TORONTO (Jan. 25) — They never sit atop media power rankings; are one point beyond wild card playoff territory in the Eastern Conference; consistently overrate their top prospects; haven’t played for the Stanley Cup since The Graduate was a hit movie and they encounter myriad issues, every season, behind center ice. But, there are two areas in which the Toronto Maple Leafs perennially lead the National Hockey League: Excuses and dormancy.
While the streaking Edmonton Oilers added a playoff sparkplug (Corey Perry) and the New York Islanders, disgruntled with their trajectory, hired Patrick Roy, one of the two most–coveted coaches (Joel Quenneville being the other), the Leafs STAYED THE SAME. What else is new? The club with the longest Stanley Cup drought looked at Perry and probably said “we can’t have this miscreant among us; only good citizens play here. Wanna get drunk and make an ass of yourself at a team function, do it elsewhere. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is too erudite for such behavior.” Then there was Sheldon Keefe, who might have been fired if the Leafs had lost in Seattle on Sunday, claiming his $50 million powerplay hasn’t had “enough reps in practice” to avoid a 1–for–20 slump. Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, Rielly, Bertuzzi. And, spinning their wheels with the man advantage.
The Leafs squirmed past one of the NHL’s top teams on Wednesday in a 1–0 victory over Winnipeg at Scotiabank Arena (Matthews in overtime). But, the Jets did not have Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck between the pipes and the home side received a shut–out performance from the suddenly resurgent (yet wildly unpredictable) Ilya Samsonov. Otherwise, and particularly in the first period, the Maple Leafs looked as if they had wobbled in from a nearby saloon. Apart from Samsonov, no one cared much to be wearing that hideous alternate jersey.
This hockey market needs therapy, on and off the ice. There is never a shortcoming or frailty that the Leafs cannot clearly interpret. Correcting inefficiency is a whole other matter — nearly 60 years in the making.
The Toronto way is entrenching playoff also–rans with lengthy, cap–choking contracts. Somehow believing that seven consecutive years of Stanley Cup futility is a mirage. Thereby requiring the least amount of gumption and effort. The “battery” of Keefe and general manager Brad Treliving has been rather dull in its first season. After a somnolent performance by his players, Keefe doesn’t know whether to sh**, shave or wind his watch. It’s obvious when he’s making an excuse… and whenever he rightfully calls out his big–money boys, the highfalutin execs on Bay St. force him to backtrack. Treliving retained Keefe (surely on the insistence of the Teflon Prez, Brendan Shanahan) rather than hiring his own coach and spent the off season overpaying run–of–the–mill additions (John Klingberg, Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, Ryan Reaves) and incumbents (David Kampf). If T.J. Brodie is worth $5 million and a limited no–movement clause, then I’m Bobby Orr (the Brodie contract was drawn up by Kyle Dubas).
I’ll give Treliving props for his Bargain Basement acquisition of Martin Jones, who briefly held the club together with Samsonov and Joseph Woll out of the line–up. Otherwise, what is it about the current Leafs that differs from others in the Core–4 era? The answer is easy: Regression. This is the worst team since Matthews was drafted in 2016. And, still, everything is status quo. Why do other teams make fundamental moves while the Leafs do nothing differently from one year to the next? It’s always the same with this group: Terrific regular season… then summer. Is that honestly good enough for the club’s enormous following? And, if so, why is it good enough?
The above questions, of course, are rhetorical.
As I’ve written many times, this is precisely the Maple Leafs’ objective: Sell an exhaustive effort, each year, to win the Stanley Cup while assuring no such blasphemy occurs. Again, it comes down to economic predictability. So long as the Leafs tell you they are interested in winning a championship, nothing else matters. No one in the high command of 50 Bay St. can foresee what may happen to the Toronto hockey phenomenon if the Leafs somehow break their incessant famine. Yet, everyone atop the MLSE power chain can predict the results of another early playoff exit: Same Bat time, same Bat channel the following year (I’m dating myself with references to Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson). Only the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs — in all of pro sport — can understand the abundance and prosperity of a never–ending drought… that finally did end in 2004 and 2016, respectively, but not until more than a century had passed. Which puts the Maple Leafs on target to win the Stanley Cup in 2082.
By then, perhaps the club will have developed or acquired a Norris Trophy threat. But, no promises.
TAVARES REDUX: Speaking of things that don’t change, there’s a distinct pattern of media reaction to the various stages of the season for Leafs captain John Tavares. In October and November, when his legs are fresh, stories abound as to how Johnny T. discovered the fountain of youth. Then, the dog days of January and February arrive. Tavares, unavoidably, begins to slow — his foot speed and production. At which point, the media examines this apparently strange phenomenon. Strange? The guy is nearly 33½ years old. Of course he’s going to appear pluckier in the early part of the schedule. What’s the mystery? Neither has Tavares let down the Leafs. He’s provided the club all that he can: nearly a point per game since he left the New York Islanders as a free agent. But, he’s not worth $11 million of cap space… never has been on this already top–heavy team. Nor is the inflated contract his fault. Who among us would turn down such over–compensation? When the Leafs made their big splash on July 1, 2018, there was no such thing as a COVID–19 pandemic. All teams in the NHL anticipated a steady increase in the salary cap, not a three–year flat line. Still, Tavares was a luxury for the Leafs rather than a necessity.
It is clear that the $77 million committed to Johnny T. could have been spent more wisely. Which in no way diminishes the class and maturity he has brought to the organization. As with the other big–money boys, however, John’s Toronto legacy has been tainted by post–season failure. Reputations are made and broken in the Stanley Cup playoffs, not the regular schedule. As much as the stagnant Maple Leafs would like us to think otherwise.
BACK TO UTAH, 25 YEARS LATER?: Expect that Salt Lake City will have an NHL expansion team by 2027, at the latest, once the league figures out which eastern city it can add to balance the Conferences. Ryan Smith, owner of the NBA Utah Jazz, went public on Wednesday about his desire to bring the NHL to the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Under no circumstance would Smith have made such a statement without the tacit approval of Gary Bettman (ask BlackBerry founder Jim Ballsillie how far one progresses while crossing the NHL commish). The Delta Center, a basketball facility, could be used temporarily as home ice, though it lists capacity for hockey at just more than 14,000 — too small for the NHL. Ultimately, a new arena will be constructed in the Utah capital.
MY LEATHER JACKET FROM COVERING THE 2002 WINTER OLYMPICS IN SALT LAKE CITY.
There are few eastern locations with a suitable hockey rink.
Quebec City has the 18,259–seat Videotron Centre and is, of course, a former NHL site (1979–95). There is always chatter about a second team for the Greater Toronto Area. Lately, there have been whispers about Atlanta coming aboard for the 37th time (sigh). Otherwise, we keep hearing about Central Time Zone candidates Houston and Kansas City, both of which have modern arenas. Yet, both would be ideally positioned in the Western Conference. With a desire to bring Smith into the fold, the NHL would likely incorporate Salt Lake City alone, rather than risk losing a coveted partner. But, 33 teams would unbalance the schedule, as before Seattle joined.
Don’t be shocked, however, if Salt Lake is fast–tracked into the NHL. Even as early as next season.