TORONTO (July 2) — As most anticipated, the Maple Leafs stepped back Friday and observed the insanity of the National Hockey League’s 2016 free agent frenzy. At least, the initial three hours or so. At which point Lou Lamoriello chose to maneuver safely by inking plugger Matt Martin to a four–year, $10 million contract. The rugged left–winger scored a career–best 10 goals for the New York Islanders last season while ringing up 119 penalty minutes. He’ll contribute some needed muscle to Mike Babcock’s third and fourth lines.
Though Lamoriello will surely add a defenceman at some point — Babcock would be a candidate for a nervous breakdown with a top four of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin — it appears the veteran GM should have a leisurely off–season. The procurement of Steven Stamkos would have blown up the so–called “Shanaplan”. Now that No. 91 has chosen to stay in Tampa, the Leafs can work toward tanking for a third consecutive season. It may be more difficult if Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander make the club out of training camp, and if Frederik Andersen is a gymnast between the pipes. Otherwise, Lamoriello appears to be fine with the Leafs scraping the nether regions once again.
“We really weren’t in the market to do much,” the GM confirmed. “But, you talk just to make sure you’re aware of what’s going on. And, if something unique comes about that can help, you have to be available.”
MATT MARTIN IS LIABLE TO NEED A HAIRCUT BEFORE HE CAN SKATE WITH LOU LAMORIELLO’S LEAFS.
In the long run, it is sound strategy — though it must again be stated how fortunate the Leafs are to operate in a market that will accept any managerial blueprint. Only the Leafs could finish dead–last in a 30–team league and raise the cost of the NHL’s most expensive tickets by two percent across the board. It’s the same reason the gimmicky World Cup of Hockey tournament this autumn is being held exclusively in our town. Selling tickets at wildly–inflated prices would be virtually impossible anywhere else.
Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan have been shrewd enough to avail themselves of this soft market — while prudently structuring the team in a manner consistent with the salary cap era. This, of course, wouldn’t be possible in a city where ticket sales are contingent on performance. The Maple Leafs deserve credit for taking a legitimate and genuine run at Stamkos, but the focus will now shift toward stocking and tearing down yet another edition of the hockey club. And, maneuvering so the team does not have to expose an integral piece for the expansion draft next June. “Loophole” Lou will need to be at his best.
At some point before moving into contention, the Leafs must get around to acquiring a legitimate No. 1 defenseman. It will not happen in free agency, as rival teams are locking up these rare birds. Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay — eight years, $63 million) and Aaron Ekblad (Florida — eight years, $60 million) were secured Friday. Norris Trophy finalist Brett Burns can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, but let’s assume the San Jose Sharks will not allow that to happen. Even if it somehow does, Burns will be 32 years old. The underwhelming list of potential UFA blue–liners includes Dennis Wideman (Calgary), Johnny Oduya (Dallas), ancient Andre Markov (Montreal), Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (Philadelphia), Trevor Daley (Pittsburgh) and Karl Alzner (Washington). Some talent and depth, but not an anchor among them.
BIG–NAME DEFENSEMEN LIKE VICTOR HEDMAN WILL NEVER BE AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY.
Swedish–born defenceman Timothy Liljegren is ranked No. 2 on most early draft lists for Chicago in 2017 (behind center Nolan Patrick — Brandon WHL), so the Leafs will have to bottom out again in order to have a shot at him. Callan Foote (Kelowna WHL) is also highly rated for next June at the United Center, as is Finnish blue–liner Urho Vaakanainen. Trading for a No. 1 defenseman is nearly impossible, unless another–such entity is involved (i.e. Subban for Weber). Kevin Shattenkirk could be available from St. Louis. Having lost captain David Backes to the Bruins on Friday, the Blues may be looking at another center — a position of depth for the Maple Leafs should Babcock choose to deploy one or both of Marner and Nylander up the middle. As I wrote in an earlier blog, Nazem Kadri could then become the focal point of a potential trade.
But, this is merely speculation.
Neither is Shattenkirk universally considered a No. 1.
CANADA DAY BASEBALL MARATHON
How unfortunate it was for the remnants of a sell–out crowd at Rogers Centre on Friday to watch the Toronto Blue Jays virtually concede the longest game in their 39–year history. The Jays lost a Canada Day marathon, 2–1, to the scorching–hot Cleveland Indians — the decisive run scored in the top of the 19th inning when Carlos Santana (“Oye Como Va”) hit a long home run off Toronto infielder Darwin Barney. Yes, indeed, the Blue Jays trotted out position players Ryan Goins and Barney to the mound in the final two innings, refusing to sacrifice Saturday afternoon’s starter, Marco Estrada. Cleveland did the opposite, turning to right–hander Trevor Bauer for the final five innings. As such, the Indians won a franchise–record 14th consecutive game. The Blue Jays have slumped to 4–8 in their past 12.
INFIELDERS RYAN GOINS (LEFT) AND DARWIN BARNEY PITCHED FOR TORONTO ON FRIDAY. DEVON TRAVIS GROUNDED OUT TO END THE BALL GAME JUST AFTER 7:30 P.M. SPORTSNET TV IMAGES
The game lasted six hours and 13 minutes. It began at 1:20 p.m. EDT and ended at 7:33 p.m. The Jays had played into the 19th inning against Detroit at Rogers Centre on Aug. 10, 2014 before Jose Bautista’s winning base–hit. Friday was the first time the club went 19 full innings. Home–plate umpire Vic Carapazza drew the ire of the Blue Jays and the capacity crowd of 45,825 by punching out several Toronto players with called third strikes that appeared high and out of the zone. Carapazza ejected Edwin Encarnacion and manager John Gibbons in the first inning; then catcher Russell Martin in the 13th — each for arguing balls and strikes. Still, the Blue Jays had runners at second and third all afternoon and couldn’t summon a clutch hit. Toronto has scored two measly runs in 28 innings against Cleveland so far in the weekend series.
FAMILIAR SIGHT: TORONTO’S EZEQUIEL CARRERA ARGUES WITH HOME–PLATE UMPIRE VIC CARAPAZZA AFTER BEING CALLED OUT ON STRIKES TO END THE 13th INNING. SPORTSNET TV IMAGE