It Still Depends on the Big 4

TORONTO (Apr. 13) — When the dust had settled on Trade Deadline Day in the National Hockey League, the Toronto Maple Leafs were different… yet unchanged. Undoubtedly, Nick Foligno and David Rittich will provide the club character up front and depth at the most–critical position. Neither may the Leafs be victimized by soft, killer goals in the Stanley Cup tournament, as in recent years with Frederik Andersen. But, none of this will matter if the Big 4 shooters cannot elevate their performance in the post–season — and exponentially. Which means getting better as the stakes increase. Maintaining energy and production over two months and four grueling rounds.

It’s still up to the $40 million men: John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. And, of course, whoever plays goal. Everyone else is an adjunct to the roster. If Matthews and Marner, in particular, cannot transfer their wonderful talent from the regular season to the playoffs — and more than sporadically — the Leafs have no chance of winning the Stanley Cup. Even if the dynamic duo performs to standard, there are no guarantees, given the strength of such NHL rivals as Tampa Bay, Washington, Pittsburgh, Vegas and Colorado, all of which improved, as well, with pre–deadline additions. So, big–time performance from the big–salary players is a minimum requirement. The Double–M boys must emulate such recent Stanley Cup stalwarts as Sidney Crosby, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Ovechkin, Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. This is especially important for the Leafs, without an indominable force on the blue line. It can be argued, vigorously, that Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Tampa Bay would not have captured nine NHL titles since 2010 in the corresponding absence of Kris Letang, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, John Carlson and Victor Hedman. The Leafs do not have a defenseman of comparable ability… and the Stanley Cup is almost never won without such an element.

It is particularly incumbent, therefore, on the big sticks up front to carry the load for Toronto.


Experience should no longer be a factor. Nylander, Marner and Matthews will embark on the post–season for the fifth consecutive year. They absolutely must turn it up a notch (or several); then raise the bar with each ensuing round. As proven again during the qualifying loss to Columbus last August, scoring in an elimination series is an arduous chore. Much more difficult than during the regular season. Except for the remarkable, late–game outburst in Game 4, the Leaf shooters were silenced by the Blue Jackets. This can no longer happen if Toronto has Stanley Cup aspiration. Mathews and Marner need to resist the closer physical attention paid to them by opposition checkers; to prevail in the “dirty” areas of the ice — particularly, the corners and along the dasher. There won’t be as much room to make pretty passes and fire darts as during the 56–game playoff tune–up. Don’t be fooled by the relative ease of performing amid the all–Canadian sector this season. The Leafs are winning mostly because of their skill. That, alone, will not suffice; primarily in the grueling third and fourth playoff rounds.

A significant contribution from the slowing Tavares would go a long way toward helping the Maple Leafs; neither is such a possibility remote. The captain has 15 goals and 30 points in 36 playoff matches… 31 with the New York Islanders between 2013 and 2019. It’s simple with Tavares: he needs to score. Which is more difficult now that he’s 30. Johnny T. has 13 goals in 42 games this season. That frequency must broaden in the Stanley Cup tournament. It is not out of the question; and, quite frankly, expected of a player earning $11 million through 2024–25.

Not to make a direct comparison, but Alex Ovechkin had 15 goals and 27 points in 24 playoff matches when Washington won the 2018 Stanley Cup. He was 32 at the time. At 33, Mark Messier had 30 points in 25 games for the 1994 Cup–champion New York Rangers. Having turned 37, and on one leg, Steve Yzerman put up 23 points in as many playoff games with the 2002 Red Wings. Pavel Datsyuk was the same age as Tavares, today, when he provided the 2008 Stanley Cup–champion Red Wings 23 points in 22 matches. Brett Hull was closing in on 38 when he amassed 10 goals and 18 points in 23 games with the ’02 Red Wings. For the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup in 2021, their classy captain has to find another level. And, somehow maintain it for two months.


None of this advocates that others need not play a role. In fact, Toronto’s playoff run will be hugely enhanced if goals are scored when the Big 4 aren’t on the ice. And, with scrappiness provided by such veterans as Wayne Simmonds, Nick Foligno and Zach Hyman. Goaltending must be air–tight and timely — likely amid a duo (Jack Campbell and David Rittich) with a combined one game of playoff experience. A vintage performance, or two, from Jumbo Joe Thornton would help. In the end, however, and regardless of trade deadline additions, the Leafs are built around the Big 4 up front. Marner and Matthews, in particular, have to perform at more than one point per game. Nylander absolutely must shed his “perimeter” reputation, if he can. And, Tavares needs to be Yzerman.

Only then will Toronto threaten to bust off the longest current Stanley Cup drought.

