TORONTO (Oct. 25) — As much as the Toronto Maple Leafs were remodeled in the past two weeks, they have remained nearly identical to the club that was bounced from the playoff qualifying round by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Aug. 9. That may seem like a glaring contradiction, but it’s true.
Whenever the National Hockey League returns — which is no small factor considering the age of several key players — the Leafs will rise or fall as they have in the past four years: on the skate–blades of their expensive nucleus. If John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen (combined cap–hit: $50,489,366) perform well, so will the team. When the big money men founder, it won’t matter that Wayne Simmonds, Joe Thornton, Jimmy Vesey, T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian (combined cap–hit: $9,100,000) have been added. These players, of course, could provide the Leafs invaluable experience and support. But, only if the main engine isn’t sputtering. Otherwise, general manager Kyle Dubas will have re–shuffled the deck chairs. Again, a Toronto off–season is dominated by additions that are “good in the [dressing] room.” The game, however, is not played on carpet. On the ice, the Maple Leafs are remarkably unchanged. They will endure with the posse of forwards that Dubas refuses to manipulate.
Given the salary cap chaos he created, Dubas actually performed well in the past fortnight. Simmonds and Thornton should provide the Maple Leafs (for one season) a different, yet familiar, look. If Finnish defenseman Mikko Lehtonen and Ontario Hockey League goal–scoring leader Nick Robertson (55 with the Peterborough Petes) can carry their brilliance into the NHL, it will boost the club immediately. Lehtonen, in particular, bears watching after gaining professional experience with Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League. He is 26 and may be arriving in North America at the precise juncture. Signed as a free agent last May, Lehtonen has been loaned to Jokerit and is putting up good numbers: eight goals and 16 points in 14 KHL matches. Robertson, 19, appeared in four of the five pre–playoff games against Columbus and scored once. It is unusual for a big stick in Junior to burst upon the NHL; Nick may return to Peterborough for a final year. But, you never know. Lehtonen and Robertson could be legitimate wild cards for the Blue and White.
JOE THORNTON POUNDS ON FORMER LEAF NAZEM KADRI AT SCOTIABANK ARENA — JAN. 4, 2018 — AFTER KADRI HAD TORN LOOSE A THATCH OF JUMBO JOE’S BEARD. FRANK GUNN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Where Dubas occasionally loses me is by suggesting that his free agent additions were made to “put the team over the top” — implying, somehow, that the Leafs are on the precipice of Stanley Cup glory. This was augmented by Thornton telling reporters he signed with Toronto because “he needs the Stanley Cup.” And, by Simmonds saying he wanted to come home “and help his team win a championship.” The Leafs haven’t won a bloody playoff round since 2004. And, were hardly a cinch to make the playoffs prior to the pandemic shutdown on Mar. 12. A pragmatic follower of the Blue and White would hope the current team qualifies and is somehow able to claw its way into the Conference semifinals. The Stanley Cup is nothing but a pipedream… particularly until the club obtains a goalie that can prosper in defining playoff moments. Andersen, as noted many times in this corner; supported by clinching–game evidence, is not that player.
Want a truly different look? Then Dubas, if at all possible, should unload the $3.5 million contract of No. 3 center Alex Kerfoot (I would imagine he’s trying) and spend the cash on free agent defender Zdeno Chara.
The Leafs would suddenly — and unconventionally — become a team to fear.
As for specifically when the next NHL season will begin, it is somewhat immaterial. In order to re–establish the normal rotation — training camps in September; regular season from October to April; playoffs from April to June — the league requires an abbreviated schedule. It cannot play 82 games while starting in January. Otherwise, the Stanley Cup tournament will again proceed through the late summer. And, continue in that manner until a shortened season. So, Gary Bettman’s administration, which pulled off a spectacular achievement by safely conducting four playoff rounds during the Covid–19 pandemic this summer, should be planning for a 48–game schedule in 2020–21. Beginning at some point after the New Year. Coronavirus willing. Which the league has twice done in the past: after the owners’ lockouts of October–to–January in 1994–95 and 2012–13. It’s the only way for the Stanley Cup to be presented, as we’re accustomed, in June.
YES… IT’S TIME
The years 2010 to 2015 represent the greatest half–decade in the history of the Chicago Blackhawks. Far greater, in fact, than the team of the middle–1960’s that featured Glenn Hall, Stan Mikita, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Pierre Pilote: members of the Hockey Hall of Fame and five of the most–prominent players ever. Those clubs, at the tail–end of the pre–expansion era, could not match grinding, defensive hockey with the abundant skill of their forwards… and of defenseman Pilote — along with Montreal’s Doug Harvey, the best puck–advancing blueliner prior to Bobby Orr. As such, Chicago did not win the Stanley Cup after its lone triumph in 1961. Hockey vets here in Toronto recall how the vastly inferior Maple Leafs of 1966–67, finishing 19 point behind first–place Chicago, upset the Black Hawks in the Stanley Cup semifinals, spawning arguably the worst trade in NHL annals: that which sent Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston.
