TORONTO (May 19) — I find it intriguing that the majority of Maple Leaf fans are so fervent about “trusting the process” — a virtual slogan as it pertains to the hockey club. The “process”, of course, is a synonym for the so–called “Shanaplan”, which came into effect when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan prudently sold the Board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment on a traditional, post–2005 lockout–era blueprint.
Given what has transpired since June 27, 2014, in Philadelphia, a spot should be found for Shanahan amid Legends Row outside the Air Canada Centre. On that night, at the Wells–Fargo Center, the Leafs selected William Nylander eighth overall in the National Hockey League draft. Fifty–two weeks later, at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., the Leafs chose Mitch Marner fourth overall in the 2015 NHL draft. Another 52 weeks (plus a leap–year day) passed before Auston Matthews came aboard as the No. 1 pick in last year’s allotment at First Niagara Place in Buffalo. In just more than two calendar years, the Leafs added a trio of potential superstars, which made the club last October and contributed to the third–highest points increase over one season in franchise history. It is unimaginable that the Shanaplan could have worked more spectacularly.
BRENDAN SHANAHAN IS A HALL–OF–FAME PLAYER IN THE NHL AND, POTENTIALLY, A HALL–OF–FAME BUILDER AFTER SO WONDROUSLY EXECUTING HIS PLAN TO CONSTRUCT A SOLID FOUNDATION FOR THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. NOW, CAN HE PUT THE TEAM OVER THE TOP?
But, we must remember the crux of Shanahan’s design: Tearing down the previous roster; bottoming out over the course of three seasons and enriching the club with elite draft–lottery picks. Exactly as it happened.
Nowhere in the Shanaplan was there a proviso for finishing 14th in the overall standings and choosing 17th in the draft, a direct result of the Maple Leafs’ 95–point accumulation this past season. As such, “trusting the process” is no longer applicable. Only a precipitous slide in the standings — commingled with another high lottery–pick — could restore the Shanaplan, as defined. And, heads would roll at 60 Bay St. were that to happen. It is now, therefore, time to build on the wondrous foundation the Leafs have put in place since the summer of 2014. Perhaps, we can call it the “Lou Brew”, in honor of general manager Lou Lamoriello.
It truly puzzles me that so many followers of the team continue to vouch for patience. Nothing in hockey, quite frankly, is easier than looking pretty. The Washington Capitals have long been among the most beautiful creatures in all of sport. Drop–dead gorgeous between October and early May. And, where precisely has it gotten them? In baseball, the Atlanta Braves were eye–candy throughout the 1990’s. Won their division in 14 of 15 seasons, starting in 1991; in 11 consecutive seasons from 1995–2005. Arguably the greatest run in Major League history. And, because the New York Yankees weren’t ready to begin their dynasty until 1996, the Braves won the World Series in ’95. One title in 14 years of stunning beauty. In football, the Green Bay Packers are adorable. Since winning Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season, the Pack has added to its string of 10 consecutive playoff appearances with five division titles in six years; with Aaron Rodgers as arguably the NFL’s best quarterback during that time. But, with no subsequent trip to the Dance.
So, too, will the Maple Leafs continue to look pretty without filling their gaping hole atop the blue–line depth–chart. The mere suggestion, in this corner, of using Nylander as a trade–chip to seek an elite defenseman sent shivers down the spine of Leafs Nation. But, not to worry. Lamoriello isn’t likely bold enough to pursue such an option; not with fans of the Blue and White content to “trust the process”. If the natives are happy, and expecting that a front–line d–man will appear out of nowhere, why assume risk?
Kevin Shattenkirk could also be available on the open market this summer and I originally liked the idea of adding him to the Maple Leafs. As time went on, however, I felt Lamoriello should try and utilize his surplus up front to land a Top–5 NHL defenseman; one that would help the club move into immediate and solid contention in the Eastern Conference. As readers of this corner already know, Drew Doughty is the player I would target, sensing that new Los Angeles GM Rob Blake might be rather intrigued by the prospect of acquiring Nylander for his impotent, non–playoff roster of the past two years.
Alternately, Blake could hang on to Doughty… and look pretty.
ROB BLAKE, ALSO A HALL–OF–FAME PLAYER, ANSWERS QUESTIONS AFTER BEING NAMED BY THE LOS ANGELES KINGS TO SUCCEED DEAN LOMBARDI AS THE CLUB’S GENERAL MANAGER.
At some point, we’ll find out if urgency is a tentacle of the now–completed Shanaplan. Not the same urgency that Brian Burke displayed in acquiring Phil Kessel for a pair of first–round draft selections. Unlike today, the Leafs, in September 2009, did not have a foundation from which to build and needed to hang onto their top picks. Nor the urgency of prior MLSE administrations to mortgage the future by whimsically budgeting for playoff dates at the Air Canada Centre. Therefore, such deals as Andrew Raycroft for Tuukka Rask (a first–rounder in 2005) and Vesa Toskala (prior to the 2007 NHL draft in Columbus) for another first–round pick.
As a result of the brilliantly–executed Shanaplan, the Leafs, today, are in an altogether different circumstance — much–improved to a point well beyond the NHL draft lottery and in need of a specific (though difficult to obtain) component. Patience and “trusting the process” will not help to acquire that missing link on the blue line. Nor will signing un–drafted free agents out of Sweden (neither Calle Rosen nor Andreas Borgman is the next Borje Salming). But, urgency, creativity and aggressiveness might get the job done. They should be the call–signs of Maple Leafs management moving forward.
