It’s hard to find a parallel for Toronto’s soul-crushing Round 1 loss to the Canadiens, the mighty Maple Leafs booted from Stanley Cup play after holding a 3-1 series lead against a ragtag CH outfit that entered with the worst regular-season record (24-21-11) in the 16-horse field.
The Bruins in 1971 came rollicking into the postseason as the gargantuan favorites, fresh off the Cup win in ’70 and having rolled up a record bounty of 399 goals in the regular season (surpassed a decade later by the powerhouse Oilers).
Like these Canadiens, the ’71 Habs also sent their heavily favored opponent packing in seven games, finishing the job on Boston Garden ice (the Leafs likewise expired at home). But that was a much different Montreal roster in ’71, stocked with no fewer than 10 players (Ken Dryden, Jean Beliveau, Serge Savard, et al) who would go on to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
In terms of legacy, the 2021 Habs are more akin to the Washington Generals than the Flying Frenchmen.
Shell-shocked as their dispirited players packed bags on “cleaning day” Wednesday, Leafs management offered the expected lines. Team president Brendan Shanahan noted the need to soldier on in tough times, while recognizing that his emotionally brittle, underperforming bunch lacked an essential “killer instinct.”
OK. It didn’t look from here, admittedly some 500 miles to the southeast, that the Leafs succumbed to a club that was imbued with killer instinct. It looked more like the Leafs remained absent a franchise defenseman (not new), and an elite No. 1 goaltender (not new Part 2).
Perhaps to Shanahan’s point, the Leafs did miss a certain tenacity from their top forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander definitely need a growth spurt there, but grit develops from culture and coaching, rather than, say, dipping into the UFA market for a player with that profile.
The Leafs look like they need Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas to spend these next months enrolled in summer school engineering and economics courses. The Leafs’ fortunes and failures are built around a lineup weighted too heavily on top-skilled forwards, a small number of whom eat up a whole lot of cap space. Shut them down — as the Habs did in Games 5, 6, and 7 — and there isn’t any more there to carry the day.
If anyone in the front office questioned that, then getting bounced out the front door of their own building in Round 1 should have proven it to them once and for all.
The payroll math is daunting, especially in the NHL’s flat-cap economy. Their four top-paid forwards — Matthews, John Tavares, Marner, and Nylander — average $10 million each, tying up essentially half the cap of $81.5 million. That math won’t change over the next three seasons.
By the eye and calculator of Dave Poulin, ex-Bruin and now a Toronto-based TSN commentator, the Leafs have nine players returning for 2021-22 and only $18.6 million in spending power to add nine more players just to fill a 20-man roster (three players short of essential staffing). At most, they can spend an average of $1.7 million each on players 10-20, which points to a bunch of fourth-liners and spare defensemen.
Truth is, the Leafs are stuck, and they could be jammed up for at least three more years. They can’t move Tavares (four more years at $11 million cap hit). The Blue and White fandom won’t stomach dealing Matthews ($11.6 million) or Marner ($10.9 million), two sublime offensive talents. They certainly can deal Nylander — and might have no alternative — who is the cheapest of the bunch at $6.9 million.
With Nylander off the books, they might be able to use his money to nab a franchise goalie in the free agent market (projected to include Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, and Devan Dubnyk. Or they could find a partner to swap a No. 1 goalie for Nylander, but franchise goaltenders typically have no-movement clauses attached. Not an impossible trade to make, but a very tight fit to find maybe one trading partner.
The 2020 free agent market saw Alex Pietrangelo, the Blues’ franchise defensemen, command $8.8 million a year from the Golden Knights. And that was in a pandemic-challenged market. Just as in the goalie scenario, no one’s giving up a franchise defenseman for the slick, productive Nylander.
Round and round it goes for the Leafs, hogtied by their own spending on a few forwards and a belief that, come playoff time, offense can carry the day. Even the run-and-gun Oilers of the past, for all their glorious goal scoring, eventually added the personnel to ratchet down on defense in the postseason, and backed it all with Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr in net.
It is going to be one long, painful summer in Toronto, one without obvious answers toward ending what is now a 54-year Cup drought.