When the 2010 Hawks won the Cup on Patrick Kane’s “hidden” overtime goal at Philadelphia (cover of the 2011 NHL Official Guide & Record Book above), it busted off the longest existing drought: 49 years (the dubious honor of 53 years now belongs to the Maple Leafs). A stunning, late comeback at Boston in Game 6 added the 2013 Stanley Cup and a home–ice triumph over Tampa Bay in 2015 made it three NHL championships in six seasons — by any measure, a near–dynasty. Los Angeles, with Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter, filled two of the in–between years, raising the Cup in 2012 and 2014. So dominant were the Hawks and Kings that their match–ups for the 2013 and 2014 Western Conference title were considered the de–facto Stanley Cup final.
Since 2015, however, each club has fallen into disrepair.
Much was made this week of a declaration from the Blackhawks that the club had to re–build with young players. To me, it was like any of us coming out of the shower and announcing we need to towel off. In other words: plainly obvious. Even with the core of Kane, Jonathan Towes and Duncan Keith — all, first–ballot Hall of Famers — performing exceptionally well, Chicago has twice missed the playoffs in the past five years and been eliminated quickly in the other three. Los Angeles, with Kopitar and, perhaps, Doughty headed to the Hall, has missed in four of six years since last winning the Cup and was twice bounced in the opening round. Quite a comedown for the players that owned the Stanley Cup for five of six seasons.
It is undeniable, however, that the Chicago teams of 2010–15 authored the most–glorious epoch in franchise history. Kane, Toews and Keith (with Marian Hossa and goalie Corey Crawford) will long represent an impeccable nucleus of players. The guy standing behind the bench wasn’t bad, either. Joel Quenneville (now coaching Florida), with 925 regular–season wins, ranks second, all–time, to Scotty Bowman.
FETCHER OF THE FAR–FLUNG
No one is more adept than my pal, Ken Reid, at uncovering hockey players you have never heard of… players that, if pressed, may have never heard of themselves. This is the allure and appeal of Ken’s latest book (below), biographing 39 individuals that scored but a single goal in the National Hockey League. That’s one more goal, of course, than countless millions who have dreamt of such an accomplishment through the decades. You must, however, be the most–ardent follower of your particular club to posses even faint memory of the names in this volume, which follows the similarly intriguing project from 2016 — One Night Only — in which the veteran Sportsnet anchor chronicled those that appeared in a single NHL match.
Examples from the one–goal group? Richie Regehr, Micki DuPont, Les Kozak, Darren Haydar and Ben Walters. You may remember Christian Thomas. He played 25 games for Montreal and is the son of former Leafs winger Steve Thomas. I happen to recall Bob Warner, who appeared in 10 games for the Leafs in 1976–77, during the Darryl Sittler era. Otherwise, and frequently, you will see names for the first time.
Apart from the goalies in the book that have scored in the NHL — Billy Smith, Chris Mason and Damian Rhodes — the most–notable figure is Dave Hanson: one of the three “Hanson Brothers” from the 1976 movie Slapshot, starring the late Paul Newman (actual brothers Steve Carlson and Jeff Carlson were the others; Steve scored nine goals in 52 games with the 1979–80 Los Angeles Kings). Dave appeared in 33 NHL matches: 11 with Detroit in 1978–79 and 22 with the Minnesota North Stars the following year. He scored his only NHL goal against a future Hall–of–Famer with the Red Wings on Feb. 24, 1980 at the brand new Joe Louis Arena, which had opened two months earlier. “I was on a line with Mike Polich and Tommy Younghans,” Hanson recalled. “We were kind of the third, maybe even the fourth, grinder line… I was in the slot. I rifled a wrist shot and it went between the legs of Rogie Vachon.“
Had Dave’s son, Christian Hanson, not scored twice for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009–10, his lone NHL tally — and first — would have been quite a story. It occurred Apr. 7, 2009 at the Prudential Center in Newark and I covered the game for The FAN–590. Christian scored on the winningest netminder of all time, Martin Brodeur, and could hardly believe it afterward. Ken Reid’s latest is a quick, breezy and interesting effort. It is on book shelves and can also be purchased at Amazon, here… https://amzn.to/34nsEUf.
SPLENDROUS AUTUMN (without hockey)
Along with writing this blog and working for Canada’s most–eminent Jewish funeral chapel (Benjamin’s Park Memorial), I cannot take my eyes — or my camera lens — off the glorious colors of the Fall season here in the Greater Toronto Area. These are several examples of my nature photographs in the past week.