TORONTO (Mar. 10) — My ol’ pal, Nick Kypreos, has immeasurably improved the decorous Toronto Star sports section with his bi–weekly column on the Maple Leafs. Whichever executive made the decision to bring him aboard should receive a bonus. But, even Kyper showed that he can be ensnared in the Toronto media hype machine by referring to Auston Matthews, on Thursday, as the “second–best player in the world.” Had Nick written the article one year ago, it may have been accurate. At the moment, however, there’s a solid argument that Matthews is no better than the fourth–best player on his own team, let alone second in the hockey universe.
Auston won the Hart Trophy last season largely as the result of a media love–in. That he broke the Toronto franchise record for goals in a full schedule (60) was a remarkable accomplishment, yet he was not — nor will he ever be — in the company of Connor McDavid, who resides in the stratosphere of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux among modern National Hockey League marvels. Neither, once more, was Matthews a factor when the chips were on the table, coming up small in Game 7 (on home ice) against Tampa Bay. McDavid, if you’ve forgotten, erupted for playoff–leading 33 points in 16 matches, leading Edmonton to the Stanley Cup semifinals. He could have been the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy without appearing in the title round.
This is a good time to pause and address those who complain that I only write “negatively” about the Maple Leafs. Please understand, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, that “positive” and “negative” are thoroughly subjective; governed by the team you follow and root for. Without question, I write critically about the Leafs. For several reasons, not the least of which is the near–absence of critical reporting, today, within the mainstream Toronto media, of which I was a member for 23 years (1988–2011). During the bulk of that time (17 seasons), I had the privilege of being the first radio beat–reporter to cover a team in the NHL, home and on the road. The nature of my Leafs reporting would have been perfectly acceptable in the newspaper industry (at the time). That I spoke objectively about the team was entirely foreign, given that radio had always been an extension of the Maple Leafs.
Over the air, one is compelled to wave the blue and white flag; never more so than today, with the absurd cross–pollination of team/media ownership. Yet, during much of my time covering the Leafs at The FAN–590, there wasn’t a lot to criticize. Between 1993 and 2004, I followed the club — under Pat Burns and Pat Quinn — through four advancements to the Stanley Cup semifinals and 11 playoff–round victories. I was at Joe Louis Arena, nearly 30 years ago, when Nik Borschevsky upset the Detroit Red Wings in overtime. At the Los Angeles Forum to cover the infamous Gretzky–Doug Gilmour–Kerry Fraser affair in Game 6 of the ’93 semis between the Leafs and Kings.
As a fan and season ticket holder, I was in Maple Leaf Gardens the night (Feb. 7, 1976) Darryl Sittler erupted for 10 points against the Boston Bruins; and the night, 2½ months later, when Sittler scored five playoff goals on Bernie Parent of Philadelphia. I attended all three home matches of the 1978 Cup quarterfinals when the Leafs ultimately upset the New York Islanders on Lanny McDonald’s overtime goal In Game 7 at the Nassau Coliseum. I honestly know what it looks and feels like when the Leafs win something that matters. The wheels fell off with the advent of the salary cap (in 2005) and have not since ushered the team beyond prosperity in the regular season.
So, yes, I emphatically contend that the nucleus of a club that has failed on six consecutive attempts in the playoffs should be altered. Perhaps significantly. Instead, the vaunted Core–4 will stay intact for a seventh–such opportunity. Show me a similar example, in any professional sport. You cannot, because there isn’t one… nor should there be. In my era of covering the Maple Leafs, reporters and columnists would have been clamoring for change, long before now. Instead, we have comparative lap dogs inventing the silly phrase “all in” and actually believing that Kyle Dubas re–shaped the club with mostly over–the–hill, third and fourth–level acquisitions. The only way, in fact, this club can be re–modeled is by finally subtracting from the posse of forwards that has proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, it cannot prevail in the clutch. Which would have been acceptable after two or three eliminations in the opening playoff round. Yet, with half–a–dozen on the ledger, the composition of the team is still intact.
I ask you: What more evidence is required to approve of; acknowledge or understand critical reporting?
Since 2016, Auston Matthews has been the poster–boy of Toronto’s underachievement. He is, undoubtedly, at or above the level of any regular–season sniper in Leafs history, including such franchise legends as Charlie Conacher, Babe Dye, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Frank Mahovlich, McDonald, Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Mats Sundin. Where he significantly pales, by comparison, is with a playoff resume. Last season, Matthews carried the team through the regular schedule, interrupted and fractured by the Omicron variant of COVID–19. To his credit, nothing interrupted Auston’s scintillating run to a second Rocket Richard trophy. This season, he is a mere shell of the Hart Trophy recipient; no higher, as I mentioned, than fourth–best on the Maple Leafs, behind Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. For ol’ Kyper to call him the “second–best player in the world” was a brief, yet startling, lapse of his normally sound judgement.
In my view, Matthews (currently 35th in NHL points) hasn’t the drive or the conviction of a great playoff performer; an immeasurable waste of skill. I’ve written it before: the Leafs will take a giant step forward if Matthews joins a rival NHL club after next season. Marner is, plainly, the most–indispensable component of the current team, while Nylander has evolved marvelously under Sheldon Keefe. Both, clearly, need to begin carrying such performance beyond the regular schedule. Tavares, though slowing with age, still produces at a rate most would expect.
What the Maple Leafs must do — and I know you get tired of reading about it in this corner — is somehow replace Matthews with a franchise defenseman. The fantasy swap of Auston for Erik Karlsson before the Mar. 3 NHL trade deadline would have positioned the Maple Leafs for a deep playoff run. It was never going to happen because the current GM, even though he inherited the Big 3 draft picks, cannot bring himself to raze the old gang.
Which is truly a shame for the NHL’s most–tormented fan base.