for the Leafs to win every night (pay no attention to fans that claim they are rooting for losses). And, that’s where the conflict arises.
TSN ANALYST CRAIG BUTTON: CHANNELING HIS INNER–HOWARD COSELL.
For the purpose of this team, two points at Boston in early–February are rather pointless. Prior to the 3 p.m. (EST) trade deadline on Feb. 29, Lamoriello will do everything in his power to ensure the Maple Leafs finish dead–last in the overall standings. An untimely spate of prosperity between now and then may provide a grin or two, but it will complicate the deal. As will promoting William Nylander and Connor Brown from the Marlies for an aimless look–see late in the schedule. The Leafs should allow this team die on the vine (no pun intended) and move forward with the near–guarantee of a Top 3 pick in the June draft.
It’s a soft and easy sell for a club heading in the right direction.
THE OTHER 10–POINT MAN
On Thursday night, prior to their home date with the New Jersey Devils, the Maple Leafs will honor legendary captain and Hall–of–Famer Darryl Sittler. Saturday will be the 40th anniversary of Sittler’s NHL–record 10–point eruption (six goals, four assists) against Boston at Maple Leaf Gardens (Feb. 7, 1976).
The mark hasn’t yet been equaled. Nine players, including Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, have totaled eight points in one game. In fact, only one professional player other than Sittler has posted double–digits. Coincidentally, it was a teammate of Sittler’s here in Toronto during the 1970–71 and 1971–72 seasons. Jim Harrison defected to the Alberta (later Edmonton) Oilers of the World Hockey Association in 1972–73 and became a big–time scorer. During an 11–1 rout of the New York Raiders at the old Edmonton Gardens on Jan. 30, 1973, Harrison exploded for three goals and seven assists.
A nifty pocket–book on Harrison’s life and injury–plagued career (above) chronicles the 10–point game. Written by Kitchener, Ont. native David Ward, it provides another scathing indictment of convicted felon Alan Eagleson — founder of the NHL Players Association, who Harrison has long–claimed took money from his pocket. It also offers a rather heart–wrenching account of the manner in which Harrison believes Sittler abandoned him while attempting a return to the Maple Leafs in 1976:
When I left Toronto, I lost some of my friendship with Darryl and his wife, Wendy. I found that sad. At one point, Darryl and I had roomed together. But, once you leave a team, your friendships deteriorate. Then I heard [Leafs owner Harold] Ballard wanted me back in Toronto when I jumped from [the WHA] in ’76, but something happened. The story got back to me that Darryl didn’t think I could help the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That was always a sore point with me because I would have liked to have gone back to Toronto. My wife lived there, we had a farm there, but that’s the story I heard. I don’t know for sure if that story is true, but a couple of reliable sources said that Darryl didn’t want me back in Toronto.
Some people suggested I may have been a threat to him at center, but I would never have been a threat to HIM. I would have been a compliment to [Sittler]. I think I could have helped [the Leafs]. But, at that time, they had 12 or 13 Eagleson clients… and Darryl was pretty much running the hockey club. So, our friendship, especially after the Eagleson thing, blew up; never recovered. We’ve not talked since. To be truthful, I can’t forgive him for being friends with Eagleson. Because I don’t think anybody should be a friend to Eagleson after what he did to hockey players. If they are… well, they don’t have my friendship.
Any way you look at it, it’s unfortunate what happened with Darryl and me. We were really close. I used to look after him when he broke in with the Leafs. That’s the way it goes, I guess.
This, of course, is just one side of the story. It is undeniable, however, in the hockey world that Eagleson’s involvement has fractured many relationships. The only 10–point men are apparently among them.