Signs of Panic… With 80 Games Left

TORONTO (Oct. 16) — God bless the boys on the TSN Radio Overdrive panel. I watch or listen rather frequently and enjoy the repartee between Bryan Hayes, Jamie (Noodles) McLennan and Jeff O’Neill. Whenever the Toronto Maple Leafs are topical, roughly between January and December, the trio debates rather passionately.

As with others in Leafs Nation, it also gets carried away. On Friday afternoon, Hayes, in particular, went off on the team after a loss the previous night in Ottawa, which dropped Toronto’s record to 1–1–0… with a paltry 80 games left: “Where was [John] Tavares? Where was [Mitch] Marner? After the playoffs last spring, if someone told me Marner erupted for five points in the first two games, I’d believe him. I expected that. For him to be a no–show against Montreal and Ottawa was inexcusable. Tavares is the captain. He needs to show up as well..”

Thus began a harsh, 15–minute critique of the Blue and White which augmented a subject broached by this corner since the playoff shemozzle against Montreal: there will be no patience accorded the hockey club in 2021–22, especially the Big 4 up front (Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander). But, neither can there be profound emphasis on each game in the regular season, apart from the necessity of points required to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. That the Maple Leafs were sluggish in the opening minutes against the Canadiens and Senators has become a central theme. Good Lord, it happened in the first two of 82 games. How can anyone allege an established pattern? It’s akin to my friend, Eric Engels, who covers the Habs for Sportsnet.ca, opining that Montreal was off to “a poor start,” having dropped consecutive–night matches in Toronto and Buffalo.

This is an old theme on my website, but I’ll say it again: a “start” to the National Hockey League schedule — as correctly noted by former Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson — is between 16 and 21 games. Not two (no disrespect to Engels given that Habs coach Dominique Ducharme went postal after the 5–1 romp by the Sabres).

 
THE LEAFS FELL BEHIND, 3–0, AND LOST THURSDAY IN OTTAWA. THE TSN RADIO OVERDRIVE PANEL WAS INCREDULOUS.

DEJA VU… AGAIN… AND AGAIN: Michael Hutchinson is a fine fellow; a good teammate and a useful veteran. He’s also the equivalent of a bad cold: no matter the precaution taken by the Maple Leafs, he always comes back.

Twice, now, the Leafs have tried hard to get rid of Hutchinson. They offered him up on waivers prior to this season and no rival team bit. Yet again. So, the goalie was demoted to the American Hockey League Marlies; ideally for good, with Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek poised to share the NHL duties. So much for best laid plans. Mrazek sustained a groin injury in Ottawa that will sideline him indefinitely. Guess who should be back on the Toronto bench? Yup… good ol’ Hutch. But, the Leafs don’t have sufficient cap space to recall a goalie from the minors. Instead — and almost unbelievably — the club has inked University of Toronto goalie Alex Bishop to a one–day amateur tryout. Bishop will dress as No. 2 stopper for tonight’s return engagement with the Senators at Scotiabank Arena (this storyline reminds me of a Zamboni driver playing goal in the NHL). Even Hutchinson’s expected appearance was enough to spawn a fearful headline, this morning, on the Sportsnet website:


There it was again: the ‘P’ word. After two games.

The accompanying article, by Luke Fox, provided buoyancy and apprehension:

“It sucks to see him come out of the game,” Jason Spezza said of Mrazek in Ottawa.

We’re guessing GM Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe used more colorful language after watching their Frederik Andersen replacement sidelined by a groin injury only 40 minutes into his Leafs career. The good news is that (a) third-stringer Michael Hutchinson slipped through waivers unclaimed toward the end of training camp, so Toronto has an NHL–experienced backup. And (b) starter Jack Campbell has been excellent through 80 minutes this season, posting a .976 save percentage (Fox routinely presents facts through the prism of “good” and “bad” news). This is the third lower–body injury Mrazek has suffered since April 2019. Last season he broke a thumb. The season before that, he suffered a neck injury. For the foreseeable future, Campbell must shoulder the load essentially by his lonesome, with Hutchinson chipping in on back-to-backs.

Maybe not such “good” news, after all. Nor, do I believe Hutchinson “slipped” through waivers. He likely sped past the other 31 teams like the old space shuttle. If Campbell, also injury prone, goes down, the Leafs will be in a world of hurt. Otherwise, Mrazek’s groin ailment is, perhaps, an omen. Campbell is 21–5–3 as a Maple Leaf. Under no reasonable circumstance should a goalie with such a marvelous record be consigned to sharing the load. Neither should it be impossible for a 29–year–old with a grand total of 88 NHL appearances to play on consecutive nights. As such, if I were Sheldon Keefe, I would happily entrust Smilin’ Jack will all games until Mrazek returns. Toronto’s schedule to begin the season is rather friendly. Between tonight and mid–November, there are only two sets of back–to–back games: at home to San Jose / at Pittsburgh next Friday and Saturday; at home to Calgary / at Buffalo, Nov. 12–13. Neither do the Leafs travel beyond the Central time zone until beginning a western trip at Los Angeles on Nov. 24. If Campbell is healthy, there should be no reason to deploy Hutchinson.

