TORONTO (Apr. 21) — If you’re an avid follower of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you will recognize the two most significant games played by your hockey club in the past ten years. Clearly, and despite the ignominious result, Game 7 of the opening Stanley Cup playoff round at Boston (May 13, 2013) is one of them. The other? Without question, the finale of the current season — twelve nights ago — in Newark, N.J.
“I’m not sure I’d rank them in that order,” mentioned a friend of mine who scouts for a Western Conference team in the National Hockey League. “The playoff defeat must have hurt, but the Game 82 loss [5–1] will have a much bigger impact on the Leafs. It guarantees them to pick no lower than fourth in this year’s draft, which is stacked at the top. And, I mean stacked. As I see it, all of the players ranked 1 to 4 have a terrific chance of being prime offensive threats in the NHL — big point producers. So, losing that game in New Jersey [which cemented 30th place in the overall standings] really put Toronto in a perfect spot.”
Jockeying for the cellar, of course, was the predominant theme around here in the final month of the NHL schedule. With the Leafs mired in a 2–11–2 free–fall between Feb. 6 and Mar. 5 — and having unloaded a posse of veteran players before the trade deadline — it appeared the club would finish comfortably behind all 29 league rivals. But, management decided to plug holes by elevating its top American Hockey League talent into a low–pressure, low–stakes environment. William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Connor Brown, Brandon Leipsic and others provided a spark that led to an aimless collection of 12 points in nine games through the middle of March — engendering an odd strain of panic among Leaf supporters.
Soshnikov and Hyman were particularly effective and the brain–trust had enough sense to return them to the AHL Marlies. Still, the pointless streak allowed Edmonton to slip beneath Toronto in the last days of the schedule. The Leafs had to lose in regulation time at Newark to avoid a ridiculous, late–season blunder.
THIS SCENE AT THE PRUDENTIAL CENTER, APR. 9, WARMED THE HEARTS OF NERVOUS LEAF FANS.
In the opinion of my scouting friend, the Leafs — by finishing dead–last — gained another edge.
“It reduces the impact of the [Apr. 30] draft lottery,” he said. “I know fans in Toronto are hoping the Leafs win the lottery and select first overall. But, that would have been more important if they had finished 28th or 29th. Now, with the guaranteed top–four pick, it’s less of a factor.
“So, yeah, that was a critical loss in New Jersey.”
There is near–universal agreement over the players ranked 1–to–4 for the 2016 NHL draft in Buffalo:
AUSTON MATTHEWS — Center, ZSC Switzerland — 6–foot-2, 194 pounds.
PATRIK LAINE — Right Wing, Tappara, Finland — 6–foot-4, 209 pounds.
JESSE PULJUJARVI — Right Wing, Karpat, Finland — 6–foot–3, 201 pounds.
MATTHEW TKACHUK — Left Wing, London OHL — 6–foot-1, 195 pounds.
“This is a gold mine,” said the NHL scout. “In most draft years, there are two; sometimes three franchise–type players at the top. This year, there may be five. Matthews is the most gifted of the prospects, but I think Laine could turn out to be the most special. What a great combination of hands and size. Puljujarvi is dazzling. Everyone saw what he could do in the World Junior tournament. And, young Tkachuk may be No. 4, but he played with [Maple Leafs 2015 first–rounder Mitch] Marner in London and a lot of us think he has his father’s genes (Keith Tkachuk appeared in 1,201 NHL games between 1992 and 2010 as the prototype power–forward, scoring 538 goals). So, that’s a pretty good ‘worst–case scenario’ for Toronto.”
One other Leafs prediction from my friend: “Without question, Toronto will acquire a front–line defenseman this summer. Leafs have the cap space to pull off the type of moves the Islanders did [two years ago] with Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. It will accelerate their development.”
And, finally, I couldn’t resist. “What about Steven Stamkos?”
