TORONTO (June 27) — Through decades of failure, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been brilliant at selling Kool Aid to their followers. Year after year, gallons of the sugary liquid are consumed by the National Hockey League’s most dehydrated market. Undoubtedly, nothing has changed in the summer of 2016.
Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan are serving pitchers of Kool Aid from the ivory tower at 50 Bay Street. And, the line up keeps getting longer. This particular drink involves a vow that the Leafs are sacredly committed to the slow, methodical building process outlined by Shanahan to the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. It gained credibility when management sold off veteran players for draft picks prior to the NHL trade deadlines of 2015 and 2016. And, it erupted for all to see last Friday at First Niagara Center in Buffalo when Auston Matthews became the jackpot for a well–contrived plummet to the NHL basement.
If, however, the Leafs prevail in wooing Steven Stamkos north from Tampa Bay, Kool Aid will be seen cascading down every man–hole in the city. It won’t stop Lou and Brendan from offering more frosty gulps, but the flavor will clearly have changed. Though it remains conceivable, we wonder exactly how the Leafs can follow their path toward oblivion by starting the 2016–17 season with the most prolific catch in the era of unrestricted free agency (Stamkos); the top amateur prospect in the world (Matthews); the best Junior hockey player on the planet (Mitch Marner); a goalie (Frederik Andersen) with a proven track–record in the regular season and playoffs, and a coach (Mike Babcock) that has an incandescent desire to win games.
STEVEN STAMKOS LEANS INTO HIS PATENTED OFF–WING SHOT. JASON BEHNKEN TAMPA BAY TIMES
Yes, we can continue pointing northwest toward Edmonton.
The Oilers have been nothing shy of a revelation for their inability to prosper amid so many draft jewels in the past decade. Nor will the Maple Leafs begin to soar heavenward until they address the lack of a Norris Trophy type on the blue–line, and forward–depth to surround their elite prospects. But, the Oilers have trotted out 11 netminders (Devan Dubnyk, Yann Danis, Ben Scrivens, Ilya Bryzgalov, Viktor Fasth, Jason LaBarbera, Richard Bachman, Lauren Brossoit, Tyler Bunz, Anders Nilsson, Cam Talbot) since an over–the–hill Nikolai Khabibulin left the club in 2013. Nor, arguably, has Edmonton possessed a goalie of Andersen’s age (27) and credentials since Curtis Joseph defected to the Maple Leafs in the summer of 1998. So, I’m not among those that see a direct correlation of the planning routes being driven by Toronto and Edmonton.
Nor am I even implying the Leafs will threaten their half–century–long Stanley Cup drought during their Centennial season — lest you feel I’m getting carried away. But, moving beyond the low–rent district for the 2017 draft lottery is hardly out the question. If Andersen performs as he did through much of his term in Anaheim; if Matthews and Marner challenge to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year; if William Nylander regularly unleashes his lightning–quick shot; if Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Morgan Rielly take another step; if Babcock’s message permeates the new talent base… and, particularly, if the 60–goal potential of Stamkos comes aboard, it will be difficult for even the Leafs to screw up.
THE MAPLE LEAFS NO. 1 MAN — AUSTON MATTHEWS. JEFFREY T. BARNES GETTY IMAGES
Of course, Lamoriello can see to it that none of this happens by taking a deliberate pass on Stamkos in free agency; by planning to off–load Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and others for draft picks, and by finding a European country in which Marner can play against men (there is nothing more to be accomplished in Junior). Babcock can liberally alternate Andersen and Jonathan Bernier in goal, or Lamoriello can trade the final year of Bernier’s contract. The coach would then be free, once again, to deploy Garret Sparks or another American Hockey Leaguer between the pipes. So, tanking options remain for the Blue and White.
More than likely, however, Lamoriello and Shanahan will hope to execute the first scenario. Under no circumstance can they continue to peddle the “our–plan–hasn’t–changed” entreaty by pursuing and landing Stamkos. It doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying to sell that flavor of Kool Aid to fans and media… and it certainly will not (as we know) prevent the same factions from swallowing more gallons of the stuff. But, remember: Lou and Brendan also have bosses. Many of whom would appreciate some Stanley Cup playoff revenue. One of which (Rogers Communications) is beholden to a stronger Leafs product for TV ratings and ad revenue to offset its 12–year, $5.2–billion national–rights burden.
So, let’s hold off on downing that next glass of fruit–juice. At least until Friday.
MONDAY NOTES: I was surprised and rather saddened to learn today that Andy Frost will not return as the public–address announcer for Leaf games at the Air Canada Centre. Andy took over from legendary Maple Leaf Gardens voice Paul Morris shortly after the ACC opened in February 1999 and has built his own legend. On his Twitter account (https://twitter.com/AndyFrostQ107), Andy posted: “After 17 years and roughly 700 games, the contract with MLSE, as P.A. announcer for the Leafs at ACC, won’t be renewed for 2016–17. Cool with me!” It’s not–so–cool at this end. Andy did a splendid job on game nights during many lean years for the Blue and White. He’s also a wonderful man. I feel badly he won’t move forward with the team as it begins to improve… I think I understand why Rogers fired Glenn Healy from the No. 1 Hockey Night In Canada telecast crew with Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson. Technically, the reason evolves around elimination of the third party. It appears Sportsnet/CBC will now emulate TSN with a play–caller in the booth and a game analyst between the benches. Unofficially, I sense the NHL’s broadcasting “partner” here in Canada grew weary of Healy’s blunt (and largely accurate) narrative — especially as it pertained to the Maple Leafs, in which Rogers Communications has a 37.5% ownership stake. Given this cross–pollination, the move is hardly a surprise. Censorship has sadly become a major factor in the Canadian sports media landscape… On the flip–side, welcome back, Ron MacLean; welcome aboard the late–night chair, David Amber, and best wishes in all future endeavors to my long–time pal and former FAN–590 colleague, George Stroumboulopoulos, who provided Rogers and Hockey Night exactly what the company requested in 2014 — his unique style and personality… How many of us can close our eyes and see the ear–to–ear grin on Pat Quinn’s face somewhere over the rainbow today? Just more than 19 months after his death (Nov. 23, 2014), the Big Irishman has been elected to the Builders’ wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Congratulations to Pat’s family. And, oh, how I wish I could squeeze that fleshy palm one more time.