TORONTO (Jan. 13) — For many fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it probably seems like yesterday. In fact, it was eight long months ago that the Florida Panthers finished off a thorough humiliation of the Leafs in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs; Nick Cousins beating rookie Joseph Woll at 15:32 of overtime at Scotiabank Arena to bounce Toronto in five games and generate the unforgettable image of Radko Gudas (who assisted on the winner) taunting Woll with a beast–like bellow. May 12, 2023. Two–thirds of a calendar year ago.
What has changed in the interim? Likely not much.
The Maple Leafs are stammering through the 2023–24 season, looking great some nights; awful on other nights and average most nights. The Panthers, after a middling start, are the hottest team in the National Hockey League with nine consecutive victories, having, of course, won the Eastern Conference championship last June. As we approach, this weekend, the midway mark of the schedule, the Leafs are on track to clash with Florida in the opening round of Stanley Cup toil. There’s too much season left to make an accurate prediction — right now, Toronto stands third in the Atlantic Division, six points behind the Panthers and seven in back of first–place Boston, yet only three points clear of the second wild card position in the East. That’s a 10–point gap between winning the Atlantic and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016. If, however, Toronto draws Florida to begin the Cup tournament, this corner doesn’t like its chances of competing in the second round. It is quite conceivable that the team with the NHL’s most–lucrative contracts will wither away for an eighth consecutive year in the Stanley Cup chase. And, appallingly, won’t be able to make any relevant adjustments given that William Nylander, John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are locked in more securely than prisoners at San Quentin.
RADKO GUDAS OFFERS AN EARFUL TO JOSEPH WOLL AFTER FLORIDA WON THE SECOND–ROUND PLAYOFF CLASH IN FIVE GAMES. GUDAS NOW PLAYS FOR ANAHEIM. STEVE RUSSELL TORONTO STAR
Though the playoff matches last spring were close — four of five ending in a one–goal margin; two games extending beyond regulation — it was an illusion. The relentless Panthers ran roughshod over the meek Torontonians, who were toyed with by forward Matthew Tkachuk. Game 3, at Sunrise, may have been the most–discouraging Leafs playoff match of the Core–4 era, as none of Nylander, Tavares, Matthews or Marner bothered to show. Auston the Great finished the series with zero goals and two points, the same as Gudas, who earned $2.5 million last season. Matthews pulled in $11.6 mil. How can the Leafs stand up to Florida in a playoff rematch? Certainly not by dressing Ryan Reaves, the lone skater that could frighten an opponent. Meaningful additions before the Mar. 8 NHL trade deadline will compel general manager Brad Treliving to offload the top prospects in the organization (Easton Cowan, Fraser Minten). No tradable player on the roster will fetch more than a bag of pucks. The Leafs are what they are… and will continue to be what they are until the vaunted nucleus is dismantled.
Good luck with that happening anytime soon.
Of course, none of this can be found in the mainstream Toronto media. More puff articles appeared on Friday:
Marty Klinkenberg of the Globe and Mail stepped outside the lines and did tackle the biggest Leafs issue in his Saturday story [https://tgam.ca/3Sl9EyQ]. Marty gets a bit too cute while writing, but he can bring it.
Until the Leafs alter the crippling notion that small, skilled forwards can prevail through four Stanley Cup rounds, the NHL’s longest championship drought will not be threatened. With a new and familiar face soon returning from Britain to become Chief Executive Officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, it’s conceivable the clock is finally ticking on the Shanaplan era. Keith Pelley may have some different ideas… and is not married, in any way, to those that currently run the franchise (the Core–4 players, then Shanahan and GM Treliving). Another playoff disaster would provide Pelley all the ammunition required to start the club moving in the right direction. He could easily clean house, starting with Shanahan, Treliving and Sheldon Keefe. Unless hired as a figurehead, Pelley can no longer permit copious cap space to be lavished on players that do virtually nothing after mid–April. Find another professional sports club on the planet that allows a losing playoff formula to persist for eight seasons.
