TORONTO (Sep. 15) — It has not been a pleasant five weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans. Since being eliminated, Aug. 9, in Game 5 of a qualifying Stanley Cup round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Leafs have watched a former executive win general manager–of–the–year in the National Hockey League; a coach they could have hired evolve into the most–respected figure in the game… and their own general manager — who replaced the GM–of–the–year — receive nary a vote for the Jim Gregory Award: named in memory of, yes, another former (and beloved) Maple Leafs executive. Did you get all that?
Adding specifics to the above paragraph, it was Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders earning top GM recognition and the newly named award for the first time since Jim Gregory’s death last Oct. 30. The same Lou Lamoriello that Brendan Shanahan hired to run the Maple Leafs on July 23, 2015… then demoted to “hockey advisor” on Apr. 18, 2018, allowing for Lamoriello to become GM of the Long Islanders just more than a month later. The Uniondale–based club, today, is the best of all pro sports teams in the New York–New Jersey metropolitan area, including the Rangers, Devils, Yankees, Mets, Giants and Jets. Lou’s crew is down 3–1 to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final; facing elimination tonight in Game 5. Islanders coach Barry Trotz was available in the spring of 2014, after 15 seasons behind Nashville’s bench. The Leafs, under Randy Carlyle, had just missed the playoffs for the eighth consecutive time in a full, 82–game schedule. But, Shanahan evidently did not consider making a change and Trotz signed on with Washington.
Carlyle was fired in January 2015 and replaced by Peter Horachek, on whom Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and the disgraceful Leafs quit (a 2–14–2 record in his first 18 games). While Trotz ultimately guided the Capitals to the 2018 Stanley Cup, the Maple Leafs, as per custom, went after the shiniest toy: Mike Babcock becoming the most–expensive flop in franchise history. Today, Trotz is revered throughout hockey. He stands third, all–time, in NHL regular–season victories with 845, trailing only Scotty Bowman and Joel Quenneville.
So, yeah, the past month–and–a–bit has reflected poorly on the Blue and White. But, let’s not close the book just yet on the current regime. If the final chapter on Kyle Dubas has been written, he’ll be fired by Shanahan before next season. And, there is absolutely no indication of that happening. Dubas, entering his third year as GM, will be accorded the opportunity to build around the Toronto nucleus of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, and to amend the decisions that have backfired on the club. He’s a bright, young executive but, perhaps, his own worst enemy. In my view, and I doubt I’m alone, his future with the Maple Leafs is dependent on regulating a stubborn streak in his reliance on analytics… and skill without spleen. He must incorporate an abrasive element at the expanse of raw talent, which will be virtually impossible to achieve without discarding one of his monster salaries. There is no indication that the Leafs can challenge for the Stanley Cup with Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander eating up $41 million of a flat, $81.5 million cap figure. The group hasn’t won a playoff round in four tries. Without adding balance to the roster, Dubas is committed to failure. Neither can he move forward with Frederik Andersen as No. 1 goalie — a decision, I’m told, at which the hockey department has arrived. Expect the final year of Andersen’s $5 million contract to be traded before the start of next season, in December.
The point, here, is that Dubas still has a chance to rewrite history regarding his comparison to Lamoriello.
I repeat: the book isn’t closed.
But, neither can he author a new chapter without becoming more broadminded.
FIFTH TIME FOR THE (NORTH) STARS
The Maple Leafs need to look no farther for inspiration than the Dallas Stars, who won the Western Conference title over the Vegas Golden Knights and will face either Tampa Bay or the Islanders for the Stanley Cup. Dallas missed the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons between 2008–09 and 2017–18. But, general manager Jim Nill has pieced together a well–balanced club that hardly blew away its opposition in the pandemic–shortened season, finishing with 82 points in 69 games, losing its final six matches. The Maple Leafs accrued 81 points in 70 games. But, the Stars jelled at the right time, knocking off Calgary, Colorado and Vegas with an interim coach, Rick Bowness, behind the bench.
It is the fifth appearance for the franchise in the Cup final. Born as the Minnesota North Stars in the Great Expansion of 1967–68, the club nearly played Montreal for the title in its inaugural season, losing Game 7 of the West Division final to St. Louis in double–overtime (Ron Schock beat Cesare Maniago).
