What If It Happens Again?

TORONTO (Apr. 22) — I know it’s difficult, Leafs Nation, to embrace perspective about your team, especially after such a debacle as the playoff opener in Boston the other night. But, heck, it was just a year ago that Tampa Bay marched into Scotiabank Arena and clobbered the Leafs, 7–3, in Game 1. Panic immediately ensued only to calm after a 7–2 Toronto rout in the second match. I’m not suggesting the Leafs will flip the script tonight at the TD Garden, only that there is precedent for the club doing so as recently as last spring. So, who knows what may transpire if the visitors respond with a bit of spark and urgency; not unusual after a lousy playoff performance?

One can barely comprehend the euphoria sweeping through this city had the score been the opposite of Game 1: a 5–1 Toronto victory. Hucksters would be hawking Stanley Cup t–shirts with Leaf logos splattered about the front. Olivia Chow and her city planners would be marking parade routes. Instead, we have geniuses on social media imploring Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to “blow up” the team; as if Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares and Mitch Marner can even move from one dressing room stall to another at Scotiabank Arena, let alone from the Leafs to a rival National Hockey League club. Seriously. Look around. There is pointed dialogue on chat forums about how much the Maple Leafs could get if they “finally traded” Matthews and Marner. One is entrenched at a league–high $13.25 million through the 2027–28 season. The other can toy with the Leafs for an entire year, if he wishes, given that Marner was provided a full no–movement clause in the final two years of his current pact. He can sign an extension as early as July 1… or make the Leafs sweat through all of next season before becoming an unrestricted free agent. So, yeah, let’s blow up the team by trading Matthews and Marner (sigh).

Here’s an even–more pokerfaced scenario: What if Saturday night was an accurate barometer of the Leafs and Bruins in the 2024 playoffs? Supposing the Bruins continue to toy with the Leafs and dispatch their Atlantic Division adversary in four or five games? You think the earth moved beneath your feet on Saturday? Wait until the cataclysm this summer. Other than the Corpse–4, you likely won’t recognize the Maple Leafs, from the presidency on down. Fledgling CEO Keith Pelley — if he hasn’t already decided — will “blow up” the front office and start anew. Brendan Shanahan, Sheldon Keefe and, possibly, Brad Treliving (after only one year) will be thanked for their services and as a new administration is introduced. From my perspective, that’s the jeopardy to another playoff flop. The roster cannot be manipulated until after next season, when Marner and Tavares (a combined $21.9 million against the cap) are off the books. Providing, of course, the Leafs do not fall at Marner’s feet (as they did Matthews and Nylander) by locking him up for six or seven more years at another monster salary and cap hit (if management doesn’t change, I would bet heavily on this scenario). Mitch is the most–talented member of the Toronto core. As with Matthews, however, he is often difficult to locate once the playoffs begin. If the Leafs, therefore, continue to be torched by the Bruins in this Stanley Cup round, there will be serious recrimination off the ice.

Shanahan and Keefe are particularly vulnerable with only one year remaining on their contracts. I’m thinking neither man slept particularly well after Game 1. Nor would I put it past the monocratic CEO to at least research the whereabouts of Joel Quenneville; still not officially cleared by the NHL to resume coaching… and still second to Scotty Bowman in all–time victories behind the bench. Pelley isn’t the type to reach into the farm system for an unproven coach. If he wants Quenneville (and the former Maple Leafs defenseman wishes to re–join the club), no one above him at MLSE will stand in his way. Nor will Keith be shy about lobbying commissioner Gary Bettman for Quenneville’s release from NHL prison. This is the magnitude of change threatening the Maple Leafs with another first–round floperoo. In other qwords, a thorough housecleaning of the hockey department at Scotiabank Arena.

These thoughts, of course, can be temporarily assuaged with a bounce–back effort tonight by the visitors. Keefe “showcased” William Nylander at practice yesterday; then, again, at today’s morning skate. It was subterfuge. The 98–point man will not dress for Game 2 and is clearly more hobbled than we’re being told. It will continue to inflate the onus on Matthews and Marner to make themselves known at TD Garden; they were mostly rumors on Saturday. Should Matthews not score tonight, it will be seven consecutive playoff games — or, the full length of a series — that he’s been held off the board. If that is worth $13.25 million to the Leafs, I wish them luck. The only way the Buds can overcome the Bruins is by Matthews and Marner finally (and quickly) morphing into a facsimile of Datsyuk–Zetterberg, Getzlaf–Perry, Kopitar–Carter, Toews–Kane, Malkin–Crosby, Kucherov–Stamkos, MacKinnon–Rantanen or any of the duos that have dominated Stanley Cup toil in the past generation. Getting “good looks” around Jeremy Swayman won’t cut it. The nearly 70–goal man has to prove he can be more than window dressing. And, it has to start tonight. Early. Like in the first five minutes. Not as in Game 1, when Ilya Samsonov was beaten by the first shot. Auston Matthews needs to take a Stanley Cup game by the throat.

