TORONTO (Dec. 21) — Frankly, I’m surprised no one has posed the following questions: With the Maple Leafs an impressive 9–4–0 in 13 games under Sheldon Keefe, why did Brendan Shanahan wait until Nov. 20 to authorize the dismissal of Mike Babcock? Why did Shanahan not permit Kyle Dubas to make a coaching change last spring, after the playoff loss to the Bruins, as per the general manager’s request? Can the Leafs, having bumbled under Babcock, overcome a 9–10–4 start and make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference?
I’ll say it now and I’ll say it clear: If Keefe guides the Maple Leafs into the Stanley Cup tournament with one goalie — and after the club wasted more than a quarter of the National Hockey League schedule — he should win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. At the moment, and prior to tonight’s home game against Detroit, the Leafs have clawed back into third place in the Atlantic Division with 40 points — same as second–place Montreal; the Canadiens having played one less match. Florida (39 points), Buffalo (39) and Tampa Bay (38) are right behind. If the playoffs started tonight, the Canadiens and Leafs would hook up for the first time since 1979. But, there’s lots of hockey to be played. And, the Leafs still have but one measly point in the standings from their back–up goalies (Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo). Hutchinson starts tonight at Scotiabank Arena. If he can’t topple the Red Wings, dead–last (by six points) in the 31–team NHL, Dubas will absolutely have to make a move. As mentioned repeatedly in this corner, the fly–in–the–ointment remains between the pipes. The classic Catch–22: victories accumulate only with Frederik Andersen in goal… and Frederik Andersen, acting alone, will be out of fuel long before the playoffs begin.
JOHN TAVARES AND THE LEAFS UPENDED THE NEW YORK RANGERS IN A SLOPPY GAME FRIDAY NIGHT AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, IMPROVING TO 9–4–0 WITH SHELDON KEEFE BEHIND THE BENCH. BRUCE BENNETT GETTY IMAGES
Otherwise, Keefe deserves full credit for settling down the Blue and White. I’m not generally a fan of in–season coaching changes, but this move was undeniably appropriate and beneficial. Keefe has accomplished the turnaround rather quietly. Again, to his credit, he came aboard without offering stern promises or shaking an iron fist. Like everyone else, he saw that the Leafs were tighter than a spool of yarn under Babcock. His largely inaudible approach allowed the players to start enjoying their craft once again.
I remain unconvinced that the Maple Leafs can mount a Stanley Cup challenge with their feeble defensive posture. Nor do I think Keefe can do much about it. As previously written, this club, assembled by Dubas, is built for the attack. When it plays pond hockey with a willing opponent, as on Friday in New York, its skating and puck–moving ability in the offensive zone allows for success. But, the current Leafs will not prevail in a tough, grinding series… nor has the club any chance whatsoever if Andersen is physically drained. Such is the absolute necessity, in the remaining 46 matches, for Andersen to be rested 15–20 times… and, more importantly, for his back up to help provide wins; actual points in the standings. The NHL hasn’t been a one–goalie outfit since the early–1960’s. Neither will the Leafs become a throwback. Everything Keefe has accomplished in his early coaching tenure is for naught if Dubas cannot acquire a reliable No. 2 stopper.
But, none of this answers the essential query: Why did Shanahan waste 23 games before rubber–stamping a change behind the bench? A lost season may fall squarely on the Maple Leafs president.
50 YEARS AGO
at Maple Leaf Gardens
Continuing with my series of Maple Leaf Gardens programs from games I attended in 1969–70, here are consecutive matches from the 1969 Christmas break — against the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. For each, I sat in the tickets owned by my Dad’s accounting firm: Sec. 46 of the west Blues (to become Reds in 1974–75), Row M, Seats 11 and 12, between the south–end goal and blue–line:
The Leafs had beaten the New York Rangers, 3–1, at Madison Square Garden six nights prior to this re–match in Toronto. And, the Rangers avenged the home loss with a 5–2 thumping on the road. Former Leaf Ron Stewart led the way with a pair of goals. Another ex–Leaf, Bob Nevin, opened the scoring with Vic Hadfield and Walt Tkaczuk adding singles. Ron Ellis spoiled Ed Giacomin’s shutout bid with goals at 14:23 and 17:55 of the third period. New York outshot the Leafs 45–31; Bruce Gamble bearing the heavy load. The referee was Ron Wicks. The linesmen were Bob Myers and Ron Finn.
Quite the novel idea — common today — began (top–right) with the Los Angeles Kings.
Though quite versed in Maple Leafs history, I’ll admit I have no recollection of defenseman Gord Nelson (27), who suited up for this game and two others in 1969–70. He compiled 11 penalty minutes, including a fighting major against rookie Bobby Clarke of the Flyers, at Philadelphia, Dec. 11. The Saskatchewan native was a regular with the Leafs Central Hockey League farm team in Tulsa. Former Leafs with the Rangers included Terry Sawchuk (30, in his final NHL season), Arnie Brown (4), Bob Nevin (8), Ron Stewart (12), Rod Seiling (16) and Orland Kurtenbach (25). Don Marshall (22) would play 50 games for the Leafs in 1971–72.
The Los Angeles Kings came to town four nights later, in their third NHL season, and amid quite a struggle. Ron Ellis scored twice in the first period and Toronto went on to hammer Los Angeles, 8–1. Other Leaf goals were provided by Dave Keon, Norm Ullman, Jim Dorey, Brit Selby, George Armstrong and Jim Harrison. Leon Rochefort replied for the Kings. Wayne Rutledge started in goal for L.A. but gave way to Gerry Desjardins after facing 20 shots (allowing three goals) in the opening frame. Bruce Gamble stopped 37 shots for the win. Harrison and Jimmy Peters of the Kings fought just 19 seconds after the opening face–off. The referee was Bruce Hood. The linesmen were Pat Shetler and Bob Myers. Los Angeles would get bombed again the following night, 7–1, at Boston. The Kings finished dead–last in the 1969–70 NHL standings (among 12 teams) with a record of 14–52–10 for 38 points.
Larry Cahan (3), Ed Joyal (16) and Eddie Shack (23) were former Leafs playing for Los Angeles. “Bob” Goring (19), otherwise known as “Butch”, was a rookie in 1969–70.
GEORGE FERGUSON: 1952—2019
Last Sunday (Dec. 15), the Maple Leafs lost the fourth prominent player from the “Darryl Sittler” era — the clubs of 1975–1979, coached by Red Kelly and Roger Neilson — when center George Ferguson died at 67. Ferguson was pre–deceased by center Scott Garland (d. June 9, 1979), center Don Ashby (d. May 30, 1981), defenseman Kurt Walker (d. Aug. 17, 2018) and left–winger Dan Maloney (d. Nov. 19, 2018).
GEORGE FERGUSON’S BIO IN THE 1976–77 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE.
FERGIE’S BIGGEST NIGHT
Los Angeles at Toronto — Apr. 11, 1978
Ferguson scored only 57 goals in 359 regular–season games with the Leafs between 1972–73 and 1977–78. Among his last games in a Toronto jersey was his most–memorable — a three–goal effort at the Gardens against Los Angeles in Game 1 of the 1978 best–of–three preliminary–round playoffs. I attended the match in Sec. 49 of the East Reds. The Leafs would sweep the Kings with a 4–0 victory, two night later, at the L.A. Forum then go on to upset the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the quarterfinals on Lanny McDonald’s overtime goal at the Nassau Coliseum. Here are newspaper stories, from my 1978 playoff scrapbook, about Ferguson’s big night. The Leafs would trade him to Pittsburgh on June 14, 1978: