TORONTO (Mar. 10) — In a telephone conversation, Monday night, with a rabid follower of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I was told, “the best thing for this team is to miss the playoffs. It would be the kick in the pants the organization needs.” The comment was intriguing, revealing… and one that is likely shared, reluctantly, by other fans of the hockey club. Would it be, however, any form of catharsis for the Blue and White; providing management a broader view of the components required for a Stanley Cup challenge? Or, might it simply culminate an enormous waste of time, energy and effort since last October?
My opinion, shared over the phone, is that making the playoffs can never hurt a team. Even if it gets bombarded in four consecutive games, there is always something to be taken from the experience. The core of the Maple Leafs roster — Frederik Andersen, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews — should, by now, fathom the conditions for playoff success merely by getting bounced from the opening round in four consecutive years. If you cannot learn from losing, you will likely never win. In that realm, the Leafs are overdue for, minimally, a second–round appearance. Yet, the franchise momentum that began in 2016–17 seems to have abated in this season of apparent underachievement. Clearly, it would now surprise most fans of the hockey club were the Leafs to surmount Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division semifinal. Or, perhaps even extend the Lightning beyond five games. That said, no person alive anticipated that Columbus would conquer 62–win Tampa last spring, let alone, outrageously, in a four–game sweep. No living, breathing hockey fan — two years ago — likely wagered a plug–nickle on Las Vegas even approaching playoff territory in its expansion season. The thought of a Stanley Cup final appearance would have induced convulsive laughter. As would the notion, nearly a quarter–century ago, of the Florida Panthers playing for the 1996 championship in their third National Hockey League campaign. All three, as you know, happened.
THE LEAFS EMERGED WINLESS FROM THEIR THREE–GAME TRIP TO CALIFORNIA, GAINING BUT A SINGLE POINT AGAINST SAN JOSE, LOS ANGELES AND ANAHEIM (ABOVE). DEBORA ROBINSON NHL1/GETTY IMAGES
As such, there can be no harm in making the playoffs. Once among the 16 qualifying teams, possibilities abound. Tampa Bay will embark on the Cup tournament without Steven Stamkos and, undoubtedly, with some lingering concern over its appalling flame–out against the Blue Jackets a year ago. Were the Leafs to prevail in the opening match at Amalie Arena, there’s no telling how anxious and uncertain the Lightning players could become. The alternative, for Toronto fans and players, is sitting at home and watching Florida’s attempt to unnerve its inter–state rival. What could possibly evolve, constructively, from such an experience? Given how precariously the Leafs are perched in the Division — leading the Panthers by a single point before tonight’s home game with Tampa Bay — would missing the playoffs engender shock in the upper reaches of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment? Not for any person paying attention since Oct. 2. Surrendering at least two lucrative Stanley Cup gates at Scotiabank Arena might be cause for dismay. Otherwise, we’ll assume the execs on Bay Street have long–noticed the club requires an adjustment or two.
Clearly, the Leafs do not have to make the playoffs. Beyond the loss of gate revenue, there would be no economic or emotional fallout from such an outcome. Pragmatic supporters of the team recognize that change is necessary… and that significant change is hampered by the heavily, front–loaded roster (nearly $40 million of the salary cap consumed by four players). Disappointment over the club failing to qualify would be mitigated by increasingly–modest expectation throughout the 2019–20 schedule. Neither, of course, would such a misstep prompt a decline in season–ticket revenue, nor the sale of club merchandise. It would, however, rob the players of involvement and experience at the most–important juncture of the hockey year. And, of the potential — however remote — to pull off an opening–round upset. Neither would there emerge the unbridled excitement, among fans, of watching the club in the post–season. Maple Leaf Square would give way, exclusively, to Jurassic Park. As it did for two marvelous months a year ago.
There can be no upside to missing the playoffs. Qualifying, for this still–youthful Toronto team, is essential.
50 YEARS AGO at Maple Leaf Gardens
Continuing with my collection of programs from games I attended at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1969–70, Detroit came to town (Mar. 11, 1970) for a midweek clash with the Leafs. Toronto was well beyond playoff contention in the East Division, 15 points behind the fourth–place Red Wings, who were trying to hold off Montreal for the final post–season berth. Detroit beat the Leafs, 3–1, with ex–Toronto star Frank Mahovlich scoring twice. Wayne Connelly had the other Red Wings goal. Dave Keon scored his 30th of the season for the Leafs, in the third period. Roy Edwards stopped 32 shots to earn the victory in net. Bruce Gamble took the loss. Referee Bill Friday issued 16 minutes in penalties. The linesmen were Ron Ego and Ed Butler.
The Red Wings, as per the line–ups (below), had five former Leafs on the club, including the four (Mahovlich, Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger, Carl Brewer) acquired in the trade (Mar. 3, 1968) that brought Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith to Toronto. The other ex–Leaf was defenseman Bob Baun, obtained May 27, 1968 from the Oakland Seals and featured (top–left) on the cover of the program in a story written by George Gross of the old Toronto Telegram. Mahovlich and Baun were members of all four Leaf Stanley Cup teams, under Punch Imlach, in the 60’s. Gordie Howe led all scorers this night with 59 points.
Frank Orr of the Toronto Star wrote a preview of the OHA Junior ‘A’ playoffs.
Bobby Orr was running away with the NHL points lead, over Boston teammate Phil Esposito.