TORONTO (Sep. 22) — In the current National Hockey League — with a condensed schedule of six months spanning three time zones of travel in Canada and the United States; with players skating on the same ice dimensions as their smaller and slower counterparts of 50 and 60 years ago — there are only two certainties: a) no game, regular–season or playoffs, will end in a tie… and b) no team, however comprised, will avert injury to key personnel. Perhaps not certain to the degree of death and taxes. But, darned close.
Every autumn, at this time, NHL predictions are offered on the basis of an intact roster. No one can pinpoint, of course, which players will be sidelined; how many games will be affected by injury; or which teams will be deprived of their most–integral components. All we do know is that none of the 31 clubs will escape a key loss, at one time or another, between October and April. Which brings to mind the Toronto Maple Leafs — projected, by many, to challenge for their first Stanley Cup title in 52 years. A reasonable notion given the corralling of John Tavares from the New York Islanders in unrestricted free agency this summer and a deep, gifted band of forwards that also includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander (whenever his contract stalemate ends), Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau. The “hurts” began on Friday night at Scotiabank Arena when winger Zach Hyman sustained a bone bruise in an exhibition game against Buffalo. He was crosschecked in the hip in the second period and did not return (the Maple Leafs upended the Sabres, 5–3).
Though Hyman provides industrious work on Matthews’ left flank, while chipping in with a goal now and then, his presence in the line–up is not a determining factor for the Blue and White. The same cannot likely be said for others. When trying to ascertain whether the Leafs have a truly indispensable player — one whose long–term absence could prevent the club from attaining its potential — three names comprise the debate: Frederik Andersen, Morgan Rielly and Marner. Were either of Tavares or Matthews lost for a significant stretch, it would hinder the Leafs, but not irreparably. The signing of Tavares provided the club remarkable breadth at the key center–ice position. Were Tavares injured, Matthews and Nazem Kadri would fill the void; Tavares and Kadri if Matthews went down. Having played all 82 games in his rookie (and Calder Trophy) season of 2016–17, Matthews sat out a quarter of last year’s schedule while recovering from varied ailments. Even without Tavares, the Leafs were a commendable 11–7–2 in the 20 games Matthews missed.
JOHN TAVARES SCORED TWICE FRIDAY NIGHT IN HIS FIRST APPEARANCE AT NEWLY–NAMED SCOTIABANK PLACE. THE LEAFS DEFEATED THE BUFFALO SABRES, 5–3, IN A PRE–SEASON GAME.
The inclusion of Andersen in this dialogue is a no–brainer; practically every team in the NHL would depreciate if losing its No. 1 goalie for a protracted stretch. In this case, however, Curtis McElhinney has proven capable of filling the void. Were he required to start the majority of 15 or 20 additional games, the Leafs would presumably survive. In fact, were Andersen sidelined for such a duration, it could prove a blessing–in–disguise, given that Mike Babcock is apparently intent on blundering, once again, by using his No. 1 stopper in more than 65 games. A refreshed Andersen would help the Leafs come playoff time (unlike last April, against Boston, when he was fried). McElhinney, too, would benefit from appearing more often.
That narrows the argument, in my view, to Rielly and Marner.
Though unlikely to arrive in the Norris Trophy conversation, Rielly is an above–average NHL defenseman and, easily, the best of an undistinguished lot lot here in Toronto. His indefinite absence could hamper the Leafs powerplay, given that 24 of 46 assists accrued last season were with the man–advantage (compared to 14 of 47 for Jake Gardiner). He is also an exceptional skater and has improved at lugging the puck from the defensive zone. The Maple Leafs aren’t deep enough to withstand losing Rielly for a prolonged stretch.
Which leaves us Marner — the player, I contend, whose long–term absence would most–hinder the club. Not surprisingly, given his astounding performance with London of the Ontario Hockey League in 2015–16 (116 points in 57 regular–season games; 44 more in 18 playoff matches), the fleet native of Markham, Ont. stepped to the forefront, last season, among the Big 3 draft gems (Nylander and Matthews included). His speed through the neutral zone; creativity with the puck and soft hands around the net yielded 22 goals and 69 points, an eight–point improvement over his rookie NHL campaign. With confidence gleaned from a year ago (it is also evident, off the ice, when surrounded by media), Marner has 100–point potential. In my view, he stands the best chance of ending the Leafs’ 81–year drought for the Art Ross Trophy; not since 1937–38 has a Toronto player (Gord Drillon) led the NHL in scoring. Were his multiple gifts removed from the line–up for an appreciable term, the Leafs would simply not be able to summon a replacement.
