Leafs Are Still Two Bricks Shy

TORONTO (Apr. 11) — The question was raised to all parties involved with the Toronto Maple Leafs: “How much longer?” As in, “when can we expect the turn toward contention?”

Quite a loaded inquiry, I submit, of the 30th–place club in the National Hockey League, but a trendy theme nonetheless. Replies, as you might expect, were laced with ambiguity and caution. Not surprisingly, veteran general manager Lou Lamoriello — he of the three Stanley Cups in New Jersey — offered a nonpareil summary, as told to Kevin McGran in the Toronto Star:

RSCN9920edited-X-BAlso in the Star was a sub–title to Bruce Arthur’s front sports–page column today: “This organization is finally getting it right, but there’s no road map to [the] promised land.” Allow me to disagree. The road map is crystal–clear and it involves the two most important bricks of the building process: An indisputable No. 1 goalie and a Norris Trophy candidate on the blue–line. The Maple Leafs appear to have neither and will not surge toward Stanley Cup contention until both are in place. No one better understands this than Lamoriello, himself, after his blessed years in the Meadowlands with Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. Coach Mike Babcock can similarly point to his Stanley Cup of 2008 in Detroit with Chris Osgood and the incomparable Nicklas Lidstrom. Hockey has evolved in the past ten years, but these requirements will never diminish. In their absence, a championship is virtually unattainable.

This was proven a generation ago by the Quebec Nordiques and more recently by the Edmonton Oilers.

The Nordiques missed the playoffs in five consecutive years (1987–88 to 1991–92) at a time when making the playoffs was far less of a challenge. On three consecutive occasions, they chose first in the NHL draft: Mats Sundin (1989), Owen Nolan (1990) and Eric Lindros (1991, dealt to Philadelphia in a package that included Peter Forsberg). Had they not missed with the No. 3 pick in 1988 — defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn (Saskatoon WHL) did play 16 years, but as a middling presence; Jeremy Roenick and Teemu Selanne were still available — the Nords would have seized another Hall–of–Fame talent. Still, the franchise lumbered along without distinction until the seminal night of Dec. 2, 1995, when Patrick Roy, having been left to wallow in net by coach Mario Tremblay while allowing nine Detroit goals at the Montreal Forum, famously told Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey he would never again wear the bleu, blanc et rouge.

Four days later, Roy was traded to the transplanted Nordiques, which had re–located in Denver as the Colorado Avalanche. Six months later, the long–scuffling franchise won its first Stanley Cup. It did so without a Norris Trophy contender on the blue line, but with one of the top half–dozen goalies in NHL history.

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The Edmonton saga is current and rather cautionary for the Maple Leafs.

While stockpiling gifted forwards at or near the top of the NHL draft since 2010 (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent–Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid; Jordan Eberle was a first–round pick in 2008), the Oilers have missed the playoffs in nine consecutive years — nudging out the Maple Leafs by a point for 29th place this season. It may be a mystery to some, but not to this corner. Edmonton’s goaltending has been in a perpetual form of disarray and the club is devoid of anything that resembles a Norris Trophy performer. Though McDavid should ultimately extract the team from its decade–long quagmire, Edmonton will not contend for the Stanley Cup until its two missing bricks are discovered.

Toronto, similarly, has targeted forwards in its recent development — Nazem Kadri, Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Fredrik Gauthier, William Nylander and Mitch Marner have been drafted since 2009; Zach Hyman was acquired in a trade with Florida; Nikita Soshnikov signed as an un–drafted free agent) — and will undoubtedly add another with its guaranteed top–four selection this June. The Leafs haven’t ignored the blue line — drafting Morgan Rielly fifth overall in 2012; prospects Rinat Valiyev and Viktor Loov in later rounds — but do not yet have their defensive “horse.” Rielly is smart, fast and improving under Babcock, but the coach, in my view, accurately referred to him as a “real good No. 2 [defenseman]” earlier this season. The Leafs still need a clone of Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Zdeno Chara or Erik Karlsson; the club hasn’t dressed a first or second–team All–Star since Borje Salming in 1979–80.

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Toronto’s goaltending, moving forward, it a complete mystery.

Though Jonathan Bernier was effective, at times, late in the season, he’s been mostly undependable since arriving in a 2013 trade with Los Angeles. With one year remaining on his contract, there is no indication that Bernier can guide the Leafs toward contention. Though young Garret Sparks provided some mid–season excitement, he was ineffective in the latter months. Antoine Bibeau and prospect Kaskisuo Kasimir have no NHL experience. Nothing is more critical to the Leafs’ development than solidifying this compulsory role. As of today, we cannot predict how it will be addressed.

Lamoriello and Co. must also be mindful of the trend toward diminutive forwards. Other than Gauthier, who will never be more than a third–line plugger, the club’s most–gifted prospects are small and/or slightly built. Though hockey is less of a big–man’s game than a decade ago, a contending teams needs a mix of size and skill. The opportunity of selecting American–born center Auston Matthews (6–foot–2, 194 pounds and growing) or Finnish–born winger Patrik Laine (6–foot–4, 209 pounds) — to be determined by the Apr. 30 NHL draft lottery — would contribute immeasurably toward such balance.

Yes, the NHL future in this city has an upside. The Leafs appear committed to a traditional build and have stockpiled good, young talent. But, the answer to the overriding question at Air Canada Centre on Sunday — “how much longer before contention?” — cannot be answered until both missing bricks are found.

