TORONTO (Jan. 12) — It happens almost every year and is undoubtedly a by–product of the longest current Stanley Cup drought: On the eve of the National Hockey League season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are overrated by members of the local media, thereby whipping their long–suffering followers into a frenzy. This year is no different. Heck, even the national media is lauding the Blue and White. The addition of players to fill the roster that are well past their prime, or never had a prime (Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey) has convinced many that this is the Leafs’ chance to make a long playoff run. Again.
Not surprisingly, I view the situation with more skepticism. But, time will tell.
The Leafs, to me, are good… with a chance to be very good. But, not as a result of the roster fillers. Beyond the obvious — the club will rise or fall on the performance of its Big 4 up front (John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander) and its veteran goalie (Frederik Andersen) — I see the emergence of prospects as the wild card. If, and I stress —IF — Mikko Lehtonen, Rasmus Sandin, Nick Robertson and Ilya Mikheyev can stay, and eventually thrive, in the NHL, the Leafs will contend for more than just a playoff berth. Other than Mikheyev, who showed promise last year before sustaining a wrist injury, we haven’t a clue whether the prospects are NHL ready. It is therefore impossible to accurately assess the Maple Leafs. Many suggest the club will compete amid a lesser group of rivals in the all–Canadian North Division than in the Atlantic Division against Tampa Bay, Boston and Florida. But, who really knows?
THOUGH HE MAY NOT PLAY AN IMMEDIATE ROLE WITH THE 2021 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS, MANY EYES WILL BE ON JUNIOR SHARPSHOOTER NICK ROBERTSON TO SEE IF HE CAN TRANSLATE HIS PROLIFIC SCORING WITH PETERBOROUGH OF THE ONTARIO HOCKEY LEAGUE TO THE NHL. ROBERTSON LED THE OHL LAST SEASON WITH 55 GOALS IN 46 GAMES. HE IS UNDOUBTEDLY A LEAFS WILD CARD.
As I pointed out in this corner last week, the Canadian sector is replete with first–rate goalies, including recent Stanley Cup winners Matt Murray (Ottawa) and Braden Holtby (Vancouver). Add in Carey Price (Montreal), Jacob Markstrom (Calgary), Connor Hallebuyck (Winnipeg) and veteran Mike Smith (Edmonton), the Leafs and Andersen may encounter quite a challenge to be among the top four playoff entries. As always, and likely more than ever, injuries and illness in the COVID–19 pandemic will help to shape not only the North Division, but the entire, 31–team league. Though we wish the coronavirus on no one, it’s inevitable that players and staff will be infected in the schedule matrix whereby they return to their homes after games and practices, and travel about the country on aircraft. Conducting a full season and playoffs in a “bubble” environment would be inhumane, though it’s an idea the NHL could re–assume for its 2021 Stanley Cup competition. COVID–19 trends, and the progress of vaccination, will dictate how the league moves forward.
As with most teams, the Leafs have an enormous gap between their first two, and bottom two, forward lines — a direct symptom of spending to the cap ceiling. Which is difficult to criticize. There is no longer any doubt that Kyle Dubas will retain his $40–plus million quartet, come hell or high water. It’s a luxury to have Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander on the same team and they must perform at a truly elite level from the very start to the very end… which includes, without question, more than one playoff round. Dubas may have obtained some roster balance in the off–season — Simmonds, in particular, will be intriguing to watch — but the Leafs have too much invested in the Big 4 to receive anything less than a grand return. Which hasn’t yet materialized when it counts. Getting blanked twice in five games, as against Columbus in the qualifying round last August, won’t cut it anymore. Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander have got to summon the physical will to overcome tight–checking and pestering by the opposition. Pirouetting from corner–work and the demanding areas along the glass is a proven recipe for underachievement. If these gifted skaters do not possess the gumption for such an arduous chore, the Maple Leafs will never advance in the playoffs.
Alongside countless others, I’ve long been a Joe Thornton admirer. But, I fear the Toronto media hoopla, and the improbable decision by coach Sheldon Keefe to start Thornton alongside Matthews and Marner, may damage the future Hall–of–Famer’s reputation. Under no circumstance is Thornton, at 41½ years of age, fast enough to accompany the two Leaf stars. This experiment — by some measure, a publicity stunt — will not endure beyond the first week of the schedule. On the powerplay, it’s a different story. Thornton’s legendary puck savvy down low will be an asset. But, not while the Maple Leafs are at even strength. Matthews and Marner will have to wait for Thornton to catch up, or slow their pace to accommodate him. It won’t work.
