Leafs Will Sizzle… Then Fizzle

TORONTO (Oct. 12) — Six months and three days after last watching the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game that counted, a new season begins with curiosity and bridled excitement. A 5–1 defeat at New Jersey on Apr. 9 enabled the Leafs to avoid the biggest mistake in franchise history — an irrational late surge, ignited by prospects from the Toronto Marlies, that nearly lifted the club out of 30th place in the overall standings.

The arithmetic was simple: Two more points = no Auston Matthews.

As it were, the Leafs sustained a convenient pounding in Newark and survived to cull Matthews as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 National Hockey League draft. Tonight, in Ottawa, the club inaugurates its second season under head coach Mike Babcock. And, it is hardly a stretch to claim that Babcock will guide the two most–promising rookies in a Toronto jersey since way back in 1973–74, when Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming made their NHL debuts under Red Kelly. Both went on to induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame and rank, today, among the greatest performers in franchise history. Which may be a dishonorable load to place on Matthews and Mitch Marner before their first NHL game. The analogy, however, is unmistakable.

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PRIZED ROOKIE AUSTON MATTHEWS TUMBLES THROUGH THE DETROIT GOAL–CREASE IN THE LEAFS FINAL EXHIBITION GAME, SATURDAY NIGHT, AT JOE LOUIS ARENA. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO

Not since 1985 had the Leafs chosen first in the draft. Wendel Clark quickly affirmed expectation as a rugged and tenacious winger with a deft scoring touch. But, the team hasn’t inserted two freshmen of such hope and possibility since McDonald and Salming 43 years ago. At the time, the Maple Leafs also had budding stars Darryl Sittler, Rick Kehoe and Ian Turnbull (also a rookie) to build around, and such–established players as Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson. Kehoe was traded to Pittsburgh, where he later scored 55 goals in a season. Within two years, Keon, Ullman, Ellis and Henderson had departed (though Ellis would return in 1977–78). Sittler, McDonald, Salming and Turnbull developed simultaneously and led the Leafs into quasi–contention in the late–70’s (no team could dethrone the Montreal Canadiens of that era).

Forty years later, after either drafting poorly or trading away first–round picks, the Leafs are again in a place of long–term potential. Not to forget, of course, the good teams under Pat Burns and Pat Quinn, but the Leafs of the 1990’s and early–2000’s were built through trades (primarily for Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin), and such free–agent acquisitions as Curtis Joseph, Gary Roberts, Ed Belfour and Alexander Mogilny.

Player development was virtually ignored when the Leafs could spend to their heart’s desire.

Today, the club has moved, at last, into the post–2005 lockout (and salary–cap) era amid the leadership of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Mark Hunter, Kyle Dubas and Babcock. The youthful core of Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nikita Zaitzev (should he prove efficient in the NHL) will enable the Leafs to rise in the standings. How quickly and how far is a mystery, but if ownership remains tolerant of the construction phase — and the aforementioned players develop under their expensive coach — this team could trend decidedly upward before the end of the decade.

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MAPLE LEAF ROOKIES IN 1973–74 BOUND FOR THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME.

Other factors will come into play — primarily goaltending and a proper balance of skill and size. Frederik Andersen is the new and latest hope between the pipes, where no person has flourished over time since Joseph (between 1998 and 2002). The young Maple Leafs are fairly endowed with ingenuity but aren’t likely to prosper in games that require a physical presence. The team is undeniably small by current NHL standards. As such, I anticipate a quick, lively start to the 2016–17 schedule that could artificially elevate expectation. The club’s youthful legs, smart hands and boundless enthusiasm will prevail before the mid–season juncture, at which point I foresee a gradual yet conspicuous decline. Inevitable injuries, inexperience and a lack of bulk will wear down the hockey club while dramatizing the next phase of development.

Theoretically, this could be offset by Matthews and Marner becoming runaway favorites to win the Calder Trophy, and by Andersen routinely abducting points. Realistically, the Maple Leafs will encounter a learning–curve that engenders gradual improvement over the course of half–a–decade.

In either event, there is legitimate optimism in the land of the Blue and White.