ED AND PAL HAL: Condolences to the Philadelphia Flyers and the family of Ed Snider, who died today of cancer at 83. Snider was the founding father of the NHL in Philadelphia, having owned and chaired the club since its 1967 inception. Under his watch, the Flyers became the first of the ’67 expansion teams to win the Stanley Cup — doing so consecutively in 1974 and 1975. While ascending to influence among NHL owners in the 70’s, Snider often ran afoul of Toronto counterpart Harold Ballard. Their’s was never a warm acquaintance and it echoed with coincidence that Snider passed away on the 26th anniversary of Ballard’s death (Apr. 11, 1990). Perhaps long–standing and deep–rooted antipathy can be mitigated “up above.”

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ED SNIDER’S PHOTO (ABOVE) AND BIO (BELOW) IN THE INAUGURAL FLYERS’ MEDIA GUIDE.

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CRUISING THROUGH TIME

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I spent an enjoyable couple of hours with my son, Shane, at the Toronto International Centre late Saturday afternoon. The semi–annual Sports Card & Memorabilia Expo normally comes to town in May and November, but the spring event this year moved to early–April. I forever walk through these shows wishing I were a multi–millionaire. Large moving vans would be needed to transport my purchases. As it were, I did most of my serious collecting in the 1980’s and have since shown remarkable restraint. This weekend’s gala featured the usual plethora of hockey and baseball memorabilia.

With trusty NIKON in hand, I captured my favorites:

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MINI–PENNANTS FROM THE EARLY YEARS OF NHL EXPANSION.

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ALLEGEDLY, LEAF DEFENSEMAN TIM HORTON’S GAME-WORN JERSEY FROM 1968.

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REPLICA JERSEY WORN BY BOBBY ORR IN HIS ROOKIE NHL SEASON OF 1966–67.

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THREE OF THE GREATEST IN A SIGNED PHOTO FROM THE 1969 NHL ALL–STAR GAME.

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MINI–KEN DRYDEN IN HIS CLASSIC GOAL–CREASE STANCE.

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REPLICA GOAL MASKS OF KEN DRYDEN (LEFT) AND TERRY SAWCHUK.

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MIKE PALMATEER WORE THIS MASK–DESIGN WITH TORONTO IN THE LATE–70’s.

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HOW ABOUT A PLATE OF NORTH STAR?

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CURRENT LEAFS AND FORMER RED WING PLAYERS.

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WAYNE GRETZKY NEGOTIATED TO SIGN WITH THE LEAFS AS A FREE AGENT IN THE SUMMER OF 1996, BUT COULDN’T REACH AN ACCORD. INSTEAD, HE CHOSE THE NEW YORK RANGERS.

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AUTHENTIC SEATS (ABOVE AND BELOW) FROM THE OLD MONTREAL FORUM.

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JERSEYS OF THE GREAT ONE IN EDMONTON AND MR. HOCKEY IN HARTFORD.

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RARE AUTOGRAPH FROM THE HABS’ ORIGINAL NO. 4 — AURELE JOLIAT (1901–1986).

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THE HOWE CLAN WITH HOUSTON AEROS OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION — CIRCA 1973.

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YES, I NEARLY BIT ON THIS ORIGINAL CALIFORNIA SEALS LOGO–PATCH FROM 1967, BUT NOT QUITE.

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THE GREATEST MOMENT IN CALGARY’S NHL HISTORY (AND I SAW IT LIVE AT THE MONTREAL FORUM).

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THE GRAND OL’ LADY OF CARLTON STREET — LOOKING MUCH THE SAME TODAY.

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NHL CAPTAINS OF THE 1960’s — ALEX DELVECCHIO, JOHNNY BUCYK AND PIERRE PILOTE.

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STILL SECOND IN ALL–TIME LEAFS SCORING, BEHIND MATS SUNDIN.

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TWO OF THE GREATEST FRENCH–CANADIAN STARS IN NHL HISTORY.

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BOB GAINEY  CAPTAINED MONTREAL TO THE 1986 STANLEY CUP.

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A FORMER LEAFS GREAT. AND, PERHAPS A FUTURE ONE?

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I COUGHED UP $20 FOR THIS FRAMED PHOTO — TAKEN DURING THE 1993 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS.

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BOBBY AND GORDIE IN AN ALL–TIME GREAT PHOTO FROM THE 1969 NHL ALL–STAR GAME.

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PLATE DEPICTING THE NIGHT GORDIE HOWE ECLIPSED ROCKET RICHARD’S NHL POINTS TOTAL.

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LOGO–PATCHES GALORE AND A RARE POSTER (BELOW) OF MY FACEBOOK PAL, CURT RIDLEY, WHO PLAYED FOR VANCOUVER AND THE LEAFS NEARLY 30 YEARS AGO.

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COLLECTIBLE CAPS OF ALL SIZE AND COLOR.

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ARGUABLY HOCKEY’S MOST ICONIC PHOTO — COLORIZED.

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LARGE DISPLAY OF CARDS FROM THE O–PEE–CHEE 1968–69 NHL SET.

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A MONTREAL SELLER WANTED $250 FOR THIS ITEM… AND IT IS WORTH EVERY CENT. A PROGRAM, IN NEAR–MINT CONDITION, FROM THE EXPOS FIRST–EVER HOME GAME (vs. ST. LOUIS — APR. 14, 1969) AT OLD JARRY PARK. AGAIN, I WAS MIGHTILY TEMPTED.

AND, SPEAKING OF BASEBALL…

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FROM HIS DAYS CENTERING THE “TRIPLE CROWN” LINE WITH DAVE TAYLOR AND CHARLIE SIMMER.

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MORE SIGNED JERSEYS.

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SHANE BOUGHT THIS BEER MUG FROM THE 2000 NHL ALL–STAR GAME AT AIR CANADA CENTRE.

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MY SON ALSO FOUND THIS RARE PHOTO OF THE MAPLE LEAFS TEAM THAT WON THE 1951 STANLEY CUP AGAINST MONTREAL ON BILL BARILKO’S LEGENDARY OVERTIME GOAL.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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