Caution Needed In Leaf Appraisals

TORONTO (Mar. 12) — The kids in Blue and White are looking mighty fine — so fine, that a banner in the Toronto Sun on Friday referred to Zach Hyman as a “Leafs sensation.” For the record, Hyman — a promising youngster — has two goals and two points in all of six games played in the National Hockey League.

Yup, we do get carried away around here.

In a demoralizing season that may yield the Toronto Maple Leafs another franchise gem, March auditions have fans and media predictably abuzz. None of Hyman, Josh Leivo, Garret Sparks, William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Brandon Leipsic, Connor Carrick or Kasperi Kapanen have looked out of place in the NHL. Several have shown flashes of brilliance. All will likely contend to make the big club next year as the Leafs move forward with their battalion of prospects and draft picks. The contemporary blueprint, as sold by Brendan Shanahan to the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, has unfolded to near–perfection. The club sits dead–last in the overall standings with 55 points, four beneath the 29th–place Winnipeg Jets; a bottom rank assuring the highest percentage–odds (20.0) of landing top pick in the 2016 draft. To that unspoken aim, veteran players have been keenly discarded. And, yes, the kids are making an impression.

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AMONG LEAF NEWCOMERS, THE ENTHUSIASM OF NIKITA SOSHNIKOV HAS BEEN MOST CONTAGIOUS.

It is, however, essential to recognize the artificial environment in which they perform.

The boilerplate demands of team sport — competing for a playoff berth; jostling with rivals for a division title — do not exist. The final quarter of the Maple Leafs schedule is an array of quasi–exhibition games, with all eyes toward next season and beyond. The burden of auditioning for full–time employment is also minimal, given the broad number of available posts. While no player is likely to be handed a spot on the team, the newcomers know they comprise the immediate future of the Leafs. It is critical only to maintain the discerning glare of coach Mike Babcock, who will ultimately choose which careers flourish or fade.

The rest of us, as observers, must also temper acclaim.

Though Nylander appears to have the talent and vision to be a front–line player; though Leivo’s hands seem NHL–worthy; while Soshnikov provides an early glimpse of skill and swagger; Hyman the foot–speed and determination to excel, it is too early to affix labels. The neophytes must be observed under such conditions that prove mettle — as part of a team building, late in the schedule, toward playoff achievement.

Of course, fans of the Blue and White can be excited. At no time in the post–2005 lockout (and salary cap) era has the team committed to following a traditional path. Until now. The young players elevated for a look–see this month would not include junior star Mitch Marner (London OHL) and will be bolstered by an almost–certain pick in the top four of this year’s draft. If goaltending is ultimately solidified and a Norris Trophy–caliber defenseman is acquired or developed, the team will achieve and sustain success.

But, that’s for another day.

50 SINCE 51

It was half–a–century ago tonight (Mar. 12, 1966) at Chicago Stadium that Bobby Hull became the first NHL player to surpass 50 goals scored in a season. Hull beat Cesare Maniago of the New York Rangers with a slap–shot from the mid–point at 5:34 of the second period for his 51st tally of the 1965–66 schedule. It broke the record shared by Maurice Richard and Bernie Geoffrion of the Montreal Canadiens. Hull had gone scoreless for three games prior to the Rangers’ visit; memorable among old–time hockey viewers around here was a miraculous performance by Toronto goalie Bruce Gamble a week earlier (Mar. 5) in a 5–0 rout of the Black Hawks at Maple Leaf Gardens — Hull’s first opportunity to crack the 50–goal barrier.

Here are several passages from the Mar. 19, 1966 issue of THE HOCKEY NEWS:

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