Minnesota Wants Matthews: Scout

TORONTO (June 9) — Nearly three months after the last games were played in the National Hockey League, all remains relatively quiet. The NHL is hoping to gradually build toward a late–summer competition for the 2020 Stanley Cup, but there are too many obstacles and “what if’s” to believe it will actually happen. For what it’s worth, I’m staying with the forecasts of several prominent physicians: no hockey will be played prior to 2021. Time, of course, will tell. In the interim, a well—connected scout told me today that the Minnesota Wild is interested in pursuing a trade for Leafs sniper Auston Matthews. This will go over like a lead–balloon among most Leaf followers; how could the club deal a legitimate 50–goal shooter (Matthews had a career–best 47 in 70 games prior to the COVID–19 suspension), still just 22 years of age? The answer lies in the question: a number of teams would be interested in a legitimate 50–goal shooter, still just 22. Whether general manager Kyle Dubas has any appetite to trade one of his Big 4 up front is another matter altogether.

Equally significant is whether the Wild can put together a package that would intrigue Dubas. Two factors are worthy of mention: a) Matthews can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2023–24 season while 27 years old and (barring serious injury) in his physical prime. And, b) the Maple Leafs have hardly set the world on fire with Matthews, losing three times, consecutively, in the opening round of the playoffs while oddly regressing in the 70 games of 2019–20. Even the most–ardent Leafs supporter will agree the club was more than a mild disappointment (seventh overall at 36–25–9 for 81 points; just three points ahead of 11th–place Florida). While clearly loaded up front with Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the Leafs appear to lack the balance, size and tenacity required to win the Stanley Cup; all of them components of the most–recent champion, St. Louis. Dubas, therefore, can take one of two paths — either do the “Leafs thing” by ignoring the deficits and keeping fingers crossed… or look to improve his roster by trading from a position of strength. Given his propensity as GM, Door No. 1 seems like a good bet.


MINNESOTA IS INTERESTED IN TALKING TO THE LEAFS, AT SOME POINT, ABOUT AUSTON MATTHEWS.

Trading isn’t easy in the salary cap world, but Dubas nearly had to be cranked over the head before acquiring a genuine No. 2 goalie on Feb. 6: Jack Campbell (and veteran forward Kyle Clifford) from Los Angeles for forward Trevor Moore; a third–round draft pick in 2020 and a conditional third–rounder in 2021. For the second time, Dubas showed he can make an excellent deal; the other being steady rearguard Jake Muzzin from the Kings on Jan. 28, 2019 for forward Carl Grundström; the playing rights to Sean Durzi and Toronto’s first–round pick in 2019 (Los Angeles selected Swedish defenseman Tobias Bjornfot, 22nd overall).

Is Dubas, however, willing to pull off a transaction that vaults the Leafs into serious contention?

Is he capable of such a move?

And, is Minnesota an appropriate trade partner?

With Eric Staal rather long–in–the–tooth at 35, the Wild clearly needs a No. 1 center. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are also 35 and on the down–slope of their careers. Six of the top–eight point producers for the Wild this season are 28 or older. So, Minnesota badly requires some youth and firepower up front (15th in the NHL with 220 goals scored). The Leafs are looking for a right–shooting defenseman with contract term. Matt Dumba’s name surfaced before the NHL trade deadline at the end of February; he has three years left on a contract at $6 million per season. Minnesota also has a good prospect in Boston University winger Jordan Greenway and would surely trade at least one first–round pick in any deal for Matthews. Given that 2019 second–round choice Nick Robertson took giant leaps with the Peterborough Petes (55 goals in 46 games this season, tops in the Ontario Hockey League), Toronto could have yet another gifted forward on the way.

Much is riding, I suppose, on the quasi–Stanley Cup idea this summer. If the Leafs put it all together in a neutral site; without fans, and win the NHL title, neither Matthews nor anyone else of import will be traded. Conversely, should the Leafs lose to Columbus in the best–of–five play–in round — or, as I suspect, the competition doesn’t materialize — Dubas will need to brainstorm the necessary improvements.

He has an abundance to work with among forwards. Can he get the job done?

BASEBALL TREASURES — Part 2

More from my collection of Toronto Blue Jays–related publications — beginning with the club’s first season, in 1977, and ending just prior to the consecutive World Series championships of 1992–93.


The final edition of the Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine from 1977 — a 98–page pictorial recap of the club’s inaugural season in the American League. I’ve kept five issues in pristine condition for nearly 43 years.

 
I still remember the verbal gymnastics required to convince by Grade 13 History teacher at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate (Tomas Newall) that I was skipping his class to attend the Blue Jays second home opener — Apr. 14, 1978 (program, top–left) against the Detroit Tigers. Toronto prevailed, 10–8. And, the “Beeg Mon”, Rico Carty (b. Sep. 1, 1939), graced the cover (top–right) of the Blue Jays Yearbook in the club’s third season, 1979. Carty had been the National League batting champion (.366) with Atlanta in 1970.

 
In 1983, their second season under manager Bobby Cox (b. May 21, 1941), the Blue Jays vaulted from also–ran to contender. Improving by 11 wins over 1982, the club finished with a record of 89–73 (seventh–best in the Majors), nine games behind American League East champion Baltimore. Toronto had been in first place between June 21 and July 25, but a middling 19–17 mark in its final 36 games precluded a Division title. The ’83 Blue Jays Yearbook (top–right) was followed with a 128–page commemoration (top–left), written by Toronto Sun columnist John Robertson (Mar. 12, 1934 – Jan. 25, 2014). On the cover was right–hander Dave Stieb (b. Jan. 22, 1957), who posted a 17–12 record for the Blue Jays that season and started for the American League in the 1983 All–Star Game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago.

