Leafs Wading Into Death Valley

TORONTO (Jan. 16) — A headline in the Toronto Sun on Monday read TRIP WON’T DETERMINE WHAT WE MAY ALREADY KNOW ABOUT THE MAPLE LEAFS. Oh yeah? Let’s revisit that notion in eleven days time, after the Leafs have finished road games in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle; then a home–and–home against the Winnipeg Jets. The Sun article, by a writer that knows better, insinuated that nothing can be make–or–break about a succession of games in mid–January, calling it “the start of the second half for the Leafs, not a stretch of hockey in late March or early April that could determine whether the club makes the playoffs.” Oh yeah?

Leafs Nation is ready to erupt after weekend disasters at home against Colorado and Detroit. Only the most dyed–in–the–wool supporters would claim the team is not trending downward, with its posse of overpaid forwards no longer concerned about playing for contracts. No team in the National Hockey League has ever doled out 54% of its salary structure to a nucleus with one playoff–round victory in seven years. That’s why there is intensifying heat on not only the multi–millionaires who floated through the weekend home games, but those that put them in such a position. You can claim that Brad Treliving hasn’t been on board as general manager long enough for observers to make a clear assessment. But, Treliving obviously joined the Leafs on the condition, set forth by the Teflon Prez, Brendan Shanahan, that the Corpse–4 remains intact for at least two more playoff calamities, when the futures of Mitch Marner and John Tavares will be addressed. If Shanahan is still running the Leafs in the summer of 2025 — and that is hardly a given with Keith Pelley soon to arrive as Chief Executive Officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — it is almost certain that Marner and Tavares will be re–signed; the former to the richest contract in team history. That’s just the Leafs way under Shanahan, who has modernized the hockey club in the past 10 years, but without anything to show beyond mid–April. His time with the Leafs, though, could be marked by an enormous humiliation: Marner accruing 100 points… then walking for free at the end of next season (as did Zach Hyman, two years ago; Hyman on pace, this season, to score 50 goals for the Oilers). Thanks to an absurd contract negotiated by Kyle Dubas that provided Marner a no–movement clause in the final two years.

Dubas, you’ll recall, was Shanahan’s personal choice to replace Hall–of–Famer Lou Lamoriello.

So, let the Toronto Sun claim that the western road swing, which begins tonight in Edmonton, counts for almost nothing. In the next 1½ weeks, the Leafs will play five teams with a combined record of 40–8–2 in their past 50 games. Calgary has the worst record of the bunch at 6–4–0 in its past ten. The Oilers are 10–0–0. The Leafs are 4–4–2 and liberally blowing leads in the third period. The Sun, therefore, can be correct only if the next 11 nights are a saw–off. If the Leafs finish the stretch at .500, it will generate minimal noise. The other two extremes will bely any suggestion of the games being less–than meaningful because of the time of year. Should the Leafs continue to founder and amass, say, four of the available 12 points in the standings, all hell will break loose. Sheldon Keefe will no longer be coach. Conversely, if the Leafs somehow dominate the western teams, accruing nine or 10 of the 12 points, Olivia Chow will book Nathan Philips Square for a Cup celebration in mid–June. These will be “the Maple Leafs we’ve all come to expect” and the team “Brendan Shanahan has envisioned since the outset.”

The local tabloid should know better than to anticipate a tepid reaction for a half–dozen games at mid–season.

This is Toronto, not Tempe.

