Leafs Can Still Conquer the Nation

TORONTO (Mar. 23) — Eastern Canada is safe from the Toronto Maple Leafs but the prairies, foothills and coastal regions are deeply imperiled. The National Hockey League’s dandiest outfit north of the border could soon become third–best in the nation. To its own detriment, of course, but habits tend to repeat.

The Leafs are poised, it would seem, to hurdle well beyond prime territory in the first round of June’s NHL draft. By elevating its top prospects into an artificial, no–pressure environment, the club has jeopardized an almost–certain last place finish in the overall standings. Though it may prove beneficial in the long run — Willie Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Carrick, Frederik Gauthier, Brendan Leipsic, Connor Brown and Kasperi Kapanen have obtained invaluable big–league experience — the short–term implication is foreboding and largely antithetical to the club’s season–long blueprint. As of today, the Leafs remain 30th in the NHL, but credibly within reach of 25th place; a percentage–odds reduction of 12.5 (20 to 7.5) toward winning the draft lottery, and a likely No. 6 overall selection. In other words, kind of a waste.

SP-LEAFS21SEPT Toronto, Canada - September 21 - Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander celebrates a teammates goal infront of Ottawa Senators goalie Chris Driedger (32) during NHL Pre-season hockey action at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on September 21, 2015. Cole Burston/Toronto StarIS HOT–SHOOTING ROOKIE WILLIAM NYLANDER HELPING OR HINDERING THE LEAFS? Toronto Star Photo

This inopportune surge (5–2–1) — hardly atypical of the perennial playoff spectator — could imperil the hope of drafting another franchise–caliber prospect. Mitch Marner (London OHL) went fourth overall to the Leafs last summer. His junior hockey resume portends stardom in the NHL. Same applies to the top four–rated draft prodigies this year (according to the mid–season ranking of TSN’s Bob McKenzie): Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Tkachuk (all forwards) — one of whom the Leafs would be guaranteed to land with a 30th–place finish. The top–rated defenseman — Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia OHL) — is fifth on McKenzie’s list. Which, coincidentally, leaves winger Alex Nylander (Mississauga OHL) as a conceivable No. 6 alternative for Toronto and a potential big–league reunion with older sibling William.

It would be a nice family yarn — undoubtedly drawing analogies to Sedin and Sedin in Vancouver. While the draft is always unpredictable and young Nylander had a good season in Mississauga (28 goals / 75 points), he isn’t quite the elite prospect of the top four, any of whom could help alter a struggling franchise. So, the Leafs would be much–better served by tailing off in their final ten games and sticking close to the cellar.

On the flip–side, upward mobility could generate bragging rights west of Toronto, enhancing nationalist fervor. Though Montreal and Ottawa remain safely out of reach, the Maple Leafs are within six points of leap–frogging Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary in the standings. The chances are slim — an 8–2–0 record might not even suffice — yet the potential cannot be discounted. Without a doubt, it would rank as the ultimate consolation–prize for the “garbage time” capital of the hockey universe.

THEM vs. ME: Gotta hand it to the tall foreheads at THE HOCKEY NEWS, who collaborated last summer and predicted a Stanley Cup final between Washington and Anaheim. The Capitals (52–15–5) have been the best team in the NHL all season and clinched first place in the overall standings by defeating Ottawa Tuesday night. The Ducks (40–23–9), after a puzzling first half, are seventh overall; a league–best 20–5–2 since Jan. 23. I countered, on the eve of the regular season, with a Pittsburgh–Los Angeles Cup final, imagining that Phil Kessel would provide the Penguins a decisive edge in the East, and that the Kings would continue to alternate championships with Chicago until further notice. The Kessel factor hardly resonated (he has 21 goals in 72 games), yet the Penguins are on a six–game win streak with Evgeni Malkin injured again (arm or wrist; he was sidelined most of February while nursing an undisclosed ailment). The Kings are nicely situated to claim the Pacific Division — leading second–place Anaheim by four points. So, I’m not ruling out my Stanley Cup forecast, though I’d trade predictions with THE HOCKEY NEWS in a heartbeat.

RSCN0049edited-XIRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE OF A GREAT PRE–SEASON PICK BY THE HOCKEY NEWS.

ARTISTIC MIKE: Armed with newspaper images I’ve posted on this website from May 3, 1967 — the day after the Leafs last Stanley Cup triumph — hockey author Mike Leonetti designed this rather nifty collage:

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1970–71 NHL ALBUMS

For three seasons, beginning in 1970–71, the Toronto Maple Leafs sold game programs within colorfully–illustrated albums of each NHL team. These were available upon entering Maple Leaf Gardens and have become valued memorabilia. Some years ago, I had my albums bound into book–form for safe keeping. While recently visiting the home of “the ubiquitous one” — hockey archivist Paul Patskou — I was shown loose copies of the ’70–71 MLG items. Which I promptly borrowed for the purpose of this photo–essay, depicting the front and back covers of all 14 team albums. As you’ll see, the color images were shot at the Montreal Forum during the 1969–70 NHL season… and at the same end of the Forum ice. Only the covers of the two expansion teams from 1970–71 — Buffalo and Vancouver — were captured elsewhere.

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INSIDE EACH TEAM ALBUM IN 1970–71 WAS A MAPLE LEAF GARDENS HOCKEY MAGAZINE (TOP–LEFT) AND AN INSERT (TOP–RIGHT) WITH LINE–UPS, PHOTOS AND RECENT NEWS.

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PLAYER BIOGRAPHIES AND PHOTOS WERE SKILLFULLY LAID OUT IN THE TEAM ALBUMS.

RSCN9986edited-XPAUL PATSKOU — IN HIS LATE ‘TEENS AT THE TIME — WAS AN AVID AUTOGRAPH HUNTER AND SEVERAL OF THE ALBUMS FEATURE SIGNATURES ON THE FRONT OR BACK COVERS.

THE OTHERS… IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER:

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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