TORONTO (July 11) — With the typical summer lull between mid–July and mid–August now underway in the National Hockey League, the guessing game is in full swing. Every year at this time, general managers, coaches, fans and media pause to wonder. With the draft and the free agency typhoon having passed comes a trio of pervasive questions: Are teams better? Are they worse? Or, about the same?
Here in Toronto, with the longest Stanley Cup drought nearing a full half–century (mark the date: May 2, 2017), wonderment abounds. The Maple Leafs have gone down a path that is entirely foreign in the post–2005 lockout era. The club is building a foundation through the amateur draft. It is hardly a novel concept, yet one that’s been repeatedly skirted by those in charge of the Blue and White. Ownership and management, it must be said, share equal blame for the longest playoff famine (10 years) during a full regular season in franchise history. When it might end remains part of the guesswork at this time of year.
An interested observer of the Maple Leafs is Hall–of–Fame executive Jim Devellano.
Though for many years the senior vice–president of the Detroit Red Wings, Jimmy D. was born in Toronto; he grew up in Toronto and made his fortune in Maple Leaf Gardens stock. He divides living time today, at age 73, between our city and the Gulf coast of Florida, and he attends a number of games at the Air Canada Centre during the NHL season. In his career with the Red Wings, Devellano had a long association with current Leafs coach, Mike Babcock, and with Maple Leafs president, Brendan Shanahan, who won three Stanley Cup titles as a hard–nosed Detroit winger between 1997–98 and 2005–06. Jimmy D. is also uniquely acquainted at the NHL executive level with Lou Lamoriello — the current Toronto general manager (just three months his senior) from Lamoriello’s quarter-century in charge of the New Jersey Devils.
MY PHOTO OF JIM DEVELLANO (LEFT) AT AMALIE ARENA IN TAMPA WITH LIFE–LONG HOCKEY PALS DANNY BELISLE AND SCOTTY BOWMAN. JIM LIVES ON THE GULF COAST DURING WINTER MONTHS.
As such, I rang Devellano on the telephone Monday afternoon and wondered if he’d provide an objective assessment of the Maple Leafs heading into their Centennial season. Perhaps only a few executives of a rival team could summon the appropriate tenor for such a conversation, but Jimmy D. had no difficulty.
“I like what the Leafs are doing and it probably could have been done sooner,” surmised Devellano. “I actually thought Brian Burke was in a perfect position to build the club patiently. He came around [in November 2008] with a 5½–year contract worth $17 million and — from what I understood — the full backing of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Board. More importantly, Brian had the savvy and hockey smarts to understand what needed to be done with the Leafs. To this day, it surprises me that he took a fast–track approach and didn’t make use of the full contract term provided him. He had every quality for the job — from knowing the game at different levels [player agent, NHL front–office executive and GM] to his outgoing personality and his ability to spar with the Toronto media. Unfortunately for Brian, it didn’t work out — even though the Leafs made the playoffs [in 2013] with the team he left behind.
“At that point, MLSE went in an entirely different direction,” Jimmy D. continued. “It brought in a person [Shanahan] with no experience running a team in the NHL, and I wasn’t sure how the situation might unfold. But, Brendan really impressed me. Rather than cleaning house right away, he took the better part of a year to work with the people that were already in place [GM David Nonis; club executives Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle; coach Randy Carlyle; amateur and professional scouts]. He wanted to determine how many of these people he could move forward with. Ultimately, as was his prerogative, he chose to make changes. And, during the entire process, Brendan stood quietly in the background. He was polite with the media, but not overly accessible. And, most significantly, he refused to make any bold promises.
“I still remember his answer to a reporter that asked about the length of the building process. ‘It’ll take however long it takes,’ was Brendan’s reply. An absolutely wonderful response. He sold his plan to the MLSE Board and — perhaps more importantly — he sold it to the Toronto media. Once the media bought in, so too did the club’s fan–base. Along came Mike Babcock with his promise of short–term ‘pain’ and Lou Lamoriello with his ability to keep family secrets. Under Brendan, the Maple Leafs have created a near–perfect environment in which to do business in a very difficult market. He deserves a ton of credit.”
JIMMY D. TALKS SHOP WITH LONG–TIME DETROIT GENERAL MANAGER KEN HOLLAND. GETTY IMAGES
Far–more difficult, according to Devellano, is predicting the next step.
“The Leafs will get better because they are building through the draft,” said Jimmy D. “How much better or how quickly the club will improve are questions that cannot yet be answered. We’ve seen others take the same approach with generally good results. Chicago was lousy for awhile and built a Stanley Cup team around Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. Pittsburgh was on the verge of bankruptcy before Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc–Andre Fleury and Kris Letang came along. Within four years, the Penguins won the Cup. Los Angeles went from mediocre to champion with Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. Washington was bad until it drafted Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Now, the Capitals are a very good team but haven’t gotten over the playoff hump. Way back in time (1983), we [Detroit] did the same thing starting with Steve Yzerman and it led to four Stanley Cup titles. So, the process of building a champion through the draft hasn’t changed. But, there are no guaranteed results.
