TORONTO (Oct. 3) — In my last blog, I wrote that the Maple Leafs are “deep and talented enough” to play in the Stanley Cup semifinals next spring. What I didn’t write is that Round 2 could be their biggest challenge.
The way I see it (and I’m not alone), Toronto will finish second in the Atlantic Division to Tampa Bay. The Lightning would therefore host a wild card team in the opening round while the Maple Leafs encounter the third–place club in the division (I’m going with Florida). If the favorites prevail, Toronto and Tampa would meet in the second playoff round; the Lightning with home–ice advantage. Accordingly, it would require an upset — though perhaps not colossally — for the Leafs to appear in the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2002. Can Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Co. prevail in a best–of–seven series against Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and the Florida Gulf–sider’s? There’s a fair bit of hockey to be played between now and then, but a Toronto–Tampa Bay clash would likely rank high on the entertainment scale.
TAMPA BAY FORWARD BRAYDEN POINT (21) SCORES AGAINST FREDERIK ANDERSEN OF THE LEAFS AT AIR CANADA CENTRE ON APR. 6 OF LAST SEASON. THE LIGHTNING AND LEAFS COULD BEGIN TO FORGE A TERRIFIC RIVALRY ATOP THE ATLANTIC DIVISION, BEGINNING THIS SEASON. NHL.COM PHOTO
As the Leafs fly to Winnipeg for their season opener tomorrow night, I’m figuring T–Bay is the team to beat in the East. Paramount, of course, is the return to health of forwards Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, who missed a combined 129 games last season (Stamkos played only 17). Their absence effectively removed Tampa from the playoff equation. The spotlight will also be on 23–year–old Andrei Vasilevskiy to carry the load between the pipes in the absence of Ben Bishop, who was dealt to Los Angeles at the trade deadline; then flipped to Dallas in May. Vasilevskiy must improve on his 2.61 goals–against average and .917 save–percentage for the Lightning to attain full potential. In Hedman, T–Bay has an elite National Hockey League defenseman that finished third in voting for the Norris Trophy after compiling career–highs in goals (16), assists (56) and points (72). His ilk — rare and invaluable — remains the biggest deficit for the Maple Leafs.
If Matthews can match Stamkos, goal–for–goal, and Frederik Andersen can favorably navigate a workload of 60–plus games once again, the Toronto–Tampa Bay division rivalry will begin to flourish.
In the regular season and, ultimately, the Stanley Cup playoffs.
2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREDICTION:
BAUTISTA TRIBUTE UNFOUNDED
Jose Bautista has earned his rightful place among the top half–dozen players in the 40–year history of the Toronto Blue Jays. Of that, there can be no debate. The baseball panel at Sportsnet ranked him fifth all–time, behind only Roberto Alomar, Dave Stieb, Roy Halladay and Carlos Delgado. Again, no argument.
I do, however, take umbrage with the notion — written and spoken about in his final days with the team — that Bautista “made the Blue Jays relevant once again.” That comment is simply unfounded. What made the Blue Jays relevant after more than two decades of Major League oblivion was July 29 and 30, 2015. When out–going general manager Alex Anthopoulos shocked the baseball establishment by trading with Colorado for shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and with Detroit for starting pitcher David Price. Until that time, the 2015 Blue Jays were destined to fall inconspicuously in line with every other Toronto team in the post–1993 era — a sub–.500 outfit well–removed from both the lead in the American League East and one of two wild card playoff positions. By acquiring Tulowitzki and Price, Anthopoulos not only provided his team splendid manpower, he emboldened the roster — Bautista and Josh Donaldson included — by showing that ownership (Rogers Communications) was finally willing to take the financial and organizational risk of “going for it”; again, not witnessed in these parts since the early–90’s under the stewardship of Labatt Breweries.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Once the moves were made that allowed the Blue Jays to regain relevance, Bautista grabbed center–stage. He was a major force in the final two months of the regular schedule when the club — between July 29 and Sep. 30 — went 40–14 in 54 games to blast the New York Yankees out of the A.L. East penthouse. Trailing the Yanks by seven on the day Tulowitzki was acquired, the Blue Jays ultimately built a six–game lead atop the division — the surge incited by the blockbuster, trade–deadline deals.
JOSE BAUTISTA ACKNOWLEDGES FANS AT ROGERS CENTRE TOWARD THE END OF THE BLUE JAYS FINAL HOME GAME THIS SEASON, AGAINST THE NEW YORK YANKEES, ON SEP. 24. GLOBE AND MAIL PHOTO
His club in the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, Bautista unquestionably authored the signature achievement for an entirely–new generation of Blue Jay followers that were either too young or net–yet born when Joe Carter won the ’93 World Series with his walk–off home run at SkyDome against Philadelphia. The iconic “bat–flip” in Game 5 of the A.L. Division Series against Texas (Oct. 14, 2015) — misunderstood, to this day, by scores of baseball fans south of the border — lifted Toronto into the American League Championship Series and enabled an image (below) that stands with any great moment in franchise history.