Best move one
Torrey didn’t make
The Bruins-Islanders series is a reminder that, of the many great moves Bill Torrey made in engineering the Islanders dynasty of the early ’80s, the best probably was just saying no, repeatedly, to legendary Canadiens GM Sam Pollock.
In the spring of 1973, Pollock hounded Torrey for weeks, hoping he would surrender the No. 1 pick in the June draft, which the Islanders “earned” by going a stupefying 12-60-6 in their inaugural season (head coaches: Phil Goyette and Earl Ingarfield).
Torrey politely, but sternly, rebuffed Pollock’s many entreaties. Pollock made the last of those offers in the seconds leading up to Torrey announcing his selection at the draft, held in those days in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, just up the street from where the Habs minted Cups at the Forum.
Torrey held fast and, as expected, selected the great Denis Potvin, the franchise defenseman and blue line anchor of the franchise’s four Cup wins (1980-83). With the rookie Potvin aboard and Al Arbour their new coach, the Islanders cut their losses by a third (19-41-18) in Potvin’s first season and hoisted their first Cup only seven seasons after Torrey batted away Pollock’s myriad bids.
Pollock, by the way, engineered the trade with the Bruins in the summer of 1964 that sent Ken Dryden to the Habs just days after the Bruins made Dryden the No. 14 pick in the draft.
“I don’t know how many times Sammy and I walked around the block on that one,” Torrey told your faithful puck chronicler in the thick of the Islanders’ Cup run. “I listened. But I wasn’t giving up Denis Potvin. No way. I think he knew it, or at least should have known it. I was adamant.”
Torrey, who died three years ago at age 83, never made public what Pollock put on the table. The Habs that spring had won their sixth Cup in “Trader Sam’s” tenure as GM, and they won thrice more leading up to his leaving the job after the win in 1978.
Pollock no doubt offered up a player or two from the varsity roster, including the likes of, say, Claude Larose, Bob Murdoch, and maybe Michel Plasse. All would have fit Pollock’s “volume” model for such deals.
The Habs also made four high picks (Nos. 8, 17, 22, and 32) in that draft. Given Potvin’s pedigree and profile, which also had WHA clubs chasing him, it’s possible that Pollock offered two or more of those slots to Torrey.
Once turned away by Torrey, Pollock picked Bob Gainey in the No. 8 hole. Not a bad consolation prize — a four-time Selke winner as the NHL’s top defensive forward and the Conn Smythe winner in ’79 as playoff MVP. At age 28, Gainey also began an eight-year tenure as Habs captain.
Had Torrey flipped the No. 1 pick and used the No. 8 to select Gainey, the ex-Peterborough Pete no doubt would have been a foundational piece for the Islanders. But no one in that draft, including Lanny McDonald (No. 4, Maple Leafs) was Potvin’s equal. Torrey’s “no” carried the day, and ultimately framed the dynasty.
Beyond the hiring of Arbour and overseeing the drafting of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, and others, Torrey’s other most astute moves included the acquisition of Billy Smith from the Kings in the ’72 expansion draft and the March 1980 deadline deal, also with the Kings, to add Butch Goring.
As great as Potvin was, the four-Cup run might not have happened without that Goring glue being added to the forward corps. His last game in the NHL was with the 1984-85 Bruins and he remains a curious, if not dumbfounding, omission to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In the end, the NHL again only nibbled at the edges of attempting a culture change when slapping Mark Scheifele with only a four-game suspension for his assault of Canadiens center Jake Evans in Game 1 of the Winnipeg-Montreal series.
If the Jets stretch the Round 2 matchup to a sixth game, Scheifele will be back in the lineup Friday, and he certainly has the talent to be the difference between the Jets winning or losing the series and advancing to the Cup semis. Meanwhile, no telling how long Evans will need to recover from the pulverizing body slam Scheifele dealt him, requiring the ex-Notre Dame standout to be stretchered off the ice.
What are the chances that Scheifele’s four-gamer will eradicate such predatory hits from the game? Zero.
The NHL, as required by the CBA, placed Scheifele into the wash-rinse cycle of its justice system and the Magic 8 Ball in the office of George Parros, head of player safety, came up, “four games.” The next customer through the door, and there surely will be another customer, will be subject to the same wash, rinse, and repeat. The Magic 8 Ball never stays cold for long.
