Leafs Still Hard to Gauge

TORONTO (Dec. 21) — Frederik Andersen provides a glaring example of why the Toronto Maple Leafs are so difficult to assess while approaching the midway point of this development season.

Clearly, Andersen has supplied the Leafs a noticeable upgrade between the pipes. After a shaky start, he settled in and is performing consistently well. Most apparent is the reduction of soft goals that undermine the effort of coaches and players — a veritable scourge in this city during the post–2005 lockout era. Be it Mikael Tellqvist, Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala, James Reimer (to a lesser extent) or Jonathan Bernier, easy, untimely markers repeatedly battered the Blue and White. Andersen has done a good job of stopping the pucks he should… and many he probably shouldn’t. That said, how do we accurately gauge a goaltender whose team has been all–but eliminated from playoff competition after 31 games? In a much–improved Eastern Conference, the Maple Leafs are 10 points out of Wild Card contention with six teams to leap–frog. Barring an absolute miracle, Toronto will become the first club to miss the playoffs 11 consecutive times in a full National Hockey League schedule. And, quite conceivably, by a margin of 20 or more points.

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FREDERIK ANDERSEN AND MITCH MARNER APPEAR TO HAVE THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS HEADED NORTHWARD. BUT, WHEN WILL BE BEGIN TO KNOW FOR CERTAIN?

Mike Babcock, to his enduring credit, mentioned it over and over again last March, while the Leafs were giddily (and irrationally) blowing their well-planned scheme to win the NHL draft lottery. Buoyed by the call–up of several prospects from the American Hockey League — most notably William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov — the Leafs began to accumulate points in a dreadfully–timed 6–2–0 hot streak. “The future is now!” bellowed impulsive followers of the club that would have turned suicidal had the Leafs added just two more points — thereby (according to the draw) finishing fourth in the draft lottery and allowing Edmonton to snag Auston Matthews. That’s how close the team came to shooting itself in the head.

Through it all, Babcock maintained a stoic demeanor, reminding observers that the newbies were performing in a no–pressure circumstance with respect to team accomplishment. “Let’s see how these guys do when we’re actually fighting for something like a playoff spot or division title,” the coach offered while urging general manager Lou Lamoriello to dress the prospects in Toronto Marlie uniforms once again.

Which returns me to my original premise: What can we learn about a Maple Leafs team that will likely be playing exhibition games in the final three months of the season? We know the club is rather improved… and a hell of a lot more enjoyable to watch than any since the 2013 lockout version. That Matthews and Mitch Marner could become elite performers in the NHL (Nylander, too, if so inclined). It appears the interminable pattern of being out–shot in games is a thing of the past. That Babcock will earn Major–General stripes by coercing his players to coddle a third–period lead. And, as mentioned, that goaltending is apparently much less of an issue. Still, the Leafs will be in the same posture down the stretch this season as a year ago: Well out of playoff contention and not able to grapple for a significant team accomplishment.

Which means the learning–curve has only just begun — for the coaches… the players… and for us.

ON A LIGHTER NOTE: Those who regularly turn to this corner are aware that Detroit Red Wings TV broadcaster (and Toronto native) Ken Daniels is mourning the sudden loss of his 23–year–old son, Jamie, two weeks ago. I’m pleased to tell you that Ken is back on the road with the Red Wings — currently in Florida (Tampa on Tuesday night; Sunrise on Friday). Kenny and I had some fun here in town when we were both new to the media business. I was reminded the other day of an incident that still makes me howl, 30 years later. I think it was the summer of 1986. Ken had just purchased an automobile and was in that familiar groove of keeping it spotlessly clean, inside and out. He had driven me and my life–long pal, Perry Lefko (formerly of the Toronto Sun), to Exhibition Stadium for a Blue Jays game. Afterward, as we were leaving the CNE, I dropped a particularly lethal “bomb” in the back seat, temporarily destroying that wonderful, “new–car” aroma. Ken, as is custom, didn’t fool around. He kicked me out and made me take the bus home. I wasn’t all that happy with his decision, yet I remember laughing so hard on the bus–ride north up Dufferin to Eglinton that I couldn’t produce a tear for three weeks. Hope this brings you a smile, ol’ pal.