THE DALLAS STARS FRANCHISE BEGAN IN 1967–68 AS THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS. IN THIS PHOTO FROM DEC. 6, 1967, FORWARD BILL COLLINS (18) AWAITS A REBOUND FROM LEAFS GOALIE JOHNNY BOWER BEFORE A FEW EMPTY SEATS AT THE OLD METROPOLITAN SPORTS CENTER. TORONTO AND MINNESOTA PLAYED TO A 1–1 TIE — MIKE McMAHON SCORING FOR THE NORTH STARS; WAYNE CARLETON FOR THE MAPLE LEAFS. GARY BAUMAN WAS IN GOAL FOR MINNESOTA.
Minnesota’s first Cup appearance was in 1981 — Glen Sonmor coaching such stars as Bobby Smith, Al MacAdam, Steve Payne and rookie Dino Ciccarelli to a five–game defeat against the New York Islanders (New York’s second of four consecutive championships). Next up was the 1991 North Stars, a sub–.500 team (27–39–14), coached by Bob Gainey, that got hot in front of unheralded goalie Jon Casey and lost in six games to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Having relocated to Dallas for the 1993–94 season, dropping “North” from their nickname, the Stars made consecutive Cup final appearances in 1999 and 2000. Brett Hull famously provided the franchise its only NHL title with his “toe–in–the–crease” goal in triple–overtime at Buffalo on June 20, 1999. The Stars were then knocked off in double–OT for the 2000 Stanley Cup when Jason Arnott of New Jersey beat Ed Belfour in Game 6 at the old Reunion Arena.
INSIDE HOCKEY: THE BEST… THE ONLY
How does one remember nearly 53 years into the past? As an eight–year–old boy? Good question.
All I know is the not–so–vague recollection of Dad bringing home this magazine after work one day in September 1967. He knew that I was upset over the National Hockey League adding six teams in the Great Expansion of 1967–68. After all, I had just recently memorized the six pre–expansion teams; their arenas and colors. Now, there was another load of homework. The California Seals? Pittsburgh Penguins? Who were these guys and where would they play? Dad explained that studying this magazine would help me understand the enlarged NHL. Suddenly, teams were going to wear green, purple, orange and light–blue. Not just red, dark–blue, black and gold. Neither is this the original copy of the 1967–68 INSIDE HOCKEY edition Dad purchased for me. As with other kids my age, I quickly shredded the magazine and pasted photos in my scrapbook. I found an intact version at a memorabilia show some years back and joyfully added it to my collection. Upon perusing it, I was struck by the ass–backward predictions. INSIDE HOCKEY had the Toronto Maple Leafs a good bet to defend their 1967 Stanley Cup title, more–than–likely against the West Division team with the largest collection of ex–Leafs, the California Seals. That Toronto missed the playoffs, finishing fifth in the established East Division (above only Detroit) — and that California wound up dead–last in the league by a whopping 19 points — had to surprise the editors. As it were, Montreal captured the first Cup of the expansion era, sweeping the St. Louis Blues and rookie coach Scotty Bowman.
Here are contents of the one and only NHL preview magazine in 1967–68:
The magazine’s assessment of the Leafs and the expanded NHL (above and below).
Leafs coach Punch Imlach had famously called Rogatien Vachon a “junior B goalie.”
Bobby Orr was entering his sophomore NHL season with Boston (above and below).
Toronto Maple Leafs team preview from the magazine (above and below). More of the same.
The expansion California Seals had seven former Leafs on their initial roster: Wally Boyer, Billy Harris, Bob Baun, Larry Cahan, Kent Douglas, Aut Erickson and Gary Smith. As such, the glowing expectation (below) that never came close.
More expansion pages.
A 74–game schedule was adopted for 1967–68, up from 70 in the six–team league. After the season opener (Montreal at Pittsburgh, Oct. 11), the NHL restricted early games to within the East and West Divisions… until Oct. 21, when the Penguins hosted Chicago. The new teams played four games against each of the established clubs in Year 1 of expansion; two at home and two away.