TORONTO (Oct. 28) — The headline to this blog is neither pornographic nor suggestive. It does, however, reflect my long–held opinion that the Toronto Maple Leafs should have traded Auston Matthews before July 1 of this year, rather than binding him to the National Hockey League’s most–lucrative pact. I maintain, unequivocally, that the Leafs would be better served with Mitch Marner and William Nylander as headliners of the forward group; the colossal sum accorded Matthews ($13,250,000 starting next season) — and the soon–to–expire contract of John Tavares ($11 million through next season) — spent on adding toughness, opportunism and defensive acumen to a club that lacks such elements in its core group. Nylander, in particular, is showing his value and merit early in the 2023–24 schedule, which should not surprise any person that has followed the Blue and White in the past decade.
Even while enjoying their best October in a few years, the Leafs remain top–heavy with skill and passivity: a blend that works well between October and April; not–so well afterward. Nylander was the whipping boy of smug Leafs Nation prior to the season — the fan base, evidently thrilled over the Matthews contract extension, calling for Willie to be offloaded in the final year of a ridiculously manageable contract. It was the best deal signed by former general manager Kyle Dubas, even if he sullied the occasion (on Dec. 1, 2018) by publicly vowing to never trade the slick winger. Dubas made good on his claim, departing for Pittsburgh without touching the core of the roster.
Now, it’s the task of current GM Brad Treliving to work Nylander into Toronto’s long–term plan, which will be a challenge, even with the stagnant, $81.5 million salary cap expected to rise closer to $90 million in the next couple of years. As always, it isn’t the amount of money the Leafs spend. Unlike Harold Ballard, Steve Stavro and (at times) the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the current ownership of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment hasn’t a shred of frugality. The issue is appropriately allocating dollars in the cap universe — the playoffs having proven, over and over, that the Leafs do it poorly. Treliving cannot allow Nylander to walk for nothing next summer. The only reason Willie’s name surfaces in trade talk is that the other principals in the Core–4 (Matthews, Marner, Tavares) cannot be moved. Nor were their contracts tradable even before Matthews re–upped with the team.
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Though, at times, imperceptible, Nylander has been the best of the elite Toronto forwards in the playoffs. Matthews is everybody’s darling and will continue, perilously, to serve as face of the franchise. But, Nylander “gets it” better than Matthews or Marner in the Stanley Cup hunt. None of the core forwards has proven playoff worthy because this particular group, while intact, will never prevail when it matters. Individually, on a more–balanced team, Nylander and Marner would prosper most from April to June. Both have smoldering fire in their bellies; the way Matthews does during the regular season, but not in the playoffs. Tavares always looks good in the early months of the schedule, as legs are fresh. By March and April, his age (now 33) begins to triumph (though the captain performed very well in the playoffs against Tampa Bay and scored the series winner in overtime).
I have long felt that Matthews will never haul the Leafs into Stanley Cup contention.
But, even I was startled by his disappearance against Florida last May — particularly in Game 3 (accompanied, copiously, by his Core–4 ‘mates) with the Leafs on the ropes after losing the first two matches at Scotiabank Arena. When the five–game series ended without Matthews contributing a single goal, his future should have been cemented. In fact, given a different team president, the Leafs may well have explored a trade involving Matthews, thereby eliminating the hinderance of a no–move clause that kicked in on Canada Day. Brendan Shanahan, however, long–ago hitched his wagon to No. 34… without tangible playoff results through seven tries.
Nylander, meanwhile, seems oblivious to the maelstrom surrounding him, even if quieted, somewhat, by his splendid first two weeks of the schedule (seven goals and 11 points in seven games). Though his regular–season numbers haven’t been as eye–popping as Matthews’, the oldest of the Leaf core forwards (27) handles himself effectively in the playoffs (he was superb in that 2021 debacle against Montreal, but overwhelmed by his somnolent teammates; the Maple Leafs blowing a 3–1 series lead). Now, he’s reenacting his contract dance from the early months of the 2018–19 season, when he came within minutes of having to sit out the entire schedule (if not signed by Dec. 1). Willie’s agent, the forever–strategic Lewis Gross (president of the company that employs Michael Nylander, William’s father), appears to be driving the bus once more. If Willie continues to put up good numbers (he’s performing at a 120–point pace early on) and can equal or better his career–high 40 goals from last season, he’ll cash in, big time — either sooner (with the Leafs) or later (as a franchise–altering free agent in July).
Unlike Matthews, Nylander doesn’t seem married to Toronto… or the Leafs. As such, Treliving should be prepared to trade* No. 88 prior to the Mar. 8 NHL deadline. Not to the exclusion of attempting to sign him, but in the event the parties cannot agree on a multi–year extension. Which should have been the strategy with Matthews prior to July 1 of this year. Instead, Shanahan and Treliving blew their load on the wrong horse. To no one’s surprise.
*Nylander has a limited no–movement clause. He can submit 10 teams to which he will not be traded.
ON THIS DATE… 56 YEARS AGO
I will always remember Oct. 28, 1967 for the first Leafs game I attended against one of the six expansion teams that entered the league that season. I will never forget the bright green pants worn by the California Seals, as no team in my life (to that point) had featured such a color. The Seals were replete with former Toronto players: Gary Smith, Aut Erickson, Larry Cahan, Wally Boyer, Billy Harris, Gerry Ehman, Kent Douglas and Bobby Baun. The Leafs breezed to a 5–2 victory.