A LITTLE THIS… A LITTLE THAT

Looking at various and sundry items in my hockey collection:

 
THE OFFICIAL NHL GUIDE (ABOVE) FOR THE FIRST SEASON OF EXPANSION, WHEN THE LEAGUE DOUBLED TO 12 TEAMS. THE PAGE (BELOW) IN WHICH THE ESTABLISHED AND NEW TEAMS WERE IDENTIFIED, INCLUDING FRANCHISE DATES.



FRONT OF A CALENDAR ISSUED BY MOLSON BREWERIES AT THE MONTREAL FORUM IN 1967–68.

 
HOCKEY MAGAZINES FROM JANUARY 1969 (ABOVE) AND MARCH 1969 (BELOW) — COVER OF THE LATTER SIGNED TO ME BY BOBBY ORR ONE NIGHT, MANY YEARS AGO, IN THE PRESS BOX AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

 
 
FRONT AND REAR COVER (ABOVE); LINE–UPS (BELOW) FROM THE FINAL LEAFS–CANADIENS GAME OF THE 1966–67 NHL SEASON. THE HABS PREVAILED, 5–3, AT THE MONTREAL FORUM ON MAR. 29, 1967 BUT WOULD LOSE TO TORONTO, JUST MORE THAN A MONTH LATER, IN THE STANLEY CUP FINAL; THE LEAFS MOST–RECENT CHAMPIONSHIP.


 
AN HISTORIC OCCASION FROM THE EXPANDED NHL: PROGRAM COVER (ABOVE) AND LINE–UPS (BELOW) FROM THE FIRST PLAYOFF GAME OF THE OAKLAND SEALS — APR. 2, 1969 AGAINST THE LOS ANGELES KINGS AT THE OAKLAND COLISEUM–ARENA. TED IRVINE WON THE GAME FOR L.A., BEATING GARY SMITH JUST 19 SECONDS INTO OVERTIME. THE KINGS WOULD PREVAIL IN SEVEN GAMES, THEN LOSE FOUR STRAIGHT TO THE ST. LOUIS BLUES.


 
MY OLDEST HOCKEY PUBLICATIONS — 6½ x 4½–INCH POCKETBOOKS WRITTEN IN 1950 AND 1951 BY MAPLE LEAF GARDENS PUBLICIST ED FITKIN. WHEN THE NHL EXPANDED, IN 1967, FITKIN WENT TO LOS ANGELES WITH JACK KENT COOKE TO BECOME FIRST P.R. DIRECTOR OF THE KINGS. THESE BOOKS WERE PRODUCED BY CASTLE PUBLISHING.


NHL PREVIEW POCKETBOOKS FROM 46 AND 45 YEARS AGO, PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SHUSTER OF CANADA.

 
MY CREDENTIALS (ABOVE) FOR THE 2000 NHL ALL–STAR GAME, IN THE SECOND SEASON OF THE AIR CANADA CENTRE (NOW SCOTIABANK ARENA). FIRST ASG IN TORONTO SINCE 1968. BOTTOM–LEFT: MY MEDIA PASS FOR THE 2007 ALL–STAR GAME IN COLUMBUS. AND, A BANNER (BOTTOM–RIGHT) I PURCHASED AT PHILIPS ARENA IN ATLANTA WHILE COVERING THE 2008 ALL–STAR GAME, WHEN THE THRASHERS (NOW THE WINNIPEG JETS) WERE STILL IN THE LEAGUE.

 
EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

5 comments on “It Still Depends on the Big 4

  1. I feel comfortable with Tavares being able to deliver in the playoffs. Its not like he scores a ton of pretty goals, his success comes from going to the net and getting his hands dirty which translates to what is required in the playoffs. As for his linemate, Nylander, I am much less confident.

    Goaltending (no matter which of the three plays) will be the main story and cause for a lot of second guessing or finger pointing if they don’t advance. It may be enough to come out of the North but unlikely good enough to beat some of the potential teams they could face in round 3.

  2. I do agree, Howard. Despite all the talk of “Grit” and “Toughness” it will be about the core players playing the most. That’s why Babcock’s usage of his stars was very ill-conceived. You can’t have Matthews playing 18 minutes in a game 7 after you’ve underplayed him all year.
    While I consider Colorado and Tampa the 2 top cup contenders, the others you mentioned are quite flawed teams that I think the Leafs are above. I’m not sure Vegas can win a cup with those centres they have. And if you look you’ll see TJ Brodie is actually better this year than Pietrangelo (big disappointment). So sometimes we go by reputation as to who is a #1 D. Leafs D is deep and better than it’s been since the 93 D on the Leafs IMO.
    And the Pens did win a cup in 2017 without Letang. And I believe Ron Hainsey was their top usage D that playoff run.

Comments are closed.

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.