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GRETZKY’S BOOK IS GREAT

For more than 30 years, we have been inundated with published works that feature the greatest forward (and co–greatest player) in hockey history. Which is logical given Wayne Gretzky’s position as the most recognizable face the sport has ever known. I must admit, however, that when STORIES OF THE GAME appeared this autumn, my first reaction was “another Gretzky book?” After all, what more could be said about the man that holds every meaningful record in the National Hockey League? And, what more could Gretzky say about himself, having penned an autobiography in 1990 with Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated?

Surprisingly, the answer is “plenty.”

The latest work by No. 99 is primarily a testament to a prolific “ghost–writer.”

Kirstie McLellan Day undertook an enormous amount of research to yield what is essentially a history of the sport… in Gretzky’s words. His first memoir in 26 years allowed Gretzky to write about — for the first time — such moments as the Doug Gilmour–Kerry Fraser high–sticking episode in Game 6 of the 1993 Stanley Cup semifinals, with Los Angeles, against the Toronto Maple Leafs; the advent of NHL players participating in the Winter Olympic Games (as he did with Canada in Nagano, Japan); his sudden retirement as a player with the New York Rangers in April 1999, and his thoughts about the game since the lost NHL season of 2004–05.

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STORIES OF THE GAME (400 pages; published by Viking–Penguin–Random House; $35.00 CAD) could therefore become not only the best–selling Gretzky book, but one of the top–selling hockey publications of all time (it is currently ranked No. 1 in Canada by the Globe and Mail among hard–cover, non–fiction items).

Accompanied by photos of previous Gretzky works (book and periodical), I present, here, seven of the most intriguing passages from No. 99’s current effort:

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ON WANTING TO SIGN WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS AS A FREE AGENT IN THE SUMMER OF 1996: Playing in Toronto would give me the opportunity to move back closer [from St. Louis] to my family and to finish [my career] on one of Canada’s greatest teams. At the start of the 1996–97 season, the Leafs had a lot of pieces in place. They had a line–up with some good, young guys like Mats Sundin, Sergei Berezin and Fredrik Modin and some great veterans like Dougie Gilmour, Wendel Clark and Larry Murphy. In a way, they were like the 1967 Leafs. I thought Toronto had the potential to go deep in the playoffs, as they had in ’93 and ’94. And, if I could help the team at the same time, it would be fulfilling a boyhood dream. My agent, Mike Barnett, had known Toronto’s GM, Cliff Fletcher, for a long time. Cliff consulted with [the Leafs] owner, Steve Stavro, who owned a grocery chain called Knob Hill Farms. But, the timing was off. Steve was under some financial pressure and so Toronto was out.

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ON UNINTENTIONALLY SLICING OPEN DOUG GILMOUR’S CHIN IN GAME 6 OF THE 1993 CAMPBELL CONFERENCE FINAL AT THE LOS ANGELES FORUM, WITH THE KINGS FACING ELIMINATION: It was a hugely emotional and physical [series] and the momentum tipped back and forth… When I accidentally clipped Dougie Gilmour on the chin in Game 6 overtime, was it a penalty? Probably. It was a tie game when Glenn Anderson [of the Leafs] tried to run Rob Blake through the boards from behind. He got a charging penalty. At the faceoff, the puck seemed to stall and I took a shot that deflected off [Leaf defenseman] Jamie Macoun’s shin–pad and bounced back to the faceoff circle. I came over behind Gilmour and we both went for the puck. He bent over, grabbed his chin, and the play stopped. The rule back then was that you were in charge of your stick. Even if a guy skated into it, you got a five–minute penalty. I know what the league was trying to do, and yet it was a stupid rule… When [referee] Kerry Fraser asked [Gilmour] what happened, Dougie said it was my follow–through that clipped him. On a normal follow–through, there’s no high–sticking infraction, and Fraser told him that meant no call.

