TORONTO (Jan. 12) — It is a wonderful and rather uncomplicated time to be a fan of the improving Toronto Maple Leafs, whose youngest and most–dynamic players are skating under entry–level salary restriction.
None of Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Nikita Zaitsev, William Nylander, Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews can cash in until next summer at the earliest; Marner and Matthews not until the summer of 2019. So, enjoy this quasi–honeymoon while it lasts, for the Leafs will have to become creative with their roster by the turn of the decade. Lots, of course, can — and likely will — happen between now and the 2019–20 season… some of it unforeseen. Perhaps a Stanley Cup challenge is in the offing for the Blue and White. Maybe a lamentable slide, ala the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes, who have similarly tried to build contending teams through the draft. Whatever the case, and as of today, the Maple Leafs must reserve big bucks and long term for their cornerstones up front (Marner and Matthews) while ensuring money and cap space to build (or maintain) essential components elsewhere. In other words; much long–term planning for Brendan Shanahan and Co. lies beyond the current National Hockey League season.
THE AUSTON MATTHEWS–MITCH MARNER TANDEM WILL CONSUME A LARGE CHUNK OF THE LEAFS’ SALARY–CAP FIGURE STARTING IN THE 2019–20 SEASON. CLAUS ANDERSEN GETTY IMAGES
In the post–expansion era of the NHL (the past 50 years), and with very few exceptions, a four–tiered blueprint has been required to build and maintain a Stanley Cup contender — a minimum two elite forwards; at least one Norris Trophy–caliber defenseman and a front–line goalkeeper. Assembling these parts has been a far–greater challenge since 2005–06, when the NHL instituted a salary cap. Yet, the formula holds as true today as it did in 1970, when the Boston Bruins had Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge up front; Bobby Orr on the blue–line and Gerry Cheevers between the pipes. Since 2005, we have seen:
• ANAHEIM DUCKS — Corey Perry/Ryan Getzlaf; Chris Pronger; Jean–Sebastien Giguere.
• DETROIT RED WINGS — Henrik Zetterberg/Pavel Datsyuk; Nicklas Lidstrom; Chris Osgood.
• PITTSBURGH PENGUINS — Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin; Kris Letang; Marc–Andre Fleury (or Matt Murray).
• CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS — Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews; Duncan Keith; Corey Crawford.
• BOSTON BRUINS — David Krejci/Tyler Seguin; Zdeno Chara; Tim Thomas.
• LOS ANGELES KINGS — Anze Kopitar/Jeff Carter; Drew Doughty; Jonathan Quick.
The salary–cap era pattern, as you can see, is clearly established.
The Maple Leafs, it appears, are well on their way to assembling the requisite foursome — providing, undoubtedly, that Marner and Matthews continue to evolve as elite forwards. Frederik Andersen is under contract through the 2020–21 season and has shown abundant evidence (here and in Anaheim) that he can be a front–line stopper. The prime Toronto deficit (since Borje Salming), and, unquestionably, the most difficult to acquire, is a Norris Trophy element. As of now, the Leafs have nothing close to such a player; with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner well beyond average, but hardly in contention to win the award as top NHL blue–liner. So, this factor — according to the evidence, above — must somehow be cultivated by the Blue and White. Where that elusive player will come from is anyone’s guess. And, if the Maple Leafs are so fortunate as to acquire such a talent, he will consume the upper limits of both salary and term. With Marner and Matthews 2½ years away from commanding the same, Toronto clearly faces an immense challenge.
WHERE WILL THE LEAFS FIND A DEFENSEMAN SUCH AS TWO–TIME NORRIS WINNER DUNCAN KEITH?
As such, the team that skates onto the ice at Madison Square Garden Friday night will vaguely resemble a Leaf squad capable of winning the Stanley Cup. Or, that which begins the next decade. As it stands, the contracts of Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and at least one of Rielly or Gardiner will have to be off–loaded between now and the 2019–20 season. By that time, Brown, Hyman, Soshnikov, Zaitsev, Nylander, Fredrik Gauthier, Marner and Matthews will no longer be eligible for entry–level restriction. And, that Norris Trophy guy needs to be added. So, the Leafs have much creative work ahead in the next 36 months.
Will it be Lou Lamoriello orchestrating the march into his 77th year?
Or, will a younger general manager find himself at the helm?
All of this brings me back to my original point: Enjoy the splendorous start of the Leafs’ construction plan. The no–pressure, win–if–you–may environment in which the team currently resides.
Change and uncertainty, amid all the potential, will prevail in the not–too–distant future.
NO. 66: Whenever he makes his first appearance between the pipes (perhaps at Ottawa on Saturday night), new Maple Leafs acquisition Curtis McElhinney will become the 66th man to play goal for the hockey club since it last won the Stanley Cup on May 2, 1967. The previous 65, in order:
JOHNNY BOWER, BRUCE GAMBLE, AL SMITH, MARV EDWARDS, GERRY McNAMARA, JACQUES PLANTE, BERNIE PARENT, MURRAY McLACHLAN, GORD McRAE, RON LOW, DOUG FAVELL, DUNC WILSON, ED JOHNSTON, PIERRE HAMEL, WAYNE THOMAS, MIKE PALMATEER, PAUL HARRISON, JIRI CRHA, CURT RIDLEY, VINCENT TREMBLAY, JIM RUTHERFORD, MICHEL (BUNNY) LAROCQUE, BOB PARENT, RICK ST. CROIX, ALLAN BESTER, KEN WREGGET, BRUCE DOWIE, TIM BERNHARDT, DON EDWARDS, JEFF REESE, MARK LaFOREST, PETER ING, DAMIAN RHODES, GRANT FUHR, FELIX POTVIN, RICK WAMSLEY, DARREN PUPPA, DON BEAUPRE, MARCEL COUSINEAU, GLENN HEALY, CURTIS JOSEPH, COREY SCHWAB, TOM BARRASSO, SEBASTIEN CENTOMO, ED BELFOUR, MIKAEL TELLQVIST, TREVOR KIDD, JEAN-SEBASTIAN AUBIN, ANDREW RAYCROFT, SCOTT CLEMMENSEN, VESA TOSKALA, MARTIN GERBER, JUSTIN POGGE, JEAN-SEBASTIEN GIGUERE, JONAS GUSTAVSSON, JOEY MacDONALD, JAMES REIMER, BEN SCRIVENS, JUSSI RYNNAS, JONATHAN BERNIER, DREW MacINTYRE, GARRET SPARKS, FREDERIK ANDERSEN, JHONAS ENROTH, ANTOINE BIBEAU.
CURTIS McELHINNEY: NO. 66 SINCE ’67.
50 YEARS AGO
During this week in 1967, the NHL’s 50th season — and last of the six–team league — neared the halfway mark. The Maple Leafs were en route to winning their most recent Stanley Cup; Bobby Hull was the most famous and dynamic player in the game, and rookie Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins was raising eyebrows all over the hockey world. Here are some contents from THE HOCKEY NEWS issue of Jan. 14, 1967:
GAMES OF DEC. 31, 1966 (LEFT) AND JAN. 1, 1967.
GAMES OF JAN. 4 (LEFT) AND JAN. 7, 1967.
GAME OF JAN. 8, 1967 (RIGHT).
BACK PAGE OF THE HOCKEY NEWS — JAN. 14, 1967.