For once.

Otherwise, the images of a front office detonation will become increasingly vivid.

THE BRILLIANCE OF BETTMAN: Say what you wish about the veteran leader of the NHL — and not much good is often relayed from north of the border — but Gary Bettman cooked up a sparkling scenario while transferring the Arizona Coyotes to Utah. Bettman brokered the sale of the Arizona franchise to Ryan Smith, owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, who paid Coyotes’ owner Alex Meruelo $1 billion and the NHL a $200 million relocation fee.

Meruelo reportedly has until mid–2929 to build an appropriate facility in the Phoenix–Scottsdale area. Once that happens, he will return the $1 billion to the NHL and Arizona will have its franchise back. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman “the league, on Thursday, confirmed Meruelo is still approved as an NHL owner and does not need any new clearance.” It’s a situation where nobody’s feelings will be hurt. For now. Salt Lake City and its Delta Center, though constructed for basketball, is a far–better option than tiny Mullet Arena, the college facility at which the Coyotes played the past two seasons. The NHL moves into a “new” market, even though minor league teams have called Salt Lake home. Located between Nevada and Colorado, Utah was among the southwest states to be devoid of the NHL. It brilliantly hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics and should provide a good audience for hockey’s biggest stage. Once Arizona rejoins the NHL, that state will again be represented. Which will compel the NHL to add a Eastern–based club for Conference balance — undoubtedly sparking interest and speculation out of Quebec City, which has what the NHL demands before any expansion or relocation dialogue: a large, modern arena (the 18,259–seat Videotron Centre). What Quebec City doesn’t have is a television profile in the United States. As such, the league will almost–surely return to Atlanta for a third volley, after the Flames (1980, to Calgary) and Thrashers (2011, to Winnipeg) moved north. There are loud whispers about building an arena in the suburbs of Atlanta; the baseball Braves are doing very well at Truist Park, located in Cobb County, roughly 10 miles northwest of downtown. The population of metro Atlanta has gone from about 3.5 million to more than six million and the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) forecasts the area will approach eight million by 2050.*
*According to a Sportsnet story.


TV eyes impress the NHL as much as any factor and Atlanta — the seventh–largest market in the USA as per Nielsen rankings — would be a welcomed re–addition. A group headed by ex–NHL forward Anson Carter has made the most noise about owning a third team in the city. Expect Atlanta to receive another franchise shortly after Meruelo breaks ground on a new arena in Arizona. Quebec City? Toronto–2? That is still anyone’s guess.


4 comments on “What If It Happens Again?

  1. Marner may indeed be the most talented of the group, but he is not built or prepared for either playoff hockey or the Toronto market. In fact I think he would struggle in many hockey markets.
    Marner doesn’t appear to have the mental make up necessary. He is either too immature having been praised and coddled too much so that it’s inflated his ego beyond healthy proportions or he’s just not got the internal make up to be that guy.
    Regardless the reason, the team can’t succeed with resources stretched so thin through the rest of the line up so he either gets traded or is allowed to walk, because there’s NO WAY to justify a salary beyond Nylander’s and no room for such an inflated amount.
    As for NHL expansion, if they go back to AZ I think it will be without Murello and hope they add another western team shifting a central team to the east. Atlanta (and Arizona) may be large markets but there is no evidence that there are enough hockey fans to make it work. AZ has had decades to find the right group to cash in on the supposed windfall of fan interest yet all they’ve found are hucksters and wannabe rich guys. Expansion in Canada is sadly just a fever dream anymore, particularly with a .73 dollar.

  2. Mathews had his best playoff game. Marner still playing hide and seek – not build for playoff hockey to small and scared – doesn’t have the Gilmour or Marchand grit and desire for a little guy. Would never re-sign – use the cap for stud defenceman and goalie.

    1. Should have moved on from Mitch a few years ago when Pietrangelo was a UFA. Would have saved $2 million in cap space, gained some assets and addressed the biggest need by doing so.

      Reilly and Pietrangelo would’ve been a great together.

  3. Who will take over for Shanahan? I think Brad is safe for now since he already has begun the “changes”.

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