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ON THE MEMORABLE FIGHT BETWEEN WENDEL CLARK AND MARTY McSORLEY IN THE THIRD PERIOD OF GAME 1 AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS — DOUG GILMOUR LEADING TORONTO TO A 4–1 VICTORY: How Marty McSorely and Wendel Clark played in that series was a privilege to watch. Dougie Gilmour and I may have been the skill players, but Wendel and Marty were the heart and soul… On May 17, 1993, in the third period of Game One, we were a little flat. The travel had been really tough. This was our third series [of that spring] and we had yet to open at home, so we needed to get that bad blood and emotion back. Marty, who saw that as part of his job, was looking for an opportunity to fire us up. And then Gilmour came across the middle with his head down. Marty stood up inside the blue line and just drilled him. Dougie is a tough guy and I can guarantee that’s the hardest he was hit all year. It was an important move. It sent a message to Toronto that [despite the lop–sided score] we were going to challenge them. And, it told Gilmour that he wasn’t going to have free ice. He’d have to pay the price. It really brought us into that series. And then Wendel came in and did what everyone in the rink knew Wendel would do. He challenged Marty. That’s when I saw one of the greatest fights [of] my career. It was an incredibly emotional clash. Neither Marty nor Wendel hung back. Each of them was swinging from the heels and making contact. It was a classic, toe–to–toe scrap that you just don’t see in today’s game. That fight really set the tone for the series and inspired our team. Wendel was one of the toughest guys in the league — absolutely the toughest guy in Toronto — and for Marty to take him on like that propelled us into the Stanley Cup final.

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ON HIS FIRST MEETING WITH GLEN SATHER, WHO WOULD COACH THE EDMONTON OILERS TO FOUR STANLEY CUP TITLES IN FIVE YEARS (1984–85–87–88): The Pittsburgh Penguins [in their early–expansion years] would hold their training camp in my hometown of Brantford, Ontario. For four or five hours as day, I would be in the stands, just amazed at how big the players were, and how fast… One year, when I was a Peewee, I scored 400 goals, which was also pretty fun. Somehow, the Penguins heard about it and I was invited into their dressing room [at the Brantford Civic Centre] the next September. There were about 15 guys in the room, all sweaty and doing push–ups and tossing around medicine balls. I was a shy kid and a little bit intimidated by all these huge guys in matching sweat–suits. But, then one of the more intimidating guys came over to shake my hand and take me around the room to introduce his teammates. His name was Glen Sather. Of course, I would learn a lot from Glen over the years, but the first lesson came the first time we met. It meant so much to me that he would go out of his way to welcome a nervous kid, and I never forgot it. For my whole career, unless I’d had the worst day of my life, I always took time to talk to the kids who just wanted to meet some of their heroes.

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ON THE GIMMICKY SHOOTOUT THAT HAS DECIDED — SINCE 2005–06 — NHL GAMES DEADLOCKED AFTER FIVE MINUTES OF OVERTIME: In hockey, there’s so much going on that even the most skilled player [relies on] instinct. Ever notice that a guy on a breakaway almost always scores, but the same guy will be shut down [more than] half the time in a shootout? When you’re on a breakaway, all you see is net. When you’re in a shootout, you’re thinking about the goalie. That’s because when you’re in the flow of the game, you are fueled by desire. You are running on instinct. Without that passion, you’re not really in a hockey game.