Gone are the days when a league commissioner could step in (hello, Bowie Kuhn) and invoke the good-of-the-game standard and lay down the law. The one time he did it, kicking Dale Hunter to the curb for 21 games because of an ugly hit on Pierre Turgeon in the spring of 1993, Gary Bettman was less than three months on the job as NHL commissioner.
The whole justice process has since been rolled into CBA talks, filtered through lawyers, and the result has been that crazy acts perpetrated by the likes of Tom Wilson and Scheifele continue to come along almost at the rate of broken carbon sticks. The Players Association offers nothing in terms of trying to assure a safer workplace. And the band plays on.
At some point, maybe, the league’s Lords of the Boards, GMs, coaches, and players will ask why they continue to suffer such fools and their despicable actions. They don’t need them for the league to succeed, nor do they need them to sell the playoffs. The NHL’s postseason product is, hands down, the most thrilling and entertaining in North American sports, full of speed, drama, athleticism, crazy hops, flared emotions, questionable (sometimes stupefying] officiating, and often boundless suspense of overtime.
Accepting all that as fact, proven decade over decade, we are left to conclude that its only the league itself that doesn’t believe it, doesn’t have enough faith in its own product to stand up to bad actors and say, “Beat it!”
Scheifele’s actions warranted a 10-game suspension, with reinstatement subject to Bettman’s review after the Jets winger served his time. That would have caught everyone’s attention and perhaps helped trigger a culture change to prevent another NHLPA member from being strapped into a stretcher and wheeled down the tunnel. Failing that, maybe a 20-game suspension would do it the next time. Or perhaps a half-season banishment.
It would sink in, eventually, that callous, reckless, predatory acts have no place in the game. These guys just have to start believing in themselves, their product, and their fan base.
The NHL is an entertainment business, and there’s none of that to be found in seeing medical personnel rush the ice and seeing the horrified, stunned looks on the faces of other players, no doubt wondering, “What if I’m next?”
Tuukka Rask again hinted after his Game 3 win over the Islanders that he’s dealing with an injury. The guess all along has been that it’s something in his lower back. But keep in mind, butterfly goaltenders put great pressure on their hips, sometimes resulting in labral tears that can require surgery. No telling if that is what Rask, 34, is dealing with, but it could explain his slow(er) recovery time after saves and his somewhat diminished practice schedule … Joe Thornton, 24 years removed this month from being chosen No. 1 by the Bruins in the draft, said Wednesday that he had yet to decide whether to come back for a 24th NHL season. Jumbo produced a meager 1-0—1 in the Maple Leafs’ seven-game collapse to the Canadiens. Great career, despite no Cup, and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Thornton ranks No. 6 for games (1,680), the first 532 of which were here in the Hub of Hockey. The three players acquired for him — Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart — finished with 2,768 games, 506 of those for the Bruins … The Bruins have three of the five highest-paid players headed to July 28 free agency: Alex Ovechkin ($9.5 million), Ryan Getzlaf ($8.25m), Taylor Hall ($8m), David Krejci ($7.25m), and Rask ($7m). Maybe that’s enough to end the “Jeremy Jacobs is cheap” narrative. But probably not … Calgary stepped up this past week and will host the Women’s World Championship (Aug. 20-31), filling the void left when COVID-19 concerns caused Halifax abruptly to cancel the tournament in April. Sadly, the women won’t get to play inside the Corral, the iconic old rink, adjacent to the Flames’ current arena, that was razed just months ago. When the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in the summer of 1980, the Corral was their home until the Saddledome was erected leading up to the 1988 Winter Olympics. Two Bruins memories from the old Corral, which had boards, especially in the corners, that were inordinately high: 1. During one practice, forward Bobby “Newsy” Lalonde, all 5 feet 5 inches of him, skated by a small gathering of reporters standing at ice level, and all that could be seen of Lalonde was his helmet, which appeared to be attached mechanically to the top of the boards like some arcade prop; 2. Rogie Vachon, in one wild goalmouth scramble in the Bruins’ net, finally was able to get back upright on skates just when the puck zipped by him for a goal. The shot went right through legs, while he was standing, facing the crossbar. Everyone has a bad night. Even Hall of Famers.