Early Leafs Observations

TORONTO (Oct. 21) — Nine days ago, hours before the 2016–17 National Hockey League season, I wrote a blog in this corner entitled LEAFS WILL SIZZLE… THEN FIZZLE. It was my contention that the young, talented and energetic team assembled by Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter would deliver a lively performance to start the schedule, and then succumb to inexperience and lack of defensive posture.

The first week of games has been a microcosm of this theory.

In all four matches, the Leafs appeared creative and dynamic while carrying leads into the third period. Three of the games resulted in a loss. A 4–1 advantage at Winnipeg on Wednesday night ended in a 5–4 overtime defeat. On Thursday, in St. Paul, Minn., the Wild overcame a 2–1 deficit and prevailed, 3–2. Clearly, we have viewed a limited sample–size. As I’ve argued through the years, a “start” to the NHL season is 12 to 15 games. So, it’s far–too early to begin drawing conclusions. That said, first impressions are likely accurate. Top–heavy with skill and soft hands, the young Leafs are entertaining and fun to watch. After his record opening night, Auston Matthews has “slowed” to an 86–goal rookie pace. Mitch Marner scored his first NHL goal in a lop–sided defeat of Boston. William Nylander has been all over the ice (but not always in the correct spot). Connor Carrick is an early revelation on the blue line. Nazem Kadri, now 26, continues to mature.

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AFTER ANOTHER BLOWN, THIRD–PERIOD LEAD. A LOSS AT MINNESOTA THURSDAY NIGHT.

Mike Babcock knows he has, at his disposal, a swarm of elements that cannot be taught. His ability to impart the instructional aspects of the game — defensive positioning; playing without the puck; defending a lead — will determine how quickly and abundantly the Maple Leafs improve. An early red flag is between the pipes… only because we’ve seen it perennially since 2004. Frederik Andersen reminds me, initially, of another lanky Leaf savior: Jonas Gustavsson. Flat–footed, Andersen is 6–foot–4; likely 6–foot–7 on skates. Yet he is still getting beaten high, over the shoulder. The Leafs, it appears, could sign a Zulu to play net and the same thing would happen; such are the wonders of the butterfly technique. Three starts (for Andersen) is not nearly enough of a sample–size. Inescapable, however, is that soft, untimely goals will undermine Babcock — as they did last year with Jonathan Bernier, Garret Sparks and (to a lesser extent) James Reimer.

This young team aced an early–season exam by notably subduing Boston in the home opener last weekend. No Toronto hockey fans needs a reminder of the grief the Bruins have wrought in recent years. Another test arrives on Saturday night at Chicago, where the Leafs are on a six–game losing streak, not having prevailed at the United Center since Feb. 12, 2003. A 7–2 pounding by the Blackhawks last season followed a 4–0 whitewash in December 2014. For what it’s worth, the Leafs are presumably resting in the Windy City tonight while the Hawks are playing at Columbus. Perhaps Toews, Kane and Co. will grow weary on home ice.

HALF CENTURY SINCE BOBBY’S DEBUT

This is an historic week in the National Hockey League.

Fifty years ago, the NHL began its final season before expansion, and its brightest, young star played his first games. Bobby Orr, 18, made his NHL debut for the Bruins on Oct. 19, 1966 at Boston Garden in a 6–2 victory over Detroit. He recorded his first point, assisting on a second–period goal by Wayne Connelly. Three nights later (Oct. 22, 1966), Orr played his first road game — at the Montreal Forum — and took his first penalty (in the second period of a 3–1 loss to the Canadiens). The following night, Montreal playing at Boston, No. 4 scored his first of 296 NHL goals (regular season and playoffs), beating veteran Lorne (Gump) Worsley, unassisted, with a shot from just inside the blue line and touching off a lengthy standing ovation.

Details were in the Oct. 29, 1966 edition of THE HOCKEY NEWS:

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SUMMARY (TOP–RIGHT) OF ORR’S FIRST GAME IN THE NHL.

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SUMMARY FROM ORR’S FIRST ROAD GAME (LEFT) AND HIS FIRST NHL GOAL (Oct. 23, 1966, at Boston).

AN INSTANT STAR

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AS A ROOKIE IN 1966–67, ORR BECAME THE SUBJECT OF NUMEROUS MAGAZINE ARTICLES.

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ORR AND McKENZIE

Earlier this week, Orr sat down for a two–part interview with Bob McKenzie of TSN: http://bit.ly/2ef5XIn

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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