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ON THE MOST COMPETITIVE NIGHT OF HIS CAREER: The best game I ever played in was the second of the [best–of–three] final against the Soviet Union in the 1987 Canada Cup (at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton). The level of competition that night was so high. It was an emotional game, too, because we had lost, 6–5, in Game One at Montreal after Vyacheslav Bykov threw a shot in front of the net and it deflected off my skate for the tying goal… [Game 2] started off with a bang, back and forth. It felt like one of those nights when the puck just seemed to follow me around. Mark [Messier], Mario [Lemieux] and I played every second shift. The Russians were playing four lines. The tempo was extreme. We were in the zone, but the Soviets were fresher. I remember coming to the bench and looking at Mark and saying, ‘Mess, I don’t think I can go.’ We’d almost fall down on the bench. But, twenty seconds later [coach] Mike [Keenan] would walk behind us and give us a little kick in the arse — “You’re up again” — and we’d jump over the boards. I had five assists and Mario got three goals. We headed into double–overtime [facing elimination]. It was a pretty spectacular night… We won the game and the jubilation was electric.

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ON TEAM CANADA LOSING A SHOOTOUT TO DOMINIK HASEK AND THE CZECH REPUBLIC IN THE SEMIFINAL OF THE 1998 WINTER OLYMPICS… AND GRETZKY NOT BEING AMONG THOSE CHOSEN TO TAKE A SHOT BY COACH MARC CRAWFORD: We’d been so–well prepared for the [Games]. We had a big meeting on the airplane on the way [to Japan], and then more meetings about practice time, sleep, rest, when we’d have our meals, the system we were going to play, and WHO was going to play. But, the one thing we didn’t know was there was a ten–minute overtime followed by a shootout. The players had all just assumed that, as in the NHL playoffs, we’d settle it in sudden death, so we were caught off guard… In this day and age, it’s different because shootouts are part of our game. Back then, we never did them. Ever. The European teams always had shootouts… it was part of their repertoire. When we went into the first minute of overtime, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, [the Czechs] are playing for a shootout.” They’d get to center–ice, dump it in, and no one would go get the puck. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. It was almost as if Dominik Hasek had told them, “Listen, just get us into the shootout.”… On top of that, Dominik [had] such a hot hand that day. Sometimes, a goalie is just unbeatable. I remember sitting beside Steve Yzerman and him asking me who was shooting. I had no idea. But, that meant it wasn’t us… The team was crushed. Such an empty feeling. We hadn’t even lost the game. We were knocked out of gold–medal contention because of an EVENT.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

2 comments on “Leafs Still Hard to Gauge

  1. What? You guys didn’t jump for joy like every other dead-eyed Leaf fan when they would become the Soviet Central Red Army the SECOND they’d become mathematically eliminated from the playoffs? Or when we had to watch Boyd Deveraux score his only career hat trick in the final game of the season robbing the Leafs of Brayden Schenn? Every time Leaf fans would say “oh, bodes well for next season. You wait.” Then…lather, rinse, repeat!!!

  2. The last ten or so years – with the exception of the two Kessel trade years – I have joined tank nation usually around mid January. The last two years with McDavid and Matthews I was really hoping for Leaf losses. I was really worried last season when the Leafs started winning and it just seemed to me to be another incomprehensible move by management. It was like Burke bringing in Gerber to win meaningless games because Burke didn’t need to build a team through the draft when he could sign players like Komisarek and Orr and trade picks for a Kessel. Getting Matthews, Marner and Nylander does give me a lot of hope for the future.

    This season the Leafs are exciting and there have been quite a few games where they outplayed the opposition but made glaring mistakes which cost them two points. If they stop the mistakes they could still make the playoffs, but time is running out.

    Finishing 17th would not be much help in the draft so when it starts to look like the season is a write off I will be rejoining tank nation hopefully for the last time ever.

    I still remember the last game of the 2012 season. Leafs were playing the Habs and I have always hated the Habs with a passion, but that night I was pulling for them. Leafs had a two man advantage and I was thinking this does not look good but the Habs scored short handed and then coasted to a 4-1 win. That loss was the difference between picking Rielly 5th and Dumba 7th.

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