Trust me, you’ll be looking forever.
WEEKEND THOUGHTS: So, Corey Perry is available as a free agent. You are Brad Treliving. Who would you rather have on the roster against either Boston or Florida in the playoffs? An experienced Stanley Cup veteran that gets under the skin of opponents? Or, career softies Pontus Holmberg, Nick Robertson, Noah Gregor and Bobby McMann? The question is rhetorical. To this observer, anyway. Probably not to Leafs management… Here in Toronto, and so typically, Matthew Knies has been acclaimed as the next Jaromir Jagr. In fact, he may be a 35–40–point producer (even while often skating on the No. 1 forward unit with Matthews and Marner, he has three points in his past 11 games). Knies can play in the NHL. But, not at the level breathlessly predicted of him… Look out, Leafs, if Perry winds up in Boston or Florida… It could require years of evaluation before hockey experts conclude why the soon–to–be $47 million men dressed in blue cannot prevail in 3–on–3 overtime. I figured that Matthews, Marner, Nylander and (to a lesser extent) Tavares would be unbeatable in the five–minute gimmickry. Instead, only the New York Islanders (10), Columbus, Boston and Seattle (9) have more OT losses this season than Toronto’s eight… Robertson, the slick–but–too–small winger of the Leafs, was born on Sep. 11, 2001 while the rest of us were glued in shock and horror to our televisions. No NHL player was born on the other most–infamous day in modern American history: Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Closest birth on that date was Clark Donatelli, who played 35 games with Boston and the Minnesota North Stars between 1989 and 1991. Donatelli came along Nov. 22, 1965. On the afternoon that JFK lost his life, Hall–of–Famer Yvan Cournoyer celebrated his 20th birthday… The mood and resignation of the Toronto hockey market was perhaps inadvertently reflected, on Thursday, by TSN voices James Duthie and Mike Johnson, the one–time Toronto winger. Johnson commented on a brilliant graphic showing the last five Stanley Cup winners and the percentage of cap consumed by their top four players. Tampa Bay, at 43.4%, led the group. Toronto, until at least the end of next season, will be close to 54%. Mike then said “it’s going to be very difficult to get a team around [the Core–4] next year capable of winning the Stanley Cup, but that is only a one–year issue. Once Tavares is off the books and [re–signs] for a discount, that figure will be closer to 45%. And, that’s a number that can work.” Concluded Duthie: “And, that’s the important part; a one–year problem.” Sure guys. What’s one more throwaway season after nearly 60 years of not competing for the Cup (sigh)?… When you play defense abysmally, bad things can happen. Like a 9–3 loss by the Leafs in Buffalo last month. Or, the Toronto Raptors yielding 145 points on Friday night in Salt Lake City to the .500 Utah Jazz… Speaking of birthdays, it’s a big one today for former NHL goalies. Cesare Maniago, Kelly Hrudey, Mike Palmateer and Nikolai Khabibulin are all celebrating. Maniago, 85, was the starting netminder in the early years of the Minnesota North Stars. He was also between the pipes for New York on Mar. 12, 1966 at Chicago Stadium when Bobby Hull became the first player to score more than 50 goals in a season. Hrudey, 63, is recognized today as an intermission stalwart on Hockey Night In Canada. In these parts, he was the villain–goalie that helped Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings bounce the Leafs from the 1993 Stanley Cup semifinals. The acrobatic Palmateer remains among the most–popular figures in modern Leafs history. His heroics enabled Toronto to upset the New York Islanders in the 1978 quarterfinals and become the first Leafs team since 1967 to make the semis. Today, and somewhat incredibly, the Popcorn Kid turns 70. Khabibulin, 51, was known as the “Bulin Wall” during his career (1995–2014). He backstopped Tampa Bay to the last Stanley Cup (2004) before the salary cap era… You wouldn’t catch me at Arrowhead Stadium tonight dressed like a Sherpa. There aren’t enough layers of clothing to protect human beings from a minus–21 F (minus–29.4 