Nor would fans of the hockey club enjoy such an enthralling performer.
MITCH MARNER: TO ME, THE LEAFS MOST–IRREPLACEABLE COMPONENT. JACK BOLAND POSTMEDIA
SEALED… FOR SAFE–KEEPING
THE FOUR GAME–USED TORONTO PUCKS IN MY COLLECTION — THREE (WITH BLUE BACKING) FROM MAPLE LEAF GARDENS (1973 AND 1975) AND THE OTHER FROM AIR CANADA CENTRE (2000).
BLUE JAYS PENNANT FEVER — 2015
As the Toronto Blue Jays limp toward the end of, arguably, the most demoralizing season in franchise history, it strains the imagination to think the club played in the American League Championship Series just two and three years ago. Particularly in 2015, when the Jays roared back in the final two months of the schedule and routed the New York Yankees for their first American League East Division title since 1993. Toronto had been seven games in arrears of New York toward the end of July when general manager Alex Anthopoulos famously added David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere to a roster that included the 2015 American League most valuable player, Josh Donaldson. With Price going 9–1 down the stretch; Tulowitzki a vacuum–cleaner at shortstop and Revere chasing down fly balls in left field, the Jays (50–51 on July 28) compiled a 43–18 record in their final 61 games and won the Division by six over the Yankees.
These are among the photos I snapped with my trusty NIKON at Rogers Centre in August and September 2015, as the Blue Jays were romping to their first Major League playoff appearance in 22 years:
YES, HE WAS A MONSTER FOR THE BLUE JAYS IN THE FINAL TWO MONTHS OF 2015. DAVID PRICE,
ACQUIRED FROM DETROIT AT THE NON–WAIVER TRADE DEADLINE, WON NINE OF 10 STARTS AND
WILLED THE CLUB INTO THE POST–SEASON AGAINST THE TEXAS RANGERS.
UNLIKE TODAY, WITH THE ROGERS CENTRE A MAUSOLEUM IN THE FINAL WEEKS OF A LOST SEASON, THE HOME OF THE BLUE JAYS WAS ALIVE WITH EXCITEMENT. CROWDS REGULARLY FILLED THE 48,000–SEAT STADIUM IN AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1993.
NIGHT AND DAY, THE C.N. TOWER LOOMED OVER THE BALLPARK OF BASEBALL’S HOTTEST TEAM.
THE BENCHES EMPTIED AGAINST KANSAS CITY (ABOVE AND BELOW) IN EARLY–AUGUST, DAYS AFTER THE BIG 3 ACQUISITIONS BY ANTHONPOULOS. IT WAS STILL TOO EARLY TO ENVISION THE BLUE JAYS AND ROYALS GOING SIX GAMES IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES.
MY BEST (AND LUCKIEST) PHOTO: JOSE BAUTISTA CONNECTING FOR A HOME RUN AGAINST SEATTLE.
BAUTISTA AND DONALDSON (RIGHT) WERE MONSTERS FOR THE JAYS IN THE FINAL TWO MONTHS.
THERE WERE ROUGHLY 480,000 TOES IN ROGERS CENTRE FOR EACH GAME DOWN THE STRETCH.
BEN REVERE MAY HAVE LOOKED SMALL AMID THE SHADOWS IN LEFT FIELD, BUT HE BROUGHT SPEED AND HAPPINESS TO THE TORONTO CLUBHOUSE AFTER COMING OVER FROM PHILADELPHIA.
EVEN THE DOWNTOWN BUILDINGS OF TORONTO SPARKLED WHILE THE BLUE JAYS ROMPED TO THE A.L. EAST TITLE IN THE FALL OF 2015. THE PLAYOFFS BECAME OFFICIAL (BELOW) AFTER PRICE PITCHED THE JAYS TO A 10–8 TRIUMPH OVER SEATTLE ON SEP. 26, A SATURDAY AFTERNOON.