 
The chance of winning the American League East for the Blue Jays — and every other team — vanished in the first 40 games of 1984 when the Detroit Tigers rocketed to a 35–5 record. Ultimately, Detroit knocked off San Diego to win the World Series. Once again, the Jays finished 89–73 (fifth–best in the Majors), but a whopping 15 games behind Detroit. Toronto’s record would have topped the A.L. West by five lengths; Kansas City prevailed at 84–78. John Robertson produced another Blue Jays retrospective (top–right, 96 pages) with rookie shortstop Tony Fernandez (June 30, 1962–Feb. 16, 2020) on the cover.

 
It was finally the Blue Jays’ year in 1985, though not before a harrowing final week of the regular schedule. Crafting what remains the best record in franchise history (99–62, second in the Majors to St. Louis), Toronto won its first American League East Division title by a mere two lengths over the New York Yankees. A 13–1 mark in 14 games between July 21 and Aug. 3 had the Jays in position to run away with the A.L. East. Winning three of four games at Yankee Stadium in mid–September solidified the lead. But a swoon in the final 18 games (8–10) took the Division race to the wire. A three–game sweep by Detroit at Tiger Stadium (Oct. 1–3) left the Blue Jays one victory shy of the playoffs entering a weekend home series with New York to close out the schedule. Nerves were frayed on the Friday night at Exhibition Stadium when closer Tom Henke (b. Dec. 21, 1957) yielded a game–winning home run in the rain to Yankees catcher Butch Wynegar (b. Mar. 14, 1956). By sweeping the series, New York could force a one–game playoff for the A.L. East championship. But, a superb, clutch performance by starter, and ex–Yankee, Doyle Alexander (b. Dec. 4, 1950) on Saturday afternoon finally clinched the Division, as the Jays beat New York, 5–1, before 44,608 delirious on–lookers. Sadly for the Blue Jays, a 3–1 lead in the American League Championship Series against Kansas City evaporated thanks to Hall–of–Famer George Brett (b. May 15, 1953), who was unstoppable at the plate; the Royals winning Games 6 and 7 at Exhibition Stadium to reach the World Series, where they edged the Cardinals in seven. This time, both Toronto newspapers got into the commemoration act. The Star published The Drive of ’85 (top–right) while John Robertson of the Sun produced How The East Was Won!” (below).

 

 
After the 1988 season, baseball writer Ken Fidlin and photographer Fred Thornhill of the Toronto Sun produced a marvelous, 128–page review of the Blue Jays first 12 seasons. Recalling the disappointment I encountered before landing a radio gig in May 1988, Ken so–nicely signed my copy.

 
It was a “dream season” in 1989 for the Blue Jays and Oakland A’s, who won their divisions to meet in the American League Championship Series. I went to Oakland for the radio station to cover Games 1 and 2 — Rickey Henderson (b. Dec. 25, 1958) adorning the cover (above) of the A’s program. I kept four copies (below) of the program at SkyDome for Games 3, 4 and 5; managers Cito Gaston (b. Mar. 17, 1944) and Tony La Russa (b. Oct. 4, 1944) on the cover. Henderson embarrassed the Blue Jays in Oakland, stealing bases at will, as the A’s took a 2–0 lead in the series. The visitors then won two of three at the ‘Dome… and the ALCS in five. The A’s defeated San Francisco to win the 1989 World Series, best–remembered for the 6.9–magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake (5:04 p.m., Oct. 17, 1989) just prior to Game 3 at Candlestick Park.


 
My long–time friend, Ian Hutchinson, edited this 96–page review of the Blue Jays 1989 season on behalf of the Toronto Sun. The cover–photo shows catcher Ernie Whitt (b. June 13, 1952) jumping into the arms of Tom Henke, with Dave Stieb (left) and third–baseman Kelly Gruber (b. Feb. 26, 1962) joining the celebration, as Toronto clinched the A.L. East at home against Baltimore on Sep. 30.

 
I still have a stack of voter ballots for the 1991 Major League All–Star Game, the only one — so far — to be played here in Toronto. USA Today sponsored the balloting, in which starters for all positions other than pitcher were selected by fans. The A.L. defeated the N.L., 4–2, before 52,383 at SkyDome.


I kept eight copies of the program from the 1991 All–Star Game at SkyDome, played on July 9.


The Blue Jays soared to their third A.L. East title in 1991, by seven games over Boston. But, the playoff frustration continued, as the Minnesota Twins prevailed in five games to win the ALCS; then defeated Atlanta in the World Series. Here are four copies of the ’91 ALCS program from SkyDome. The cover features the three players acquired by general manager Pat Gillick (b. Aug. 22, 1937) during the 1990 Baseball Winter Meetings in Chicago: (left–to–right) center–fielder Devon White (b. Dec. 29, 1962), second–baseman Roberto Alomar (b. Feb. 5, 1968) and right–fielder Joe Carter (b. Mar. 7, 1960). All would play significant roles for the club… with the best still to come — in 1992 and 1993.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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