TORONTO (July 29) — The question posed on the headline to this blog is largely hypothetical given the myriad factors that determine placement during the long, 82–game schedule in the National Hockey League.
Injuries often play an immeasurable role.
But, the NHL is returning to its conventional structure — and playoff format — for the 2021–22 season, which compels the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the Atlantic Division, to finish among the top three clubs for a guaranteed berth in the Stanley Cup tournament. The more–specific question, therefore, is this: Are the Leafs superior to any of Tampa Bay, Boston, Montreal and Florida? If not, then the club will need to enter the playoffs through the back door, as a wild card contestant, or miss out for the first time since 2016. Given the enormous gap between front–line and support players up front, and the interminable lack of an elite blue–liner, apprehension is rather legitimate.
Even if one local scribe began a column by asking “Can the Toronto Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup with Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek as their goaltenders?” How the NHL championship enters this equation is an abiding mystery. Not that getting carried away is uncommon among those that cover the Maple Leafs. Yes, the Stanley Cup should be the goal of every franchise. But, it’s rather ambitious for a club that would commit its followers to convulsive euphoria by winning a playoff round for the first time in nearly two decades. A team that hasn’t, in five years, been graced by clutch performance from any of its top stars. How will the Leafs score goals when Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares aren’t on the ice? There’s a Grand Canyon–like gorge separating the aforementioned from the remainder of centers and wingers. What happens when, inevitably, one or two of the Big 4 are sidelined? The simple law of averages dictates that none of Matthews, Marner, Nylander or Tavares will appear in all 82 games. Having lost Zach Hyman to Edmonton, which Maple Leafs forward offers supplemental scoring and — more so — aggressively creates time and space for Matthews and Marner?
For the ten–trillionth time in this corner, how can the Maple Leafs win anything without a Norris Trophy threat?
There are far too many riddles with the Blue and White to even fantasize about the Stanley Cup.
ZACH HYMAN WILL NO LONGER OPPOSE CONNOR McDAVID IN THE NHL. HIS LOSS WILL REVERBERATE THROUGH THE MAPLE LEAFS ROSTER. CLAUS ANDERSEN GETTY IMAGES/NHL
Yes, a list of challenges can be posed about any team. Especially with the musical chairs of unrestricted free agency. Most clubs change moderately from one year to the next. Except for the Leafs. They cannot change in any meaningful fashion so long as Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas are hell–bent on retaining the top five salaries, including Morgan Rielly. That’s why Leafs management wistfully claims that the current group will suddenly become playoff worthy. There’s nothing disparate to comment on. Moving off that intractable position wouldn’t be much fun, but I can guarantee that Kelly McCrimmon didn’t enjoy trading the face of the Las Vegas franchise this week to Chicago. It’s just that moving out $7 million with Marc–Andre Fleury was necessary. Otherwise, the Golden Knights couldn’t change. And, they advanced to the playoff semifinals this summer, which the Maple Leafs haven’t done since 2002. So, what’s the mystery here? Before contemplating the Stanley Cup, we’ve got to determine whether the Leafs can place among the top 16 clubs in the NHL. It certainly is not guaranteed.
Neither, of course, can we minimize that Toronto possesses the league’s most–skilled top of the roster. If healthy, the Big 4 will supply enough firepower to keep the Leafs in playoff contention all season. Goaltending should also improve with the efficient tandem of Campbell and Mrazek. Apart from elevating Garret Sparks to the NHL and staying too long with Frederik Andersen, Dubas has done well between the pipes. He traded with Los Angeles for Campbell — a steal — and may get more bang for the buck with Mrazek than other, more–expensive stoppers inked throughout the league on Wednesday. But, the number of glorified minor leaguers that will necessarily assume roster positions up front. combined with a workable, yet very average blue line, dictates that the Leafs will fight for a playoff berth from beginning to end next season. A Stanley Cup triumph is not part of the conversation.
MORE PRISTINE POSSESSIONS
Part 2 — Components of my sports collection that are in near–perfect condition. These are published items (baseball, hockey, football, basketball, boxing) that date from 1962 to 1999:
The official World Series program (top–left) and a follow–up commemorative edition from 1992, when the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Atlanta Braves in six games to become the first Major League Baseball champion from outside the United States. Programs, below, from Toronto and Oakland in the 1992 American League Championship Series, The Blue Jays knocked off the A’s in six to reach the World Series for the first time in four attempts.
Covers of HOCKEY PICTORIAL magazine from November 1962 (left) and December 1966.
Significant Toronto Maple Leafs media guides. The 1976–77 edition (left) commemorated the 50th anniversary of the franchise with a cover oil–painting of the top four stars from that era: (clockwise from top left) Ian Turnbull, Borje Salming, Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler. The 1998–99 issue marked the season the club moved from Maple Leaf Gardens to the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena).
The Oakland Seals (initially California, later California Golden) joined the NHL as part of the Great Expansion in 1967 and played nine years in the Oakland Coliseum–Arena before re–locating to Richfield, Ohio (in 1976–77) as the Cleveland Barons. First and last Seals media guides, above.
Rectangular Canadian Football League media guides. Not sure how I acquired the Argos issue (I was only three at the time). The others, I sent away for in the mail and have kept through the years (roughly 50 such items).
Front and rear covers of the Vancouver Grizzlies media guide from 1995–96. The Grizzlies joined the NBA the same year as the Toronto Raptors. But, they were “Here to Play!” for only six seasons before moving to Memphis, Tennessee in 2001–02 and retaining the nickname.
Issues of Sports Illustrated Magazine from six weeks apart in early 1971. The Mar. 16 edition (left) featured Joe Frazier handing Muhammad Ali his first professional defeat, winning the World Heavyweight boxing title at Madison Square Garden on Mar. 8 of that year. The Apr. 26 magazine featured a rare hockey cover, reviewing the “Catastrophe in Boston” as Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the 1970–71 record–setting Bruins were shocked in the opening round of the playoffs by rookie goalie Ken Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens.