TORONTO (May 1) — Remember all those exciting moments in mid–March, Leaf fans? How your team — boosted by the call–ups of William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and others — embarked on a no–pressure, 6–2–1 streak over nine games? Well, now you understand just how close that thoroughly pointless upswing came to making you miserable on Saturday night.
One more win. Two more points.
That’s all it required for the Leafs to tumble three positions in the 2016 National Hockey League draft. Finishing 29th instead of 30th in the standings would have “awarded” Toronto the fourth overall selection at Buffalo in June. That is Edmonton’s fate after limping into second–last spot. Instead of the potential franchise center lacking since Mats Sundin’s departure in 2008, the Leafs were looking at Matthew Tkachuk of the London Knights. Still a damned good prospect and — who knows? — maybe the combative piece the Oilers have been seeking (if they don’t finally take a defenseman). But, the pall; the hockey depression that would have descended on our city had the Leafs prevailed only once more in their absurd tempt of fate.
As such — and as pointed out in this corner last week — the most significant regular–season game for the Leafs in the past decade was that 5–1 trouncing by the New Jersey Devils, in Newark, on the penultimate night of the schedule. It guaranteed a 30th–place finish for the Blue and White.
MOMENT OF TRUTH: MAPLE LEAFS PRESIDENT BRENDAN SHANAHAN (FAR–RIGHT) BREAKS INTO A SMILE NEXT TO WINNIPEG G.M. KEVIN CHEVELDAYOFF AS NHL DEPUTY VICE–PRESIDENT BILL DALY HOLDS UP HIS TEAM’S NEW LOGO, SIGNIFYING THE LEAFS HAD WON THE 2016 DRAFT LOTTERY.
EDMONTON’S POSITION ON THE FINAL DRAFT–LOTTERY BOARD INDICATES TO SHANAHAN WHERE HIS CLUB NEARLY FINISHED IN THE DRAW. CBC/SPORTSNET IMAGES
So, Brendan Shanahan does indeed have the luck of the Irish — two times over. Once, for his team stopping just short of self–destruction. And, again, for avoiding the 80 percent chance of “losing” the draft lottery. Perhaps the Leafs earned some good fortune by turning away from the quick–fix mentality that has kept the club out of the playoffs in a full, 82–game schedule since 2004. Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello pushed all the right buttons this season… until their puzzling decision to recall a handful of the elite players from the best team in the American Hockey League. With nothing to gain and everything to lose, the Leafs played with fire and came close to suffering a trio of burns: Spots 1, 2 and 3 in the draft.
Luckily for all involved, they got away with it.
Now, the clever maneuvering of the past calendar year — unloading the contracts of Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf; trading regulars Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, James Reimer, Shawn Matthias and Daniel Winnick; shutting down James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul at the end of February — has prevailed. In Auston Mathhews, the Leafs will procure their best center–ice prospect in the draft since Jim Gregory nabbed Darryl Sittler eighth overall in 1970. At 6–foot–2; nearly 200 pounds, and apparently still growing, Matthews should plug the hole long–ago vacated by Sundin’s 6–foot–5, 230–pound frame. If he develops as many scouts predict, the Leafs will have a genuine superstar up the middle. The past two–such commodities — Sundin and Doug Gilmour — were acquired by trading a combined eight players and one draft choice.
This route is far–more sensible.
But, oh, how the Leafs nearly dynamited their own blueprint.
ROOKIE HOCKEY CARDS
From Bobby Orr to Wayne Gretzky
Now that the 2016 NHL draft lottery has been conducted — and the Toronto Maple Leafs are guaranteed top pick — I delved into my collection of hockey cards for some of the choice rookie items in a golden era for hockey between 1966 and 1979. The bookends became the two greatest players in NHL history: Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins and Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers. But, there were copious legends in–between — most of whom are today members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
A PLASTIC SLEEVE FROM MY 1966–67 TOPPS NHL SET, INCLUDING THE BOBBY ORR ROOKIE CARD.