PASSING THOUGHTS: Leafs begin the second half with a 21–12–8 record for 50 points. Obviously on pace for another 100–point season, which would lengthen that impressive and unparalleled franchise streak to five consecutive years in a full, 82–game schedule. The club is on track to score 296 goals, second only to the 2021–22 team that counted 315 and finished with a franchise–best 115 points. More glaring, however, is the pace for yielding 268 goals, 46 more than a year ago, and the most since 2008–09 (293). Such is the peril of an average blue line and mostly sub–par goaltending. Though the Leafs hold games–in–hand on most teams, they start the second half in a precarious spot: third in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind Florida and 11 in back of first–place Boston. But, only two points up on Tampa Bay and Detroit, which hold down the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference. So, as of now, the Leafs are three points removed from non–playoff territory. Explain, again, how these mid–season games will not help define the club… More observers are jumping on board with the theory that the cap–constrained Leafs will finally be able to move forward at the end of next season, when Marner walks and Tavares re–signs for a colossal discount. “That’s when they’ll be able to get the defenseman the club has long lacked,” said a friend who should also know better. In other words, this has been the Shanaplan since July 1, 2018, when Tavares came aboard as an $11 million free agent: choke in the playoffs for seven years (sigh), then start to prevail with a Norris Trophy type. Problem is, where do you unearth that caliber of defenseman? There may be 10–such players in the entire National Hockey League — and they ain’t going nowhere. Yes, Victor Hedman becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season, but he’ll be 35 at the time and well past his glory days with the Lightning. Drew Doughty is locked up by the Los Angeles Kings until after the 2026–27 season, when he’ll be 37. Roman Josi (Nashville) comes available after the 2027–28 season, when he is 38. And, the Leafs can forget about landing any of the young defensive superstars in the game today. Cale Makar is locked up by Colorado for three more years, upon which he’ll become an Avalanche for life. Same for Quinn Hughes (Vancouver), Noah Dobson (New York Islanders), Evan Bouchard (Edmonton), Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo), Vince Dunn (Seattle) or Adam Fox (New York Rangers). No way any of these players will hit the open market. There’s a chance Columbus would entertain offers for Zach Werenski, but what could the Maple Leafs submit to the Blue Jackets? Anything worth trading on the current Toronto roster is unmovable. And, Dubas exhausted, for silly quick fixes, a bevy of first and second–round draft choices. Which brings us to top prospects Easton Cowan and Fraser Minten. Not much else is left in the cupboard… Bill Belichick will land on his feet with another National Football League team, but only after proving to the world — conclusively — that no coach can prosper without an elite quarterback. It was Tom Brady who made the Patriots tick all those years, as he did for another season in Tampa Bay. Belichick, conversely, has been broken without Brady… I’m sincerely hoping the Divisional and Conference Championship rounds of the NFL playoffs provide more competition than the Wild Card games. This past weekend, save for the Los Angeles–Detroit clash at Ford Field, offered a clump of lop–sided affairs. Most games were over by halftime. That’s not what football fans hope for after the 18–week, regular–season tune up… The salary cap in the Canadian Football League has already began to impact the 16–2 Toronto Argonauts, who were forced to trade good Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. to Edmonton on Monday. Toronto will lose more key figures from the 2023 team that tied the league mark for victories before falling over a cliff in the Eastern final against Montreal… Barring a change, neither the Sun nor the Toronto Star will staff the Leafs four–game trip to Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle. The Sun still has a paper–wide travel ban (Steve Simmons covered the NFL regular–season finale, in Miami, between the Dolphins and Bills only because his family has a residence in Florida). Kevin McGran traveled with the Leafs on their western–USA trip to Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose, but wrote a Toronto–Edmonton scene–setter for tonight from home. These are trips the papers should budget for because only the die–hards stay awake until after midnight or 1 a.m. to watch on TV. A beat–writer could actually tell us about something we didn’t see, which is virtually unheard of with every game shown live.


With the Leafs beginning their western–Canadian trip tonight in Edmonton, here is a selection of 13 Oilers media guides in my collection, including the first two (below) in the National Hockey League (the late goalie, Dave Dryden, joined Wayne Gretzky on the inaugural cover).

Also, most guides from the incomparable Gretzky era:


10 comments on “Leafs Wading Into Death Valley

  1. Check out the interviews after the game. Marner and Keefe both denying anything is wrong. This 18 wheeler is heading full speed for the cliff, which is not too far away.

  2. As a life-long Cowboys fan, their embarrassing loss to Green Bay last weekend reminded me of our Leafs. However, I did take some solace in Dak Prescott’s comments after the game: “I mean, I sucked tonight,” “I mean it’s about winning. It’s about winning in the playoffs and then getting to the last game and winning that as well.” He screwed up badly, but he owned it. The Corpse-4, who seem comfortable with mediocrity, could learn a thing or two from guys like Dak and Josh Allen in Buffalo.

  3. Howard, a few games in the season you had a story where you said Bob McCown said the Leafs would not make the playoffs because they had no defense. Well I was worried and it made sense because the Leafs were losing but then the Leafs started winning and I thought well Bob knows a lot more than me despite my life long following of hockey but he is wrong this time. Now after the last few games I have to admit Bob was right. Not much more I can say except a few weeks ago Nylander was really playing good and my wife said “Sure this is a contract year. ” Now after the last few games she has asked “How did Nylander do tonight?” I stay silent because I hate admitting my wife knows more than me. Ok so Leafs suck but hockey is still a lot of fun to watch and hopefully the Sens will show up when I take the grandsons to see the Sens play Vegas.

  4. I bet these Leafs will play better on the road. Like they did a couple weeks ago in California. Or, if they get clobbered, a new measure of reality will have set in that the management will not be able to ignore.

    1. Oh no…they’ll be able to ignore it. they’ll stuff wads of cash in their ears so they can’t hear the fans complain and they can just turn up the volume on their TV’s and radios to hear their paid cheerleaders provide excuses and meaningless stats to prove that the core 4 or 5 are simply the bestest there ever was. The poor (overpaid) babies are just unlucky and put upon by outside voices. Just ask little Mitchie Marner. He says they’re a GREAT team, and he must know right?

      1. With the salary Marner is making, what did you expect him to say. He’s not going to bite the hand that feeds him.

        1. Yeah, I get that. But I would expect him and the rest of the expensive 4 to say something along the lines of, “We weren’t good enough tonight, and I wasn’t good enough. I have to be better and I will be.” I’ve heard countless other athletes say it in similar situations (and act on it), but NOT ONCE have I heard ANY of these guys insinuate that their performances have been anything less than stellar. It’s the core issue with these prima donnas, no accountability, no responsibility and entitled. Not a single one of them is worth their contract and little Mitchie may be the worst. He seems like an arrogant, self-focussed, entitled teenager.

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