Even if fans and media are content with good looks.
DION STEPPING UP
As the Ottawa Senators strive to become the first Canadian team to appear in the Stanley Cup final since the 2011 Vancouver Canucks, former Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf may be playing the best hockey of his career. Certainly, the best since his early years (2005–08) with the Calgary Flames. Phaneuf has been a force on the Ottawa blue–line, particularly with his ability to deliver open–ice bodychecks. As these CBC and Sportsnet TV images indicate, Dion has shown no mercy to ex–Toronto teammate Phil Kessel, or to Penguins rookie forward Jake Guentzel. Phaneuf is also among the few NHL players that can repeatedly get under the skin of Sidney Crosby. He did so as a Leaf and he’s doing it again in the Eastern Conference final. Crosby doesn’t often chirp at opposing players from the penalty box. But, Dion had him going during Game 2 in Pittsburgh.
Ottawa leads the East final, 2–1, with Game 4 tonight (8 o’clock EDT) at the Canadian Tire Centre.
FROM THE BLEACHERS
The Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves made news this week during a four–game inter–league series split between Rogers Centre and SunTrust Park. Batters were hit by pitches on ten occasions and the dugouts twice emptied in Atlanta. Blue Jays center–fielder Kevin Pillar was suspended two games for yelling a homophobic slur at Braves pitcher Jason Motte. On Tuesday afternoon, here in town, I sat in the left–center–field bleachers for Game 2 of the home–and–home series, a 4:07 p.m. start. It was an uncommon perspective I’d last witnessed while covering the 1992 and 1993 World Series at then–SkyDome for The FAN–590, as the Blue Jays knocked off Atlanta and Philadelphia. The overflow (or auxiliary) press box had been in the same bleacher spot. A quarter–century later, it provided some unique images for my trusty NIKON:
WIDE–ANGLE VIEW FROM SEC. 139, ROW 1 AT ROGERS CENTRE.
STARTING PITCHER MARCO ESTRADA WARMED UP ON THE FIELD, DIRECTLY BELOW ME.
FORMER L.A. DODGER TEAMMATES MATT KEMP AND DARWIN BARNEY CHATTED BEFORE THE GAME.
ESTRADA (BOTTOM–LEFT) THROWS AN EARLY PITCH. THE SPORTSNET TV BOOTH CAN BE SEEN ABOVE HOME–PLATE ALONG WITH THE SPORTSNET–590 RADIO BOOTH. THE MAIN PRESS BOX (ALL THREE ROWS) IS BENEATH THE “JACKIE ROBINSON 42” SIGN.
THE BLUE JAYS BULLPEN WAS SEVERAL METERS TO MY RIGHT. LONG–HAIRED RELIEVER JASON GRILLI AND BEARDED RYAN TEPERA WERE NOTICEABLE, LOOKING IN MY DIRECTION.
MANY GROUPS WERE IN ATTENDANCE, ACCOUNTING FOR THE BLOCKS OF SEATING (TOP–LEFT) IN THE UPPER–DECK. PAT TABLER (LEFT) AND BUCK MARTINEZ CALLED THE GAME ON SPORTSNET.
THE BALL IS A BLUR AS IT HEADS TOWARD JOSE BAUTISTA (19) IN THE MIDDLE INNINGS.
BAUTISTA AND KEVIN PILLAR CHAT (LEFT) DURING A PITCHING CHANGE. MATT KEMP OF THE BRAVES LOOKS AT THE JUMBOTRON ABOVE CENTER–FIELD WHILE FELLOW OUTFIELDERS ENDER INCIARTE (11) AND DANNY SANTANA CONVERSE, ALSO DURING A CHANGE OF RELIEF PITCHERS.
ANOTHER PITCHING CHANGE BROUGHT EXEQUIEL CARRERA TO THE PILLAR–BAUTISTA DISCUSSION.
SPORTSNET CAMERA LOCATION ABOVE THE LEFT–CENTER–FIELD FENCE.
ATLANTA BROKE OPEN THE GAME WITH THREE RUNS IN THE TOP OF THE NINTH INNING AND WON, 9–5. AFTER ROAD GAMES IN BALTIMORE AND MILWAUKEE, THE BLUE JAYS RETURN TO FACE TEXAS, CINCINNATI AND THE NEW YORK YANKEES IN A 10–GAME HOMESTAND.
VIEW FROM FIRST–BASE SEATS AT ROGERS CENTRE IN THE BOTTOM OF THE NINTH.
THE BRAVES LINE UP TO CELEBRATE THEIR SECOND WIN OVER THE BLUE JAYS. ROOKIE SHORTSTOP DANSBY SAWNSON IS INTERVIEWED IN FRONT OF THE VISITORS’ DUGOUT.
IT WAS A SPECTACULAR EARLY EVENING AFTER THE BALL GAME, WITH THE SUN REFLECTING IN THE WINDOWS OF BAY ST. OFFICE TOWERS.
THE C.N. TOWER — LIVE AND IN REFLECTION (ABOVE AND BELOW).