FROM THE EARLY YEARS OF COACH’S CORNER ON HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA. APR. 12, 1986 (ABOVE AND BELOW). GAME 3 OF THE OPENING PLAYOFF ROUND AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS BETWEEN TORONTO AND CHICAGO. THOUGH THE BLACKHAWKS FINISHED 29 POINTS (86–57) AHEAD OF THE LEAFS IN THE NORRIS DIVISION, THE UNDERDOG VISITORS PREVAILED IN GAMES 1 AND 2 AT CHICAGO STADIUM. COACHED BY DAN MALONEY, THE MAPLE LEAFS CAPPED A SWEEP IN THE BEST–OF–FIVE SERIES WITH A 7–2 POUNDING ON HOME ICE. DON CHERRY WAS STILL CO–HOSTING WITH DAVE HODGE, WHOSE TENURE AT CBC WOULD END LATER IN THE ’86 PLAYOFFS WHEN HE FAMOUSLY FLIPPED A PENCIL IN DISGUST OVER A DECISION TO FOREGO HOCKEY FOR THE NATIONAL NEWS. RON MacLEAN, FROM RED DEER, ALTA., REPLACED HODGE AND BECAME THE YIN TO CHERRY’S YAN ON HOCKEY NIGHT FOR THE NEXT 33 YEARS. CBC IMAGES
FROM THE VAULT… OLDEST MEDIA GUIDES
Among the more than 1,000 historic NHL media guides in my collection are these oldest items from the pre and early expansion era. All six teams (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York, Toronto) are represented — the fact books dating from 1960 to 1973. Most teams stopped publishing physical guides around 2009, switching to digital information. As such, these colorful books are becoming increasingly difficult to find. On the cover of several, you’ll see written the name Stan Obodiac. Stan was the publicity director of Maple Leaf Gardens from 1959 to 1984, when he died of cancer. Not long after his terminal diagnosis, he called me up to his office and told me to take his old guides, which had literally been collecting dust. It was a windfall… and a gift I could never repay. Stan had a stack of items from the 1960’s, in remarkably good shape.
The others presented here were purchased by me at memorabilia shows. Please enjoy:
BOSTON BRUINS MEDIA GUIDES LEADING INTO, AND STARTING, THE BOBBY ORR ERA: 1963–67.
MATCHING THE OLDEST MEDIA GUIDE IN MY COLLECTION, THESE TWO DETROIT BOOKS WERE HANDED OUT TOGETHER FOR THE 1960–61 NHL SEASON — NOW 63 YEARS AGO.
THE MONTREAL CANADIENS HAD WON THEIR RECORD FIFTH CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP WHEN THE CLUB’S 1960–61 YEARBOOK (FAR LEFT) CAME OUT. THE 1961–62 PRESS BOOKS OF THE CHICAGO BLACK HAWKS AND DETROIT RED WINGS. AND, AT RIGHT, THE OLDEST TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS MEDIA GUIDE IN MY COLLECTION: 1962–63 (WITH CAPTAIN GEORGE ARMSTRONG ON THE COVER) AFTER THE FIRST OF THREE STRAIGHT NHL CHAMPIONSHIPS UNDER PUNCH IMLACH.
TORONTO AND MONTREAL MEDIA GUIDES FROM 1965–66 AND 1966–67. THE CANADIENS WON THE STANLEY CUP IN THE FIRST YEAR (BEATING DETROIT). THE MAPLE LEAFS SHOCKED THE CANADIENS THE FOLLOWING SEASON (CANADA’S CENTENNIAL) FOR THEIR MOST–RECENT NHL TITLE.
UNDER GENERAL MANAGER/COACH EMILE FRANCIS, THE NEW YORK RANGERS GRADUALLY EMERGED AS A CONTENDER IN THE EARLY 70’s. BUT, THE MID–TO–LATE 60’s WERE LEAN YEARS FOR THE BLUESHIRTS. HERE ARE GUIDES LEADING INTO THE FIRST SEASON OF EXPANSION (1967–68).
LED BY THE AGELESS GORDIE HOWE, DETROIT WAS A STRONG TEAM IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE 1960’s, LOSING THE STANLEY CUP TO THE LEAFS IN 1963 AND 1964 (GUIDES AT LEFT). BY THE TIME THE NHL EXPANDED FROM SIX TO 12 TEAMS (GUIDES AT RIGHT), THE RED WINGS WERE IN DECLINE.
CHICAGO HAS THE MOST–RECOGNIZABLE (AND CONTENTIOUS) HOCKEY LOGO. BACK IN THE DAY, NO ONE BATTED AN EYELASH AT THE EXPLOITATION OF THE INDIAN CULTURE. IN THE MID–60’s (GUIDES LEFT AND CENTER), THE LATE, GREAT BOBBY HULL TURNED CHICAGO INTO THE NHL’s BIGGEST ATTRACTION. MY SON, SHANE, WAS APPALLED BY THE COVER OF THE 1970–71 GUIDE (RIGHT). AND, CHICAGO FANS WERE APPALLED WHEN THEIR TEAM BLEW A 2–0 SERIES LEAD AND LOST THE STANLEY CUP IN SEVEN GAMES TO ROOKIE KEN DRYDEN AND MONTREAL.
MORE OLDIES, INCLUDING THE ERA OF THE “BIG, BAD BRUINS” (BOTTOM ROW), WHEN PHIL ESPOSITO AND BOBBY ORR LED BOSTON TO STANLEY CUPS IN 1970 AND 1972. THE 1963–64 MAPLE LEAFS (GUIDE TOP ROW) WON A THIRD CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP UNDER PUNCH IMLACH.