Leafs Will Learn — Eventually

TORONTO (Nov. 1) — It will be a tell–tale sign that the young Maple Leafs are maturing when the club approaches a double–header like this past weekend with more of a competitive edge and less satisfaction.

Though it yielded zero points, the Saturday–Sunday road trek to Montreal and Brooklyn was hardly a wash–out. The Leafs performed with creativity and savvy beyond their years while losing to Carey Price and the Canadiens, 2–1. William Nylander showed what he’ll become by adding discipline to his wondrous skill; it was easily No. 29’s best game in a Toronto jersey. That it didn’t quite feel like a regulation loss at the Bell Centre had the Leafs in a false state of mind. Clearly, there was fulfillment from skating with the best October team in the National Hockey League. But, not a hint of corollary momentum. Instead, the Leafs encountered the New York Islanders in exhibition–game mode — as if the two points on Sunday were less–valuable than those available the previous night. The assignment was tough: a second road match in less than 24 hours against a well–rested opponent. A task, however, the best teams are capable of conquering.

The Leafs weren’t even close. A 5–1 beat–down at Barclays Center accurately reflected the one–sided match. On a rare night in which Islanders’ superstar John Tavares had next to nothing. As the old Argos coach, Leo Cahill, would have said about Tavares: “He couldn’t hit a cow in the ass with a shovel.” That the young, nubile visitors weren’t able to “bring it” for a second night had nothing to do with early–season languor. This was more about approaching the game exclusive to anything that happened in Montreal. The Leafs were not willing to treat it as a separate assignment. Or to elevate themselves, emotionally, after the bright lights of the Bell Centre. It was the first of 14–such occasions this season — when the Leafs will be matching up against a rested opponent while playing consecutive nights. You can be sure Mike Babcock will remind his crew before the next occasion — Saturday, Nov. 12 against the Stanley Cup–champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

rscn0025edited-x-v
HALLOWEEN AFTERNOON IN MID–TOWN TORONTO — FROM MY APARTMENT BALCONY. THE MAPLE LEAFS WON TWO OF NINE GAMES IN OCTOBER. CONNOR McDAVID ARRIVES TO START NOVEMBER.

Though the Leafs finished October with a pedestrian 2–4–3 record in nine games, the club improved by three points over the first month of last season, when it careened to a 1–7–2 mark. If the Leafs can author a similar upgrade during each month of the current schedule, they’ll add roughly 19 points to their 30th–place total of 69. An 88–point compilation would be gratifying for Babcock; perhaps less–so for Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter, as the club would finish 17th or 18th in the overall standings — out of the playoffs and in the mushy–middle with respect to the NHL draft lottery. But… first things first.

CONNOR Mc–WAYNE COMES TO TOWN

If he’s to become the second–best player in the history of the Edmonton Oilers (we’ll assume the person that remains No. 1), Connor McDavid will need many more nights like Feb. 11 of this year. In case you’ve forgotten, or aren’t aware, McDavid erupted for five points in his first career game against the Leafs — factoring in every goal of a 5–2 romp at Rexall Place. It was a jaw–dropping performance by the 19–year–old phenom, who had returned just nine nights earlier from a three–month absence with a broken collar–bone.

16-connor-1edited-x-v
CONNOR McDAVID BUZZES JONATHAN BERNIER ON FEB. 11 OF LAST SEASON IN EDMONTON.

Veteran sports columnist Terry Jones summed up McDavid’s big night in the Edmonton Sun:

If that’s the way it’s going to be, the Edmonton Oilers might as well sew the ‘C’ on Connor McDavid’s sweater right now and get on with it. McDavid came to the game last night to light up the night against the team he grew up watching as a kid. The rest of the Oilers came to the game willing to be outworked and/or watch McDavid put on a show. The 19-year-old who used to wear a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater with No. 97 on the back when he was a kid, put the Oilers on his back and carried them to a 5-2 win in his first ever game against Toronto, the now 30th-place team in the NHL. McDavid had two goals and three assists.

Put this night into perspective? In their first games against Toronto, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby had a combined four points. It took McDavid 19 career games to register a five-point game. It took Gretzky 49 games and Crosby 108 games. The next — and ‘next’ is ‘right now’ — great player in the game not only had his first five-point game in the NHL, it was McDavid’s sixth multi-point game of the season.

[He now has] 24 points in his first 19 NHL games.

16-mcd-1edited-p
SPORTSNET TV IMAGE OF McDAVID CLOSING IN ON ANOTHER POINT AGAINST THE MAPLE LEAFS.

As of now, we can accurately suggest that Mark Messier and Paul Coffey are the next–greatest Oilers to Wayne Gretzky — with Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson not far behind. Grant Fuhr can also be mentioned.

Messier is second in all-time NHL scoring with 1,887 points; 970 fewer than Gretzky. He’ll likely be overtaken — in the next five or six weeks — by 44–year–old Jaromir Jagr of the Florida Panthers, who trails Messier by 15. Coffey is second to Raymond Bourque (1,169 to 1,135) in all–time points by a defenseman. For more than 30 years, he has held the NHL record among blue–liners of 48 goals in one season (1985–86). The highest total among active defensemen is 31 — by Mike Green of Washington in 2008–09 (Green now plays for Detroit). Kurri is one of only eight players to score 70 goals in a season (71 as Gretzky’s right–winger in 1984–85). And, there was no bigger “money” man at Stanley Cup time than Anderson, who scored 81 goals for the Oilers in 164 playoff games, and was a part of all five Edmonton champions between 1984 and 1990.

So, McDavid has lots to shoot for as he makes his first appearance at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.

