TORONTO (Sep. 22) — Training camp opened on Wednesday for the Toronto Maple Leafs with players and staff offering the same, tired assurances. To wit: Our team is different than its predecessors… the new additions claiming they signed in Toronto to “help win a Stanley Cup.” Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail — as only he can — came up with a perfect phrase to describe what we hear from the Leafs every September: institutional windbaggery. The locals have been whistling past the graveyard for the better part of a decade, with one playoff–series triumph to show for eight attempts. So, why continue to hammer away with the same futile cast?
In my view, it’s because management is frightened to take a necessary fork in the road. Brendan Shanahan understands (as does his new general manager, Brad Treliving) that William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews keep the Leafs competitive during the regular season; that without the Big 3 draft choices, his club wouldn’t make the playoffs. Once the Stanley Cup chase begins, however, it’s the familiar, old story: loads of talent; virtually no character. After seven failed chances to matter in the spring, the next result should be different?
Fact is, nothing extraordinary will change. Not with the identical, largely passive nucleus… and a skilled, though buttery soft blue line that isn’t Stanley Cup caliber. Vegas won the National Hockey League title in June by adroitly utilizing a big, heavy roster. There is nothing “heavy” about the Leafs. Not when it counts. The chatter, this Autumn, is that Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi and Ryan Reaves will transform the club into a physical juggernaut. All three players perform with an edge, but are typically being lionized and overrated by observers around here.
THE CHANT OF LEAFS NATION: “HAIL… HAIL… THE GANG’S ALL HERE. AGAIN!”
Reaves, for example, may add fortitude to the dressing room, but he isn’t skilled enough to play regularly. Bertuzzi and Domi have hockey “names” and will likely revel in the local sports environment. Neither are difference makers. Success or failure, yet again, will be the domain of the ubiquitous Corpse–4 (John Tavares, at 33, included).
We have witnessed, with haunting, irrefutable repetition, what that group cannot accomplish in the clutch.
This subject was also explored, unsurprisingly, by Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star, among the few columnists and pundits not under the hockey club’s spell. “The problem lies in a core that underperforms in the post season and is overdue for a shakeup. How long will it take for the new GM to see it?” read the sub–headline to Dave’s opinion piece. Clearly, it will take forever if Shanahan is still calling the shots and overriding his manager.
Incredibly, the Corpse–4 is under its fifth GM. It started with David Nonis drafting Nylander (in 2014); interim GM Mark Hunter choosing London chattel Marner (in 2015); Lou Lamoriello’s regime plucking Matthews, first overall, in 2016. Then came Kyle Dubas. And, now, Treliving. There have been four coaches — Randy Carlyle, Peter Horachek and Mike Babcock fired by management; Sheldon Keefe now working under his second Leafs GM.
Still, the essence of a proven playoff underachiever remains. Which, until shown otherwise (and the Leafs may be stubborn forever), supersedes any accomplishment during the regular season. Remember the 60 goals scored and the Hart Trophy won by Matthews in 2022? How much did either matter when reflecting on another first–round playoff loss (to Tampa Bay)? The Leafs understand that the 82–game schedule has become progressively irrelevant. They know it’s all about the playoff chase; has been for several years. Yet, they refuse to fundamentally alter the faint heart of the roster. How, then, can we reasonably anticipate a different result next spring?
Until Leafs management “grows a set”, the futility and frustration will continue.
THOSE 1996 TORONTO ARGONAUTS…
The 2023 Toronto Argonauts are home and cooled out atop the East Division of the Canadian Football League with still one–third of the season to be played. The final six games of the schedule are meaningless in the standings as Toronto (11–1) leads second place Montreal and Hamilton by eight points. By the way, the Argos (as so many have stated) are not off to the “best start” in franchise history. Twelve games is well beyond the “start” in an 18–game schedule. Far more accurate is that the Argos have the “best record after 12 games” in club annals. Not even the 1996 Argonauts were 11–1. That Grey Cup team was 10–2 after 12 matches and finished 15–3. The offensive nucleus of the club is shown (above and below) while Toronto dismantled Montreal in the ’96 East final at SkyDome. Images are from the CBC telecast. Robert Drummond (29) remains the best all–purpose halfback I’ve seen in my years watching the Argos. No player at any position in CFL history could equal quarterback Doug Flutie (2). Receiver Jimmy (the Jet) Cunningham (86) and slotback Mike (Pinball) Clemons were instrumental in the Boatmen building an insurmountable lead on the Alouettes early in the second quarter.
Toronto romped, 43–7, then beat Edmonton, 43–37, during a Grey Cup snowstorm in Hamilton.
FROM THE NEWSPAPER VAULT…
In my collection, various front–page headlines of The Hockey News, between December 1963 and March 1977.