50 YEARS AGO

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The Leafs opened their 50th season in the NHL with a 4–4 tie against the New York Rangers — Sat. Oct. 22, 1966 — at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was the first game televised in color from the Gardens, which had installed, during the summer, a bank of luminescent bulbs on a girder atop the west side of the arena. Also debuting that night were mezzanine balconies at the north and south ends, behind each goal. These seats were colored blue, as were the sections beneath them. Seating capacity for hockey increased to 15,537. Johnny Bower and Cesare Maniago were the goalies. It was Toronto’s last season opener in the six–team NHL. Rookie Brian Conacher scored twice (Oct. 29, 1966 cover of THE HOCKEY NEWS and game summary, below) and the Leafs bolted to an early 3–0 lead. But, a hat–trick by Rangers star Rod Gilbert ultimately deadlocked the match. Just more than six months later, the Leafs would win their most–recent Stanley Cup.

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MORE HISTORY TO UNFOLD

Though uncommon rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians have shared some unique moments in Major League Baseball. None bigger, of course, than the afternoon of Sep. 2, 1990 at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium when Dave Stieb threw the first (and, to date, only) no–hitter in Toronto franchise history. Fast–forward to the current season and the longest game played by the Blue Jays since their 1977 inception — a 19–inning loss on Canada Day (July 1) to the Indians at Rogers Centre.

Beginning Friday night, in Cleveland, the clubs will match up in the playoffs for the first time, as the best–of–seven American League Championship Series gets underway (8:08 p.m. EDT) at Progressive Field. Legitimate rivalries are established in the post–season and the Blue Jays/Indians clash is likely to be entertaining. Here is a look, through pages of my scrapbooks, at some Toronto–Cleveland memories:

STIEB’S NO–NO

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THE FIRST GAME

The Blue Jays and Indians first met on Wednesday, April 27, 1977 — a night after rain postponed the opener of a three–game series at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. Steve Hargan (now 74) started for Toronto with Wayne Garland (now 65) on the mound for the Indians. Garland got raked for four runs in the top of the first inning and Toronto led, 5–1, going to the bottom of the ninth. That’s when reliever Pete Vukovich coughed it up, allowing four Cleveland runs. A single to center by shortstop Bob Bailor in the top of the 12th broke the tie and provided the visitors a 6–5 victory. The game attracted a “crowd” of 3,639, meaning there were roughly 76,400 empty seats in the cavernous stadium. Toronto improved to 9–9 in its first 18 games; Cleveland dropped to 4–10. The Blue Jays would go 45–98 the rest of the way.

The late Arlie Keller covered the game for the Toronto Star (boxscore, below).

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FIRST PITCH OUTSIDE THE U.S.

For decades, the opening pitch of every Major League season took place in Cincinnati, home of baseball’s first professional team. That tradition came to an end on Apr. 6, 1987 when Jimmy Key of the Blue Jays threw the first pitch just before 1 p.m. at Exhibition Stadium to Cleveland second–baseman Tony Bernazard. Tom Browning of the Reds followed just after 1 o’clock to start a game against the Montreal Expos at old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

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In the boxscore (above), old–time baseball fans will recognize the number of Cleveland players that would later wear a Blue Jays uniform — including Joe Carter, Brook Jacoby, Pat Tabler, Corey Snider and starting pitcher Tom Candiotti. Jacoby is currently Toronto’s batting coach while Tabler (a Blue Jays player from 1990 to 1992) is the club’s TV analyst on Sportsnet. A Toronto Sun photo of Tabler appeared (below) the day after the Jays–Indians 1987 season opener:

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KNUCKSIE TO TORONTO

I can still remember watching the Blue Jays play a Sunday–afternoon game at Cleveland on Aug. 9, 1987. Moments after the 5–1 Toronto victory, CTV broadcaster Fergie Olver excitedly announced the club had acquired veteran knuckle–baller Phil Niekro from the Indians — then 48 years of age and still the oldest player in Toronto franchise history. During his 23rd Major League season, Niekro would post an 0–2 record and 8.25 earned–run–average in three starts for the ’87 Blue Jays, who famously collapsed in the final week of the schedule by losing their last seven games.

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