It’s a big moment for hockey in this city. As of 8:40 p.m. Monday, 500 tickets remained unsold on Stubhub.ca — the cheapest, a $72 (USD) standing–room admission at the top of Sec. 322. A pair of tickets at center–ice in the first level (Sec. 119, Row 19) could be had for $500 (USD). Another seller had tickets in Row 16 of the same section for $389 (USD) apiece. One way or another, there will be few empty seats once the puck drops.

Other notable debuts here in Toronto:

BOBBY HULL, Chicago — Nov. 2, 1957 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
STAN MIKITA, Chicago — Oct. 10, 1959 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
BOBBY ORR, Boston — Oct. 29, 1966 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
GUY LAFLEUR. Montreal — Nov. 10, 1971 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
MIKE BOSSY, New York Islanders — Dec. 14, 1977 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
MARIO LEMIEUX, Pittsburgh — Dec. 15, 1985 at Maple Leaf Gardens.
SIDNEY CROSBY, Pittsburgh — Jan. 2, 2006 at Air Canada Centre.
PATRICK KANE, Chicago — Oct. 20, 2007 at Air Canada Centre.
STEVEN STAMKOS, Tampa Bay — Oct. 28, 2008 at Air Canada Centre.
DREW DOUGHTY, Los Angeles — Jan. 26, 2010 at Air Canada Centre.

And…

NOVEMBER 21, 1979 MAPLE LEAF GARDENS
Wayne Gretzky’s First Game in Toronto

I remember the night for a personal milestone — my initial appearance in the press box to watch the Maple Leafs. I was 20 years old and working in my first job… for $170/week as a sports writer at the Etobicoke Guardian community newspaper. The Oilers’ veteran goalie, Dave Dryden, hailed from Etobicoke (a west–Toronto suburb) and Dryden would play for the Oilers that night. My boss at the Guardian — and soon–to–become lifetime pal — Joel Colomby wondered if I’d like to write a story on Dryden. One twist of the arm was all it took and Joel called Gardens’ publicity director Stan Obodiac to arrange for a media credential (Colomby is now assistant sports editor of the Toronto Sun, where he has worked since 1980).

To be honest, I don’t remember a thing about my interview with Dryden (sorry Dave). What I do recall — and what has stood with so many who witnessed the game that night — was Gretzky’s remarkable performance. Having watched Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito and others in my youth, I was skeptical about the hype surrounding No. 99; then still 18. He couldn’t possibly live up to his advance billing. Oh yeah?

16-wayne-3-x
GLOBE AND MAIL STORY FROM WAYNE GRETZKY’S FIRST GAME AT THE GARDENS.

16-wayne-4-x  16-wayne-5-x
Gretzky’s assault on the NHL record book was well underway when he recorded two goals and two assists in a draw with the Maple Leafs. I sat, somewhat nervously, beside the late Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell, then 74 and the dean of Canadian sports writers. Milt had seen every great hockey player — from Howie Morenz to Charlie Conacher to Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Hull, Orr, Esposito, Guy Lafleur… and now, Gretzky. I’ll never forget how he kept turning to a complete stranger (me) and exclaiming “Isn’t that young man marvelous?!” Ol’ Milt was an immediate convert. He would live past his 102nd birthday.

Gretzky brought his entire repertoire to the Gardens in his Toronto NHL premier; all of the tricks we’d grow accustomed to while watching him become — alongside Orr — the greatest player who ever lived. He repeatedly set up in his “office” behind the Maple Leafs net; he powered into the attacking zone along the boards only to stop on a dime and find an open trailer; he revealed his sharp, forehand wrap–around to goalie Paul Harrison; his tape–to–tape saucer–pass over two opposition sticks. And, it all worked.

16-wayne-1-x  16-wayne-2-x
TV IMAGES OF WAYNE GRETZKY DURING HIS MEMORABLE DEBUT IN TORONTO: NOV. 21, 1979.

NO. 29 REBORN WITH THE LEAFS

William Nylander is the 20th player in Maple Leafs history to wear No. 29. Only two of the 19 alumni have donned the jersey with distinction — both of them goalies: Mike Palmateer and Felix Potvin.

In fact, it was 40 years ago this week that Palmateer memorably arrived to rescue a Leafs season heading for the gutter. After a breakthrough year in 1975–76 — Darryl Sittler became the first Maple Leaf to score 100 points; Lanny McDonald, Errol Thompson, Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull developed into front–line NHLers and the club extended the defending Stanley Cup–champion Philadelphia Flyers to seven games in a brawl–filled quarterfinal playoff — the Leafs were expected to continue their improvement. Instead, the team staggered out of the gate in 1976–77 with a 1–5–3 record, whereupon Palmateer was summoned from the minors to spell the horrendous Wayne Thomas, who had performed so competently the previous year.

Palmateer, 22, began his career as a popular Leaf by winning three road games in a five–night span to ignite the dormant club. His first triumph took place at the old Detroit Olympia on Oct. 28, 1976.

These images from my scrapbook:

fscn0827edited-x
rscn0833edited-x-v  rscn9961edited-x-v
fscn0830edited-x
After a 5–1 romp over the Minnesota North Stars at the Met Center in Bloomington, Oct. 30, Palmateer and the Leafs won for the third time on Nov. 1 (40 years ago tonight)… against the old Cleveland Barons:

rscn0863edited-x-v
Nylander has a chance — rather easily — to become the best No. 29 position–player in Leafs history. His competition: Drake Berehowsky, Jerry D’Amigo, Paul Evans, Todd Gill (briefly, before switching to 23), Ken Hammond, Paul Higgins, Matt Lashoff, Chris McRae, Fred Perlini, Karel Pilar, Darryl Shannon, Brad Smith and Bill Thoms. Potvin, Vincent Tremblay, Thomas (briefly, before switching to 30), Joey MacDonald, Martin Gerber and Justin Pogge are the other Leaf netminders to wear 29.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.