TORONTO (Dec. 17) — You can always count on the Maple Leafs to stop the hounds from baying with a hot streak at some point before Christmas. In recent years, the club has righted a shaky start with a scorching November. This season, it is the current month, December, that serves as a balm for Leafs Nation. Whether that turns into a bomb when it matters, next spring, remains to be seen, but the Leafs are remarkably consistent.
Also, 6–0–3 in their past nine starts.
Despite dozens of changes in the past six years to the lower half of the roster, the Leafs remain disproportionately reliant on the so–called Core–4 (Core–5 if you include defenseman Morgan Rielly). With Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares on board, the club’s record after 28 games is stunningly similar:
2018–19: 20–8–0, 40 points
2021 (vs. CDN teams): 19–7–2, 40 points
2021–22: 18–8–2, 38 points
2022–23: 17–5–6, 40 points
THIS SEASON: 16–6–6, 38 points
Even more stunningly similar is the playoff record of the vaunted nucleus — a first–round triumph over Tampa Bay last spring standing against six series defeats. The ever–stubborn Leafs are still determining whether to retain the Core–4 beyond the Mar. 8 National Hockey League trade deadline… or to use their unparalleled chip, Nylander, as bait to solidify the club behind center ice. An unrestricted free agent next summer, Nylander will force the Leafs into either extending his contract or swapping him before he can walk for free. That means a decision must be made in the next 2½ months. Which really isn’t a ton of time. With the salary cap expected to gradually increase in the next three years, hanging onto Nylander will not require financial gymnastics. Far more important is the Maple Leafs deciding if they want to move through much of the next decade with the identical crew that has failed so routinely in the Stanley Cup chase. Given the sequence of events as choreographed by club president Brendan Shanahan, there appears to be no chance the Maple Leafs will unload Nylander and jeopardize their string of excellent regular seasons. Staying slick and competitive between October and April — while forever offering the illusion of wanting to win it all — has been an exemplary business model for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
So long as that illusion exists, the fans will keep returning. It’s the chase that matters… not the result.
As such, would Shanahan allow general manager Brad Treliving to trade Nylander with still 19 games remaining on the schedule (if such a move is made at the deadline)? The Leafs will be coming off a five–game homestand, then a road match in Boston, when the Mar. 8 trade embargo arrives. Toronto does not face Boston after Mar. 7, but has two Division match–ups against Florida and Tampa Bay. As well as Connor McDavid’s lone visit to Scotiabank Arena (with the Edmonton Oilers) on Mar. 23. If the Leafs continue to perform at beyond a 100–point pace, would Treliving get the green light to dismantle the Core–4? Nothing about the team’s strategy in the past six years indicates such a cosmic shift in philosophy. Instead, the Leafs will put up big numbers and cross their collective fingers, once more, when the puck is dropped in the playoffs. As mentioned, MLSE is more concerned about the chase than the result. Win the Stanley Cup even once and accomplishment can only be equaled.
That may not be good for business.
A more–committed franchise would examine how to solidify the blue line. There are no guarantees among potentially tradeable assets, but any of the following defensemen would help balance the Maple Leafs and perhaps further playoff opportunity: ZACH WERENSKI, Columbus / JUSTIN FAULK, St. Louis / ROMAN JOSSI, Nashville / VINCE DUNN, Seattle / CHRIS TANEV, Calgary. Werenski, Faulk and Jossi would need to waive movement restrictions for a trade. Tanev, to me, is largely overrated. I’m not here to suggest or to speculate how the Leafs might finagle one of the aforementioned. But, the money in/money out component, always foremost in the salary cap era, is a bit less so with the ceiling about to expand. So, again, the Leafs merely have to determine whether they wish to break off a chunk of the ubiquitous Core–4 — strictly verboten, to this day, by the uppity ups.
I bet that nothing will change. Again, the best business model is for the Leafs to retain Nylander through the golden years of his career… then go through the same dance, next season, with Marner. The difference being that young Mitch can only be extended, not traded. Which is far more a hinderance for Shanahan and Treliving.
BASEBALL CAP LOGOS — Part 1
Until this week, I didn’t realize how many baseball caps I had collected through the years. All quite colorful; some depicting hockey, baseball, football and basketball teams that no longer exist, or have relocated. In the first of two parts, here are several of my cap logos — up close:
More than 26 years after moving to North Carolina, the Hartford Whalers retain one of the most–recognizable NHL logos (above). The club’s green road jersey sported the white whale tail.
The Houston Astros wore the open–star logo (left) from 1994–99. The original Charlotte Hornets debuted in the 1988–89 NBA season, before the franchise relocated, in 2002, to New Orleans.
The All–Star game in the 2006–07 NHL season took place at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The above logo appeared on the side of a ball cap. Bought the gold Oakland A’s cap (bottom–left) at a sporting goods store in San Francisco during a December 2014 visit. As in 2007, at Dallas, I covered the 2008 NHL All–Star game (center) at Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Thrashers (the Winnipeg Jets since 2011). The San Francisco 49ers “sideline” cap is at right.
The Quebec Nordiques (top–left) joined the NHL in 1979–80 as part of the World Hockey Association “merger” (with the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets). The franchise relocated to Denver as the Colorado Avalanche in 1995–96 — traded, midway through the season, for Patrick Roy — and won the Stanley Cup in its first year outside la belle province. A cap (right) that commemorated, in 2012, the 40th anniversary of the famed Canada–Russia summit series in September 1972. Won, legendarily, by Paul Henderson with 34 seconds left in the eighth and final game (Sep. 28) at Moscow. I also have a black version of this special cap.
Primary cap of baseball’s San Diego Padres (top–left), worn from 1973–79. The Minnesota North Stars added black and gold outlines to their logo (right) in the latter years playing out of the Metropolitan Sports Center in suburban Bloomington. The club originated as part of the NHL’s “Great Expansion” in 1967–68 and moved to Dallas (as the Stars) for the 1993–94 season.
The logo of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins (above) became instantly recognizable after the club’s undefeated, 17–0 season of 1972 that ended with a victory over Washington in Super Bowl VII.
The Kansas City Scouts (above) joined the NHL with the Washington Capitals in 1974–75; performed lamentably for two seasons at Crosby–Kemper Memorial Arena and re–located to Denver, in 1976–77, as the original Colorado Rockies (the name later copied by the Major League Baseball team). Since 1982–83, the Scouts/Rockies have been the New Jersey Devils.