“I don’t think he’ll sign with Toronto; nor do I think the Leafs will be terribly disappointed,” opined the scout. “Stamkos has already played in the Stanley Cup final and I think there will be more immediate [contending] options available to him in free agency. But, who knows? It’s the great mystery in our game right now.”
THURSDAY THOUGHTS: All parties reacted fairly and appropriately in the Andrew Shaw homophobic–slur episode. The Chicago Blackhawks publicly admonished their Stanley Cup veteran; the NHL levied a one–game suspension, and — most importantly — Shaw issued an immediate, heart–felt and genuine apology. Shaw is a good player and a respected teammate. He made a mistake and he manned up. Now, we should let it go and move on… The teams that have split the past four Stanley Cup titles face three elimination games in order to advance beyond the opening round of the 2016 playoffs. Los Angeles and Chicago trail San Jose and St. Louis 3–1 in their best–of–seven series. Winning consecutive playoff games at the United Center ranks among the most prominent achievements of the millennial Blues, who have been bounced three consecutive years in the opening round. Now, St. Louis has to close out Chicago and avoid another calamity. Same goes, with emphasis, for San Jose, which became — in 2014 — just the fourth NHL team to lose a best–of–seven after building a 3–0 lead. The opponent two years ago? Los Angeles. If the Kings survive Game 5 tomorrow night at the Staples Center, sphincters will begin to tighten in northern California. Fairly or not, the Sharks carry a stigma. They’ll lose it only by eliminating the Kings… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: He’ll be 105 years old and, still, no one will match the play–calling cadence of Bob Cole. What a pleasure it is to have him working the Tampa Bay–Detroit first–round series on Sportsnet and CBC… I’ll repeat the question I posed in an earlier blog: After the exhilaration of debuting in the NHL, will the Maple Leafs’ top prospects remain hungry for the Calder Cup tournament? Toronto Marlies will face the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (New York Islanders’ AHL affiliate) in the best–of–five opening round, beginning Saturday night at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Game 2 is Sunday afternoon, also in Bridgeport. The Marlies, with the best record in the AHL during the regular season, have elected to play Games 3 and, potentially, 4 and 5 on home ice at the Ricoh Coliseum. They are scheduled for next Thursday (7:30 p.m.); Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (3:00 p.m.). Can Nylander, Hyman, Soshnikov, Brown and Co. stay jacked up? We’ll soon find out… Tomorrow night is the 40th anniversary of Darryl Sittler’s record–tying five–goal playoff game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Sittler, the 25–year–old Toronto captain, victimized Hall–of–Fame netminder Bernie Parent at Maple Leaf Gardens on Apr. 22, 1976 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup quarterfinals (Leafs won, 8–5). It occurred two months and 15 nights after Sittler’s NHL–record 10–point eruption (Feb. 7, 1976) at the Gardens against Boston. His playoff outburst tied the marks set by Edouard (Newsy) Lalonde (Mar. 1, 1919) and Maurice (Rocket) Richard (Mar. 23, 1944) of the Montreal Canadiens. Incredibly, it was again matched just two weeks later (May 6, 1976) by Reggie Leach of the Flyers. Mario Lemieux also scored five playoff goals (for Pittsburgh) on Apr. 25, 1989.
IT HAS BEEN 40 YEARS SINCE DARRYL SITTLER ERUPTED FOR FIVE PLAYOFF GOALS AGAINST PHILLY.
I POSTED THIS RATHER NIFTY NHL UNIFORM ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE THE OTHER DAY AND IT WENT VIRAL. IT WAS THE ROAD JERSEY WORN BY ALAIN CARON OF THE OAKLAND SEALS LATE IN THE EXPANSION SEASON OF 1967–68. CARON WAS NICKNAMED “BOOM BOOM” AS A RESULT OF SCORING NUMBERS IN VARIOUS MINOR LEAGUES, WHERE HIS GOAL TOTALS RANGED FROM 77 TO 35. THEY COULD HAVE CHANGED IT TO “PFFT PFFT” AFTER A PALTRY NINE–GOAL NHL EFFORT WITH THE SEALS.