C) wind–chill, the forecasted temperature for the 7:10 p.m. (Central) kickoff. The cold–weather game that most stands out for me is the 1981 American Football Conference championship at old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. I remember watching it on TV. The wind–chill was reported as low as minus–59 F (minus–51 C). I still don’t know how the players and fans survived that frigid afternoon. The Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers, 27–7, then became the first Super Bowl victim of the Bill Walsh—Joe Montana dynasty in San Francisco… The coldest football game I ever attended was the 1991 Grey Cup, in Winnipeg, during which Rocket Ismail and the Toronto Argonauts defeated the Calgary Stampeders. It was minus–16 C (minus–3 F) at kickoff and it remains the last Grey Cup to be completed in daylight. Incredibly, there was no wind that day in the ‘Peg. Heaven only knows how brutal it might have been with a strong breeze. I remember the sheer agony of standing in the middle of the empty field at Winnipeg Stadium, 90 minutes before kickoff, to do a live radio hit with one of those monster cellphones of the early mobile era. While I waited, the control room back home kept on playing commercials. I finally yelled at producer Chris Clark “I’m gonna die out here if you don’t get to me soon.” Thankfully, Chris took pity and I was underway seconds later… I also remember sitting next to Toronto Star legend Jim Proudfoot during the 1984 Grey Cup at frozen Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. Jim had to repeatedly use his credit card to scrape ice off the inside of the press box window so we could see what was happening between the Hamilton Tiger–Cats and victorious Winnipeg Blue Bombers… More than two months have passed but I remain spooked by how atrociously Argos quarterback Chad Kelly performed in the Eastern final against Montreal. It still offsets the memory of his MVP season and of the Argos finishing with a franchise–best 16–2 record… For those who have forgotten, or may not know, Keith Pelley was president of the Argos when they defeated the B.C. Lions to win the 2004 Grey Cup, with veteran pivot Damon Allen at the controls… This has to be the year the Buffalo Bills make it to the Super Bowl. Providing, of course, Josh Allen and Co. can knock off the underdog Pittsburgh Steelers — now on Monday (4:30 p.m.) after New York Governor Kathy Hochul moved the game back 24 hours, as a result of heavy snow in Orchard Park (too bad; those games are always so cool to watch). You may think I’m crazy to bet against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens winning the AFC. But, I think this is Buffalo’s year. As with the Alouettes in the CFL, the Bills are playing their best football at the right time. I’m predicting a Buffalo–San Francisco match–up for the Feb. 11 Super Bowl LVII in Las Vegas… Look out, western New York, if the Bills somehow lose to the Steelers. There is a limit to everything and Buffalo sports fans are closing in on it… Palmateer played his first game for the Leafs on Oct. 28, 1976: a 3–1 triumph over the Red Wings at old Olympia Stadium in Detroit… No question that Martin Jones has been the season savior for the Leafs. His solid goaltending bridged a large gap with Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll removed from the line–up. Now, Samsonov, who cleared NHL waivers two weeks ago, has returned to back up Jones for tonight’s home game against Colorado. Will Sheldon Keefe risk using Ilya in Sunday night’s match with Detroit at Scotiabank Arena?… All 32 NHL teams are in action tonight… Watch Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and you’ll see what the Leafs have been sorely missing since Borje Salming was in his prime, 45 years ago… The $13.5 million contract extension for Matthews begins next season. At which point, he will earn $164,634 per game over the full schedule. Or, $54,788 per period. Pretty good gig, if you can land it without playoff success… Hey, I’m no Steve Simmons, but this ain’t half–bad for a notes blog. 😛
50 YEARS AGO in The Hockey News…
In my collection: Select pages from the Jan. 11, 1974 issue of The Hockey News