Providing, of course, Mrazek’s injury is not long term.

$2 BILLION… AND MINIMAL RESPECT

The Leafs may be the most–prized monetary possession in the National Hockey League, but their storied history got the short shrift in a commemorative magazine published by The Hockey News.

According to Sportico, which bills itself as “the leading source for sports business news,” Toronto is the NHL’s most–valuable club, worth $2 billion (U.S.). Next up are the New York Rangers ($1.87 billion) and the Montreal Canadiens ($1.58 billion). The average NHL franchise is said to be worth $934 million. The expansion Seattle Kraken paid the league a record $650 million as an entry fee, $150 million more than the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. In its most–recent ranking of NHL teams (last December), Forbes Magazine, which publishes an annual appraisal, had the Rangers on top at $1.65 billion. The Maple Leafs were next at $1.5 billion.

The otherwise exceptional Hockey News issue offered no love to the team with the second–most Stanley Cup titles… likely because the same team now owns the longest–ever championship drought: 54 years and counting.

To observe the 75th anniversary of the weekly newspaper (now magazine) founded on Oct. 1, 1947, The Hockey News polled experts to arrive at the top 75 players and teams in NHL history. As with any subjective appraisal, the results can be debated. Those that have watched the NHL with a hint of objectivity in the past 60 years will tell you, for example, that the 1962–63 Maple Leafs were clearly the best of the four that won Stanley Cups under Punch Imlach; rivaled only by the club of 1950–51 that, for 42 years, held the franchise mark of 95 points in a season. Still, the ’50–51 Leafs, determined best of the lot, rank a distant 32nd in the top 75 listing, while the ’62–63 edition, which finished first in the six–team NHL, is nearly at the bottom: 69th overall. The selectors mistakenly chose the 1961–62 club as the best of the Imlach era, putting it nine spots ahead of the following year’s group.

 
FRONT AND REAR COVERS OF THE HOCKEY NEWS 75th ANNIVERSARY COMMEMORATION, ON NEWSSTANDS NOW.

Qualifying under the team category required a Stanley Cup triumph. Which is fair… but also precluded three of the most–prolific clubs in NHL annals. No person can reasonably counter that the Boston Bruins of 1970–71 remain, a half–century later, the best in franchise history. That club obliterated the NHL record book in team and individual grades, finishing 57–14–7 for 121 points while poring in 399 goals, 108 more than second–place Montreal. Phil Esposito destroyed the single–season marks for goals (76) and points (152). Bobby Orr became the first player to record double–digits in assists (102). But, a rookie goalie named Ken Dryden startled the Bruins with a seven–game ouster in Round 1. The 1995–96 Detroit Red Wings established a league record for victories with 62, two more than the 1976–77 Canadiens. But, the Wings were bounced by Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche in the Cup semifinals. The 2018–19 Tampa Bay Lightning equaled the 62–win record, not having to play a truly critical game after mid–December. When, suddenly, the Lightning had to win, it couldn’t. Not even once. Columbus pulled off one of the great shockers in pro sports history by sweeping Tampa in the opening playoff round.

As per the individual category, the player voted No. 1 of all time by the Maple Leafs — Dave Keon — doesn’t qualify among the top 75. In the 50th anniversary commemoration by The Hockey News (released in 1997) that ranked the top 100 NHLers in history, Keon was 69th overall. Somehow, he’s fallen out of contention, usurped in the current issue by former teammates Terry Sawchuk (12th), Red Kelly (30th), Frank Mahovlich (36th) and Tim Horton (53rd). Neither did the selectors rate Keon ahead of Syl Apps (44th), Charlie Conacher (46th), George Hainsworth (59th), Max Bentley (61st), King Clancy (65th), Busher Jackson (72nd) or Ted Kennedy (74th). As such, the player voted best in franchise history by those that watch the Leafs most intimately is no better than 11th. Which is patently ridiculous. Even if Sawchuk and Kelly won multiple Stanley Cups with Detroit in the 1950’s.

In the magazine, there is also a page of historic rankings, provided by the correspondents for each of the NHL teams (Seattle obviously excluded). The Toronto page (below) was crafted by Casey Ippolito. He, too, completely overlooked the 1962–63 club, which finished atop the six–team standings and required just two games above the minimum to romp past Montreal and Detroit for the Stanley Cup. His player choices are less debatable. Who can argue that Syl Apps, Charlie Conacher and Ted Kennedy are not among the top three forwards in franchise history? But, again, where is Keon, who excelled on all four Cup teams in the 1960’s and won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his playoff performance in 1967? Ippolito was bang–on with Tim Horton and Borje Salming as the top Maple Leafs defensemen. And, only Johnny Bower can rival Turk Broda for best goalie.


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