JUMBO JOE WILL HELP THE LEAFS IN VARIOUS SITUATIONS. BUT, THERE’S BEEN TOO MUCH HYPE OVER THIS OFF–SEASON PICK–UP. OVERALL EXPECTATION FROM FANS AND MEDIA MUST BE TEMPERED.
Much curiosity will follow defenseman Thomas James (or T.J.) Brodie, the Leafs’ prize free agent catch of the off–season. Especially after the more–talented Tyson Barrie bombed last year in a Toronto jersey. Brodie performed exceptionally well at 5–on–5 with Calgary, though his work on the penalty kill was rather abysmal. If Morgan Rielly stays healthy this season, I suspect he and Brodie will form a solid No. 1 tandem.
Anyone familiar with this corner will know that I’m puzzled over the Maple Leafs providing Andersen another opportunity to come up small in the post–season. I’ve said my bit many times about this dubious call. If the trend continues, it will reflect disturbingly on management. If it changes, then tolerance beyond reason will prevail. There’s just nothing to hold onto with Andersen in the Stanley Cup tournament since 2015. Unequivocally, my view is the risk far outweighs the potential reward. But, the Leafs have taken the gamble.
I look for Toronto to finish third in the North, behind Winnipeg and Vancouver.
ENVELOPE OF TREASURES
While digging through a box of magazines the other day, I came across an envelope sent, in early 1971, to the house in which I grew up. Yes, 50 years ago, it cost merely nine cents to mail an 8 x 10–inch photo from Regina to Toronto. It contained a 1970 team photo of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and a picture autographed to me by Canadian Football League legend George Reed. In the envelope, I had kept other CFL autographs obtained as a 12–year–old fan of the Toronto Argonauts. In fact, 1971 was the year my dad bought a pair of Argos season tickets. The best available at the time, in the old, 33,135–seat CNE Stadium, was halfway up the uncovered south bleacher, located on the west goal line. It turned out to be wonderful timing as the ’71 Argonauts compiled a 10–4 record and represented the Eastern Conference in the Grey Cup game. The names on that club are legendary: Leo Cahill, the coach; Joe Theismann, the rookie quarterback; Leon McQuay, the explosive freshman runner; Jim Corrigall and Jim Stillwagon, procured by Cahill in successive years from the U.S. college ranks to anchor the defensive front; Bill Symons, the veteran fullback; Mel Profit, the stylish tight–end; Tricky Dick Thornton, the wily defensive back.
Here are the contents of this envelope of treasures:
I TOOK THIS LARGELY UNPROFESSIONAL PHOTO WITH A KODAK INSTAMATIC CAMERA ON OCT. 17, 1971 FROM MY ARGOS SEASON TICKETS IN SEC. 12 OF THE SOUTH BLEACHER AT OLD CNE STADIUM. A SELLOUT CROWD OF 33,135 WAS ON HAND FOR A 28–7 UPSET BY THE MONTREAL ALOUETTES. BUT, TORONTO HAD ALREADY CLINCHED FIRST PLACE IN THE CFL EAST. IN THE IMAGE, KICKER IVAN MacMILLAN IS LINING UP FOR A 37–YARD FIELD GOAL, WITH JOE THEISMANN HOLDING.
PILFERED BY CAHILL FROM THE MIAMI DOLPHINS WAS THIS NOTRE DAME UNIVERSITY PASSER.
DICK THORNTON (LEFT) AND DAVE RAIMEY. FORMER STARS WITH WINNIPEG REUNITED IN TORONTO.
UNFLASHY, BUT THE ARGOS’ BEST POSSESSION RECEIVER IN 1971, FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO.
DESPISED ACROSS CANADA, BUT ADORED IN HAMILTON FOR HIS FEROCIUS PLAY ALONG THE DEFENSIVE LINE. A PRO WRESTLER IN THE OFF–SEASON WHO LATER CALLED HIMSELF “KING KONG.”
AMONG THE PROLIFIC RUNNING BACKS IN CFL HISTORY, GEORGE REED (LEFT) COVERED 16,116 YARDS OVER 13 YEARS WITH THE SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS. HE WON A GREY CUP RING IN 1966.
THE TOP QUARTERBACK–RECEIVING COMBO ON THE 1970 GREY CUP–CHAMPION MONTREAL ALOUETTES: QUARTERBACK SONNY WADE (LEFT) AND PASS–CATCHER TERRY EVANSHEN.