The trading–card companies TOPPS (in the United States) and O–PEE–CHEE (in Canada) issued the annual hockey sets. TOPPS had a monopoly for several years… until 1968–69 — the second season of the expanded NHL — when O–PEE–CHEE came into being with editions that featured a larger number of NHL players.
PLASTIC SLEEVES FROM MY 1973–74 (LEFT) AND 1979–80 O–PEE–CHEE NHL SETS.
Here, then, is a selection of noticeable — and valuable — rookie cards:
ARGUABLY THE MOST SOUGHT–AFTER ROOKIE ITEM IS ORR’S CARD FROM THE ’66–67 TOPPS SET. MINE (ABOVE) IS IN GOOD–ENOUGH CONDITION TO FETCH AT LEAST FOUR FIGURES.
DEREK SANDERSON WON THE 1967–68 CALDER TROPHY AS NHL ROOKIE–OF–THE YEAR. ROGATIEN VACHON WON THE STANLEY CUP WITH THE MONTREAL CANADIENS.
THE FIRST O–PEE–CHEE HOCKEY SET, IN 1968–69, FEATURED CARDS FROM THE SIX EXPANSION TEAMS OF THE PREVIOUS YEAR, INCLUDING THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS AND PITTSBURGH PENGUINS.
TONY ESPOSITO STILL HOLDS THE NHL RECORD OF 15 SHUT–OUTS IN ONE SEASON: 1969–70.
BUFFALO’S GIL PERREAULT BECAME ONE OF THE MOST ELECTRIFYING PLAYERS IN NHL HISTORY. HE WAS CHOSEN AHEAD OF DALE TALLON IN 1970. TALLON IS TODAY GM OF THE FLORIDA PANTHERS.
IF THE LEAFS FIND ANOTHER DARRYL SITTLER IN AUSTON MATTHEWS, THEY’LL BE VERY HAPPY.
1971 YIELDED THE BEST–EVER ONE–TWO COMBO AT THE TOP OF THE DRAFT.
WHY BILL MIKKELSON IN 1972–73? BECAUSE HE CRAFTED THE WORST–EVER PLUS–MINUS FIGURE (MINUS–82) A COUPLE OF SEASONS LATER FOR THE EXPANSION WASHINGTON CAPITALS.
BILLY SMITH AND LARRY ROBINSON COMBINED TO WIN 10 STANLEY CUP TITLES.
NOT A BAD HAUL FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS IN 1973–74.
ARGUABLY THE MOST VALUABLE ROOKIE–COACH HOCKEY CARD OF ALL TIME.
CLARK GILLIES WAS A MAJOR COG WITH THE FOUR–TIME STANLEY CUP–CHAMPION ISLANDERS.
BRYAN TROTTIER CENTERED A LINE WITH GILLIES AND MIKE BOSSY DURING THE ISLANDERS DYNASTY.
THE TIGER CAME UP TO THE MAPLE LEAFS MIDWAY THROUGH THE 1974–75 NHL SEASON BUT O–PEE–CHEE DIDN’T ISSUE HIS ROOKIE CARD UNTIL 1976–77.
MIKE PALMATEER’S BRILLIANCE IN GOAL HELPED THE LEAFS TO A BIG PLAYOFF UPSET OF THE ISLANDERS IN THE 1978 STANLEY CUP QUARTERFINALS. MIKE MILBURY IS NOW A TV STAR.
MIKE BOSSY MAY HAVE BEEN THE MOST NATURALLY–GIFTED SCORER IN NHL ANNALS. DOUG WILSON HAD GREAT OFFENSIVE FLAIR FOR CHICAGO AND IS NOW GM OF THE SAN JOSE SHARKS.
TWO FORMER ANAHEIM COACHES — BRUCE BOUDREAU SUCCEEDING RANDY CARLYLE IN 2011.
THE GREAT ONE’S ROOKIE NHL CARD; MR. HOCKEY’S LAST NHL CARD.