Leafs Look Frighteningly Familiar

TORONTO (Oct. 23) — Be it the second week of the regular season, or a decisive playoff match with an historic foe, the Toronto Maple Leafs do not change. For whatever reason, the nucleus of this club has such limited desire to integrate skill and ambition. The mail–in against San Jose on Friday night was a virtual replay of Game 7 against Montreal in the playoffs last May — both matches at a nearly silent Scotiabank Arena. The deck chairs beneath John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner have been shuffled. But, everything important about the Maple Leafs remains frighteningly familiar. And, really, why should any of us be surprised?

The core of this club needs to be disassembled. As, ultimately, were the Brian Burke teams built around Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Both had skill, but lacked heart. The drivel from Brendan Shanahan early in June that “we’ll get this done!” — combined with the mantra from Kyle Dubas about “believing in the group” — is a stall tactic. Until the bloated contracts run their course, the Leafs will remain in a quagmire. The analytic geniuses that evidently control the hockey club will chirp with glee about puck possession, zone starts, shot attempts, expected goals and other–such nonsense. None can provide a blueprint for the will to succeed. Which the players achieving all the gaudy advanced statistics sorely lack. And, which ultimately dictates prosperity or failure in the crunch.


THE DEJECTION OF TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS CAPTAIN JOHN TAVARES DURING FRIDAY NIGHT’S SOMNOLENT, 5–3 LOSS TO SAN JOSE AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. JULIAN AVRAM SPORTSWIRE/GETTY IMAGES

Some will lean on the antiquated pretext that it’s too early in the schedule to form a conclusion. Which may be true with individual achievement. As it pertains to collective accomplishment, this club should be drawn and quartered. It’s an act that will not change, even if the assembled skill occasionally tantalizes. When it matters most, as in a playoff round, the passion to thrive and outwork the opposition will fatally subside. Of that you can be certain.

To appear unmotivated at the beginning of a season is inexcusable. Only once has this Toronto variant shown enthusiasm and flair at the outset: in October 2018, after adding Tavares, when the club won six of its first seven games, poring in 33 goals. Ultimately, a 20–8–1 record in 29 games proved deceptive. Increasingly ground into submission by coach Mike Babcock, the Leafs were a pedestrian 26–20–7 in their remaining starts. Boston, per the norm, prevailed in the opening playoff round. As with the $40 million core, today, there was refusal, then, to acknowledge the indisputable — broached to death in this corner — that Frederik Andersen would never backstop the Leafs to playoff glory. Especially with Babcock driving him into the pavement in the regular schedule.

Fast–forward three years and the analytic masterminds have convinced Sheldon Keefe that Jack Campbell — 29 years of age and with all of 90 National Hockey League appearances — is too weary in the third week of October to perform on consecutive nights. As such, the locals are treated to the inevitability of Michael Hutchinson… and two more points thrown away in the standings. Nothing about this group differs. Nothing apparently can.

MARNER SHOULD WATCH GILMOUR: During the last 20 Maple Leaf games, including seven against Montreal in the playoffs, Mitch Marner has four goals and 10 assists for 14 points. Not an embarrassing total — roughly a 60–point pace — but far beneath what Toronto’s most–talented performer should accrue. I suspect those that have watched the Leafs since the beginning of the 1990’s will tell you, honestly and accurately, that Marner and Doug Gilmour are equivalent of skill and nearly identical in body structure. Why, then, did Gilmour become the greatest player in Leafs history over a two–season span — compiling 238 points in 1992–93 and 1993–94? While, more importantly, adding 63 points in 39 playoff matches? It’s a rhetorical question. And, it precludes analytics.


ICONIC IMAGE OF AN EMBATTLED DOUG GILMOUR DURING THE 1993 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS.

Gilmour had a burning desire to not only win, but to carry teammates on his scrawny back. During those two playoff years, No. 93 performed on ankles that had to be frozen by pain–killing injection.

Close your eyes and recall the vision of Gilmour, on one knee, re–tying his skate laces. Probably seven or eight times a night. Anything to help him prevail over the discomfort and pile up the points. Marner, to my knowledge, has no–such affliction. Someone should pull him aside and pop in a DVD of Gilmour’s courageous efforts against Detroit, St Louis and Los Angeles in the spring of ’93; Chicago, San Jose and Vancouver in ’94. Perhaps such images will prove motivational. Something is holding back Marner. It’s difficult to pinpoint… and Keefe seems powerless to unlock the mystery. Without question, the knives will increasingly sharpen amid fans and media. And, ultimately, the dam will break — either a flood of Marner points or unbearable upheaval that causes heads to roll.

