TORONTO (Oct. 26) — First, the good news for hockey fans in this city: The Leafs are only two points out of Wild Card playoff territory in the Eastern Conference with 76 games left. The mathematical possibilities are endless. Not so good are the early–season indicators. Until the Leafs adopt a shred of defensive acumen, improving on last year’s 30th–place finish will never be as easy as 1–2–3 — which happens to mirror the club’s ominous record after six games. We are likely (and predictably) in for another bumpy ride.
During the telecast of Tuesday night’s 7–3 shellacking of the Maple Leafs by Tampa Bay at the Air Canada Centre, the forever–optimistic Greg Millen told viewers (and, I’m paraphrasing): “This has been another rough night for the young Leafs. But, there will be many more good nights ahead for the team this season, I can assure you.” Greg hardly came out of left field with his comment, though “rough” was a rather polite way to characterize the lop–sided result. Yes, the Leafs will have shining moments as the schedule moves along, when their off–the–charts skill overwhelms the opposition. Goaltending clearly has to improve by many lengths, and it likely will get better. Where the Leafs, however, cannot compare to Tampa Bay is on the blue line; a common theme in this corner through the years. In Victor Hedman, the Lightning has what Toronto sorely lacks — a big, domineering horse on the back end. The Leafs have a couple of No. 2 guys and a whole bunch of 3’s and 4’s in front of beleaguered stopper Frederik Andersen. His life will not drastically improve — nor will the club contend for anything of substance — until this age–old deficit is conquered.
BIG VICTOR HEDMAN DOMINATED BOTH ENDS OF THE AIR CANADA CENTRE ICE ON TUESDAY.
Though Steven Stamkos battered the Leafs on the score–sheet with a career record–tying four points, it was Hedman that controlled the tempo of Tuesday night’s match. The Leafs haven’t possessed a blue–liner of such capacity since Borje Salming in the mid–to–late–1970’s. That’s a long, long time ago. The good Leaf teams under Pat Burns and Pat Quinn had some reasonable facsimiles — Dave Ellett, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle — but neither a true Norris Trophy candidate (though McCabe was close) nor an assertive physical presence. Hedman is equally comfortable with the puck in the attacking zone and without the puck while thwarting opposition shooters. Players of such ilk are hardly plentiful, yet mandatory for Cup contention.
This is not breaking news to the Maple Leafs’ hierarchy. Brendan Shanahan won three Stanley Cup titles as a Hall–of–Fame power–forward with Detroit (1997–98–2002) while a teammate of arguably the greatest European–born NHLer of all time: Nicklas Lidstrom. Mike Babcock was coach of the Red Wings on June 4, 2008 when Lidstrom — at the old Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh — became the first captain from Europe to raise the silver mug. Lou Lamoriello generally managed a trio of Stanley Cup teams at New Jersey with Hall–of–Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer manning the blue line. Rarely, has there been a more efficient one–two punch: Stevens decimating opponents with bone–jarring hits and Niedermayer, among the most naturally–gifted skaters in the game, moving the puck with remarkable quickness and accuracy.
During his years as captain of the Leafs, Dion Phaneuf had physical attributes to become the missing link on the back end. He still ranks, while toiling for Ottawa, among the best in hockey at stepping up and delivering an open–ice wallop. But, Dion has never been accomplished at reading play in the defensive zone. He was frequently out of position and slow to react with the puck. The truly elite defenders — Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty — are instinctive behind the blue line; not foolproof, but overwhelmingly smooth and competent. For decades, this has been a shortfall with the Maple Leafs.
I cannot say for certain, but my instinct tells me Babcock is not enamored of Morgan Rielly — the Leafs’ most–skilled defenseman. Rielly doesn’t consume the powerplay time of a legitimate No. 1 blue–liner and was famously coined last season — by his coach — as a “real good No. 2” [defenseman]. Though Rielly is a terrific skater and has shown steady improvement while handling the puck, there is virtually no physical element to his game. That would be fine, providing the Leafs were able to pair him with a head–basher. Lidstrom was also rather passive, though he knew how and when to lean on an opponent. During his Stanley Cup years in Detroit, however, the Swedish–born star was accompanied by a fair amount of elite sandpaper — be it Vladimir Konstantinov (before his debilitating car accident), Chris Chelios or Niklas Kronwall. In order to maximize Rielly, the Maple Leafs need to acquire an identical presence on the blue line.
At the moment (as for countless years), the club is terribly soft in its own zone.
IN 2008, NICKLAS LISTROM BECAME THE FIRST EUROPEAN CAPTAIN TO LIFT THE STANLEY CUP.
Millen is a student of the game and a truly perceptive analyst. During regional Leaf telecasts, he goes a little overboard for the “home” team, which is commonplace and understandable. But, not to the exclusion of informing his audience. If you watched Tuesday night’s telecast from the ACC, you noticed how frequently Millen isolated Hedman (who scored his first goal of the season, in the second period, to give Tampa Bay a 4–0 lead). Stamkos got noisy raves for his four–point night, but big No. 77 worked flawlessly at both ends of the ice. A quick study between the benches, Millen pointed to Hedman’s command throughout the game.
Somewhere down the line, Greg will need to point to a similar player with the Leafs.
Otherwise, Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought will continue unabated.