“You look at Edmonton, of course, and the process hasn’t clicked for the Oilers. That club has drafted some of the most talented kids on Earth for the past five or six years, but without moving ahead. And, no one in hockey can tell you exactly why. That’s always the danger with young players. You bring them in and hope they will not only adjust to the NHL, but fit properly together. If it were an exact science, we’d all be Stanley Cup contenders every year. The fact is, many things have to fall in place for that to happen.”
Can Jimmy D. therefore tell us whether the Maple Leafs will make quick progress with their presumptive additions next season: William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews?
“There’s a ton of potential with those players, but, again, they’re kids,” he replied. “Marner and Matthews haven’t yet taken a shift in the NHL. And though I see lots of skill in young Nylander, I don’t think I’m the only hockey person wondering if he’ll develop the compete–level to be a top–line forward. Others auditioned for the Leafs late in the season [Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Brandon Leipsic]. Will they become big–time players in the NHL or simply fill out the roster? I can’t answer that right now. I can tell you it doesn’t happen overnight. And, honestly, I’m not sure the Leafs care if it happens that quickly.
“When you look at Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles, it took more than one or two bad years in the standings to compile their foundation players. Generally, you need three or four good drafts — and, I might add, some success in the mid–to–later rounds — before taking a big step toward contention.
“In any event, the Leafs are going about it the proper way. With the right people in charge. But, it wouldn’t shock me if there’s a bit more ‘pain’ in the immediate future. Mike Babcock knows of what he speaks.”
MITCH MARNER (LEFT) AND AUSTON MATTHEWS DURING THE LEAFS DEVELOPMENT CAMP THIS WEEK.
BACK IN MISSION VALLEY
For the first time in 24 years, the Major League Baseball All–Star Game is being held in San Diego.
Petco Park (opened Apr. 8, 2004) — home of the San Diego Padres — is the scene of tonight’s Home Run Derby and Tuesday night’s match between the National and American Leagues. The winner earns its League home–field advantage in the World Series. I have fond memory of covering the last All–Star Game in San Diego for what would soon thereafter become Canada’s first all–sports radio station. In 1992, the Padres and the National Football League San Diego Chargers shared Jack Murphy (now Qualcomm) Stadium. The Chargers still play at Qualcomm, located five miles east of downtown. Petco Park, conversely, is smack in the middle of downtown San Diego — at the edge of the famed Gaslamp Quarter.
The ’92 All–Star Game (on July 14) took place 3½ months before the Toronto Blue Jays won their first of consecutive World Series titles. Second–baseman Roberto Alomar and right–fielder Joe Carter were named to the American League starting line–up. Pitcher Juan Guzman also made the team. Right–hander Kevin Brown of Texas started on the mound for the A.L. against southpaw Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves.
MY MEDIA CREDENTIAL AND OFFICIAL PROGRAM FROM THE 1992 ALL–STAR GAME IN SAN DIEGO.
What I remember most about covering the ’92 event is being ticked off at my boss, Allan Davis (now program director at WGR–550 sports–radio in Buffalo). Here was Allan spending money to fly me to southern California and hole me up for three nights at the swanky Pan Pacific Hotel. Apparently, my CJCL–1430 microphone; my tape machine, and my chutzpah as a reporter weren’t enough for the decision makers back home. Allan, therefore, subscribed to an ABC feed in order to get one–on–one player interviews. I never said a word about it, but I remember thinking “I’ll give Allan an ABC feed up his arse.”
Major League Baseball did splendid work with media availability. It required nothing more than a bit of hustle to come up with 19 one–on–one interviews (I still remember that number) — from then–Commissioner Fay Vincent to all of the most sought–after players (Alomar, Carter, Glavine, Dennis Eckersley, Mark McGwire, Wade Boggs, Ryne Sandberg and the late Tony Gwynn among them). I even had a shot at United States president George H.W. Bush, who attended the game, but missed the cut–off by about two or three radio stations (MLB naturally favored the American outlets). One after another, I kept feeding four and five–minute interviews down the line from San Diego. To this day, I remember Dan Shulman (now of ESPN Sunday–night Baseball) hosting an afternoon shift at our place. It was the softest three hours of Dan’s career, as he kept introducing the one–on–one’s I’d gotten at the ballpark.
QUALCOMM STADIUM IN SAN DIEGO — HOME OF THE 1992 MAJOR LEAGUE ALL–STAR GAME.
Later in the day, I spoke on the phone with Allan.
“You sent us twice as much volume as the ABC feed,” he offered, somewhat incredulously. Given that he was my boss — and a friend (which Allan remains today) — I resisted the urge to say “D’uh!” It was a long time ago, but I hope some other young buck was shifting maniacally between ball players during today’s media event at Petco Park. As I tell most everyone, I never truly worked a day in my life at the radio station.