The situation, it says here, cannot remain fluid indefinitely.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

12 comments on “Leafs Look Frighteningly Familiar

  1. The only thing Marner is going to watch is his bank account getting larger from his contract with the Leaves.

  2. I think this is a symptom of telling these young men that they’re super-duper special every day of their lives. They believe that “working hard” means keeping up with their training regimes. They don’t internalize that they are competing with other people who are motivated to succeed against them and are not dazzled by their super-duperness.
    It’s becoming more apparent that the sum of these parts isn’t equal to a whole. For whatever reason, M&M and others either can’t or can’t be bothered to tough it out and elevate their physical, mental and emotional game. I don’t think they believe they need to.
    Unlike those that want Marner traded I think it has to be Mathews. I know he scores, I know he’s getting better as a complete player, but the fact that he going to leave in a couple years can’t be discounted. He’s a mercenary and will follow the money south to warmer, lower taxed and less demanding climes.
    I heard Emily Kaplan on Nick Kypreos’ podcast. She said Mathews sees himself as a “crossover” star. Fashion, sports and I don’t know what else but much like a basketball player I suppose. I don’t see him as a leaf long term and I don’t think he really cares where hw plays, as long as it forwards his personal goals.
    He could be THE centerpiece of a transaction that (finally) brings the necessary #1 defenceman the team has needed forever. The team still has a #1 centre in Tavares and swapping out Matthews along with (what appears to me) his arrogance may set the team, and Marner on a better course.
    Or I could be completely wrong, but it doesn’t matter because the Leafs won’t do it anyways.

  3. Ouch – last night was painful.

    Howard – I am not willing to give up on Marner quite yet – But I acknowledge your Gilmour arguments and I also happen to agree with them.

    I recall an interview with my favorite actor Sir Henry Winkler who professed that his desire to be a successful actor burned so strong within his body that he would have knawed through concrete to get to the other side. Gilmour hasn’t said anything remotely like that but I have witnessed that ‘edict’ with my own eyes when I saw him lace up for Toronto. Gilmour seemed faster, smarter, tougher and more creative than any other hockey player that I had ever seen. The coup-de-gras was when Gilmour scored the goal against Curtis Joseph in double OT. My recollection is that Gilmour was behind the net and that time had stopped – It was like the gods of hockey had imbued #93 with the power of the Fonz.

    Mitch Marner is going to have to figure out how to elevate his game to the next level on his own. My belief is that is ‘elevation’ is something you can’t coach, or teach. I’ve seen empirical evidence that Marner can make the next step but he’s got to figure out how to stay in the astral zone.

    I do like Kyle Dubas and I appreciate the talent that he has assembled but I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if Shanahan had opted to retain Lou as GM and was able to keep Mark Hunter in the fold. Lou runs a tight ship, and sometimes people need that to succeed.

  4. Howard, a little side note you should have brought up: A certain former Maple Leaf (hint: his team is 5-0 right now) who was let go as a UFA so that the “Top 4” can remain intact, has scored more goals after 5 games (5) than Marner, Matthews, Tavares AND Nylander. COMBINED.

  5. Bergy, I’m tired, my 73 yr old dads tired (he came to TO from Scotland just after cup win in 67, had never seen hockey and fell in love with the game and his new hometown buds- hasn’t seen them win shit!) my buddies are all tired, even my 14yr old hockey crazy kid is tired. How many more evenings am I gonna waste watching this mess. Love the game, love my old city (TO) but my time and what little money we have may soon never be spent on The Leafs again.

  6. The Blue Jays from 1983 until 1990 were a very talented team that never got it done. It basically took 7 years for Pat Gillick to decide to shake things up, and then from 1991 through 1993, there were three straight AL East titles and two straight World Series championships. Personally, I see little value in the Leafs’ “we’ll get it done/believe in the group” mantra. Yes, it’s early in this season, but it’s the sixth straight season now. I don’t know enough to know what it is, but it sure seems like something is broke. So fix it! (Then again, no one else has really been able to since 1967.)

    1. Not sure about the baseball comparison with no salary cap restrictions, Eric. The Leafs can neither subtract their failing stars nor add the equivalent of Dave Winfield, Jack Morris, Paul Molitor, Dave Stewart, David Cone, etc.

      1. Fair enough. It’s not a truly accurate comparison … but I was thinking more about Gillick shaking off the Stand Pat label and shaking up the core by trading Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar than the free agent moves that came later.

  7. Seems to me that the loss against the Sharks last night looms large. Against a team on the road playing back to back, and their third in four nights, with the Leafs having plenty of rest, it should have been a cake walk. Instead, they got shellacked. Mathews and Marner both invisible.

    I can’t help but think that this is what happens when management does nothing to improve a team in the off season. Players on a club know when their team is better or worse going into a new season, and there is a motivating or demoralizing impact accordingly.

    As I’ve said in the past, there were moves to be made this off season. Management needed to have the wherewithal and courage to recognize that the core is broken, but clearly does not.

    If the club continues to founder, it should make deadline deals more palatable. I’m not so sure that will happen though. This club is worse than last year, and still lacks toughness in their core, but they should fight for a playoff spot. As a fan of the club, I honestly hope they don’t as that’s the fastest path to correction.

    The good news is that most of their assets are tradeable, assuming that guys like Marner turn things around. Cap space is just as critical as picks and prospects right now. As I’ve mentioned before, the Leafs remi d me of the early days of the caps with Ovie. They too missed there first window of contention, but then figured it out. To me, that’s the hope for this club right now.

    1. It took 12 years before Ovie won the cup. Therefore according to your logic, and if Austin stays, the Leaves should win the cup in 2029.

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