Damien Was Only Half–Right

TORONTO (July 6) — When we covered the Maple Leafs at the same time in the 1990’s and 2000’s — he for the Toronto Star; yours truly for The FAN–590 — Damien Cox and I didn’t often see eye to eye. But, I always respected Damien’s knowledge of the game and his capacity to analyze the Maple Leafs with unvarnished opinion.

Same applies today, as Cox provides “guest” columns for the local broadsheet. Whenever a Damien submission pops up on the Star’s website, it grabs my attention. As it should yours. And, it’s the reason I found myself perplexed by a column that appeared on the front page of Friday’s sports section, in which Damien examined the cliché propensity for teams in the National Hockey League to “run it back” — a phrase now laughingly familiar in this town. Cox defined it as “a club deciding against major changes, roster deletions, management alterations or coaching moves.” He cited Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh as examples of recent championship outfits that refuse to change fundamentally… even if the Lightning allowed franchise scoring leader Steven Stamkos to sign as a free agent with the Nashville Predators. As I read the article, I kept waiting for Cox to invoke the prime and raging issue that separates the Maple Leafs from all others — that no team in the history of professional sport, anywhere on the planet, has been allowed to “run it back” eight (now, possibly nine) consecutive years without crafting a playoff résumé. In fact, I challenge an individual reading this article to show me where such paralysis has occurred in even half that amount of time. Again, in any sport, anyplace in the world. Trust me: You will look forever.

Damien knows this perfectly well; he has touched on the local hockey phenomenon numerous times. That he chose to omit such an encompassing issue puzzled me, for it wouldn’t have destroyed his narrative. In fact, he clearly mentioned how the Leafs have “turned over a chunk of the roster” while maintaining their not–so–vaunted core. What Cox didn’t mention is that the decision makers in the hockey department on Bay Street long ago established a record for professional apathy. As mentioned, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has probably lapped the previous mark. Even after the Leafs were shoved to the sideline in consecutive playoff years by Washington, Boston, Boston and godforsaken Columbus, there was reason enough to “run back” the feeble foursome of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares (most observers add Morgan Rielly to the list). When, however, the club choked against an inferior Montreal team in 2021, the franchise philosophy should have changed. Drastically. Five consecutive years of absolute nothing at playoff time — highlighted by spitting up a 3–1 series edge against the Canadiens — offered more–than enough evidence to disband the regular–season heroes. That Brendan Shanahan and Co. allowed this debacle to continue for three more years, with an unbelievable ninth consecutive attempt to follow (unless Marner agrees to a trade), is, by many lengths, the overriding circumstance in Leafs Land… an issue that prompts uproarious laughter in other hockey markets.

It was implied, here and elsewhere, that incoming Chief Executive Officer Keith Pelley would finally break the deadlock. Keith wanted to do more than just “sell jerseys”. Even if headlining the Core–4 has been the centerpiece of MLSE’s fiscal strategy throughout this bizarre playoff drought. It’s obvious that an influential voice (or two) in ownership is perfectly happy with the marketing presence of Nylander, Marner and Matthews. Heaven knows how many blue–and–white uniforms have flown off the racks wherever such merchandise is sold. Furthermore, it can be argued that never has the club possessed three such–gifted performers at the same time. Just look at the crazed reaction in the local media whenever Matthews goes on a scoring tear in November or January. Or, when he threatened to accrue 70 goals last season. All perspective about the Maple Leafs was lost… while the cash registers at Real Sports and elsewhere continued to ring. Then came the playoffs and… well, you know the story.

Any person, therefore, examining the “run it back” proclivity in the NHL has to create an entirely different category for the Leafs. What this club has failed to accomplish with the identical nucleus in the span of nearly a decade should earn the Leafs some form of acknowledgment in the Guinness Book of World Records (which does have a sports category). Not that it would matter, of course, to the high rollers in money machine at Bay and Lakeshore.


As a season–ticket holder and lifelong fan of the Toronto Argonauts, I fear for the club at this moment.

Perhaps as never before.

Given that rival defenses appear to have quickly grown wise to quarterback Cameron Dukes; that the Alouettes are the Argonauts of last season, and that the Toronto secondary can neither cover nor tackle opposing receivers, TSN should post a warning prior to next Thursday’s telecast of the Argos at Montreal match: NOT FOR SENSITIVE EYES. If all recent trends continue, and former Argo pivot Cody Fajardo is on his game, the Alouettes could easily score 50 to 60 points; perhaps the colossal blowout of the early Canadian Football League schedule.

Dukes is an honest worker with a ton of confidence and has some ability to make plays. He was more of a threat, however, at the beginning of the season when rival defensive coaches could not study videotape of him as a starting quarterback. Once that became available — as evidenced by consecutive losses to Montreal and Saskatchewan — the party ended. Probably for good. Which generates a potential crisis for the Double Blue; already well beneath the radar on the local sports scene: Why would any person in this tepid CFL market be expected to buy a ticket to watch a 2–7 or 3–6 team? It was a gargantuan struggle to fill half of BMO Field even while the Boatmen were soaring, last season, to a franchise–record mark of 16–2. The stadium will be an echo chamber if the club continues to march out an inexperienced, back–up masquerading as a starter. And, the secondary, which yielded gobs of passing yardage during the historic run last year, is several times worse after management chose to not pay veterans Jamal Peters (now with Hamilton) and Adarius Pickett (who signed in Ottawa). Then, watched as top CFL rookie Quan’tez Stiggers joined the New York Jets of the National Football League.

It’s a particularly bad situation when a football team can neither score… nor prevent being scored upon. A circumstance that could unfold before a nationwide TV audience at Percival Molson Stadium on Thursday.

The Argos, however, chose the easy path when Chad Kelly went down with a minimum nine–game suspension for his dalliance with a female strength and conditioning coach, no longer employed by the team. Rather than obtaining a proven quarterback (which back–up and CFL “bouncing ball” Nick Arbuckle definitely is not), management handed the keys to Dukes. It worked against the B.C. Lions and Edmonton Elks, as the second–year passer was virtually unknown. It did not work against the defending Grey Cup champions in Week 3 and was an unmitigated disaster at Regina the other night (no touchdown passes, four interceptions, one returned for a major score).

Sure, Roughriders’ first–year coach Corey Mace is familiar with Dukes and likely passed on some valuable tips; Mace was Toronto’s defensive coordinator for two years prior to joining the Riders. Yet, it’s virtually impossible to make chicken salad from any other mixture at the quarterback position. For my money, and for whatever it’s worth in this football market, the Argonauts cannot allow Dukes to guide the club for the next five weeks. With the porous secondary, the season could be over before the halfway mark, when Kelly is first eligible to return.

If I’m general manager Pinball Clemons and personnel director John Murphy, I offer (minimally) a first–round draft choice to Montreal for No. 2 pivot Caleb Evans. Or, to Winnipeg for (gulp!) Zach Collaros, whom the Argos have twice owned and discarded. Particularly if Chris Streveler, having returned from the NFL, can establish himself as the Blue Bombers starter in the absence of the future Hall–of–Fame thrower (Collaros is dealing with a thorax injury). As it appeared plausible during last night’s first Winnipeg triumph of the season, at home over Ottawa.

The Cameron Dukes experiment will not work.


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