Which is precisely the way Bautista should be remembered for his wondrous career in a Toronto uniform. He was the subject of one of the three best trades in Blue Jay annals — coming over from Pittsburgh, Aug. 21, 2008, for the legendary Robinson Diaz (44 career games with the Pirates; one home run and 20 RBI). Among the other two best deals in franchise history was Anthopoulos acquiring Donaldson from Oakland (Nov. 28, 2014) for a package that included Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Franklin Barreto — Hall–of–Famers none. But, even with Bautista and eventual A.L. MVP Donaldson, the Blue Jays were going nowhere until the earth–moving deals of July 29–30, 2015. That’s what made the ball club “relevant” for the first time in more than two decades. Joey Batts merely (and unforgettably) availed himself of opportunity.
In case you’re wondering — and without breaking any news — the other “best trade” by the franchise was Alomar and Carter from San Diego (Dec. 5, 1990) for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. It led, directly, to the consecutive World Series triumphs of 1992 and 1993 (with a big assist, in the latter year, due GM Pat Gillick for re–acquiring Fernandez from the New York Mets). Among the current generation of Toronto baseball fans, however, no two acquisitions were more paramount than those involving Tulowitzki and Price.
MEMORIES ON A TRAGIC DAY
Monday didn’t feel like a day for smiles and celebration; not with 59 dead and 527 wounded in Las Vegas after the largest mass–shooting in American history. And with word that rocker Tom Petty was either dead, or on life–support, after being found in full cardiac–arrest. But, life does go on… and the environment was quite lively and nostalgic at The Pint Public House, across from Rogers Centre, where many of those responsible for Canada’s first all–sports radio station gathered. Coincidentally, on the 28th anniversary of the initial Prime Time Sports broadcast (Oct. 2, 1989), Bob McCown and Co. commemorated 25 years of Sportsnet–590 — originally known as The FAN–1430; later The FAN–590. The actual launch–anniversary was last month (Sep. 4); the poobahs at Jarvis and Bloor organizing this gala/remote mere steps from the greatest moments in the FAN’s early days: the 1992 and 1993 World Series wins by the Toronto Blue Jays.
It was my privilege to work at the radio station from May 1988 (more than four years prior to the all–sports conversion) til June 2011, spending the majority of my term (17 years) as a reporter covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many of the people with whom I shared that wonderful part of my life were on hand for the 25th anniversary celebration. Naturally, I had my appendage (a.k.a. trusty NIKON) along for the ride:
ON A PERFECT WEATHER–AFTERNOON IN DOWNTOWN TORONTO, MORE THAN 150 CURRENT AND FORMER EMPLOYEES OF CANADA’S FIRST ALL–SPORTS RADIO STATION GATHERED AT THE PINT — JUST DOWN THE STEPS FROM ROGERS CENTRE, HOME OF THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS.
IT WAS THE 28th ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST PRIME TIME SPORTS BROADCAST (FROM OUR OLD STUDIO ON HOLLY ST., NEAR YONGE AND EGLINTON, OCT. 2, 1989). BOB McCOWN (SUNGLASSES), STILL GOING STRONG AT 65, WAS JOINED AT THE PINT FOR A LIVE REMOTE WITH CO–HOST DAMIEN COX; HERE, GABBING WITH BOXING LEGEND SPIDER JONES AND LAWYER–TO–THE–STARS GORD KIRKE.
I SPENT THE BETTER PART OF 20 YEARS WORKING FOR PROGRAM DIRECTOR NELSON MILLMAN. AND, I’M PLEASED TO SAY (AS EVIDENCED HERE) THAT THE OL’ CHARACTER HASN’T CHANGED.
AS McCOWN AND CREW SHONE AMID THE BRIGHT LIGHTS, I POSED WITH JOLLY JACK ARMSTRONG, WHOSE BASKETBALL WISDOM WILL SOON RETURN ON TV WITH THE NBA’s TORONTO RAPTORS. NO ONE HAS MORE PASSION FOR THE GAME THAN THE “COACH”… ONE OF MY ALL–TIME FAVORITES.
JUST ONE DAY AFTER A DEMORALIZING SEASON FOR THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS — AND HAVING HOSTED ROUGHLY 150 POST–GAME CALL–IN SHOWS — MIKE WILNER (TOP–LEFT) WAS SURPRISINGLY SANE. AND HEALTHY. ALWAYS GOOD TO SEE SPORTSNET–590’s “MR. BASEBALL”. AND HOW COULD ANY REUNION OF THE FAN–590 BE COMPLETE WITHOUT STALWARTS STORMIN’ NORM RUMACK (LEFT) AND ROGER LAJOIE (CENTER)? THEY ARE TWO OF MY BEST PALS FROM THE SPORTS–RADIO YEARS.
NEW HOCKEY TITLES
Yes, the Concierge in the lobby of my residence is busy handling the normal deluge of hockey books sent to me each year at this time. The first wave includes titles by long–time friends and colleagues Ken Daniels, Ken Reid and Lance Hornby. All books received will be reviewed and featured in this space by yours truly.
Please email me for mailing address.