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The signing of Joe Thornton, not long after the signing of Wayne Simmonds, not long after the return of Jason Spezza is Maple Leafs management’s not-so-quiet indictment of club leadership.
None of the three elders have a whole lot of game left in their marvelous careers. But all three will be expected to show the way in the upcoming Leafs’ season, whenever that will be.
At 41, Thornton is slower than slow in a fast man’s sport, and has had an elite NHL career. Whether he can contribute much as a player — maybe on the second power play, maybe down low in the offensive zone — the thinking of those who know him best is that his contribution will come from his natural leadership skills.
“He will be great for the leadership in that room,” one of Thornton’s former coaches said Saturday. “He’s incredible, really. He’s a vocal leader, who demands perfection in practice and perfection in games.
“He will drive that room. And that I know 100%.”
Other Leafs management groups of the past have gone back to the future without a great deal of success. Hall of Famers Ron Francis, Eric Lindros, Phil Housley and Brian Leetch all became Leafs late in their careers. Only Leetch, who played 15 regular season games and 13 playoff games, contributed significantly.
The Leafs even brought back legends Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark in their final days
and each of those moves were treated with a certain sense of excitement. The Leafs will look at Thornton as a flexible piece, able to win a faceoff, able to play more than one position depending on circumstances, not really fast enough to be a full-time centre. The value in this inexpensive signing is really in how much influence Thornton can have over the rest of the Leafs roster.
The last time the Leafs won a playoff round, Thornton played for the Boston Bruins and Leetch and Francis played for the Leafs.
THIS AND THAT
Thornton doesn’t really fit as a third- or fourth-line centre or as a regular winger. It will be up to coach Sheldon Keefe to be creative in how to best utilize him and move him around. Thornton can still play on the second power play and be effective, but can’t take a regular shift at centre, really, especially in a third- or fourth-line role, but can be used on offensive zone starts, where his passing skill and vision is still supreme … Thornton had completed his second NHL season in Boston when Sheldon Keefe was drafted 47th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Also in that draft, George Parros, current head of department of safety … If there’s an All-Canadian NHL division in the upcoming season, whenever it will it be, how do you rate the teams? Ottawa is better than last year, Montreal is better, Winnipeg is better, Calgary is better, the Leafs are older, Edmonton still has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and Vancouver, which had a great playoff, lost its MVP goaltender. Lots to chew on here … Joe Sakic didn’t sign a goalie in free agency. Still don’t know why … Hard to figure out the Florida Panthers. In the past year they hired Joel Quenneville to coach, brought in Sergei Bobrovsky to play goal, replaced Dale Tallon with Bill Zito as general manager, and lost three decent forwards, Mike Hoffman, Evgeny Dadonov and Vinny Trocheck and defenceman Mike Matheson. Are they getting better? Getting worse? Hard to know.
HEAR AND THERE
New Math: Hyun-jin Ryu and Randal Grichuk, combined, are paid more than the Tampa Bay Rays. All of them … So this is nuts, in a good way nuts: Carlos Correa is only 26 years old and he just hit his 17th playoff home run for the Houston Astros. That’s two more than Babe Ruth. One fewer than Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle. The same number as David Ortiz. And he’s a shortstop of all things — and still just a kid … They don’t make teams like the Big Red Machine anymore. I thought about that with the passing of the great Joe Morgan. They had Johnny Bench catching, probably the best all-time. Morgan at second, the best of the modern era. Pete Rose at third base, most hits in baseball history. RBI monster Tony Perez at first base. In an eight-year period, the Cincinnati Reds had six MVPs. Bench two, Morgan two, Rose one and left fielder George Foster one. The rest of the team wasn’t half bad either with Dave Concepcion at shortstop, Ken Griffey, the dad, in right field, Cesar Geronimo in centre. Half of the teams in baseball have not had six MVP winners in their history. Those Reds did it over eight years from 1970-1977 … From the department of Go Figure: Aaron Loup pitching in high-leverage situations for the Rays … One of Randy Arozarena’s minor league managers after arriving from Cuba: the greatly named Canadian Stubby Clapp. Baseball managing has become more confounding than ever. Between old-school thoughts, new-school beliefs, analytics, the occasional bunt, small-ball, openers, it’s difficult to know what anybody believes in anymore or who you can argue with … “Winners win,” said Ozzie Guillen, “and losers have meetings.”
SCENE AND HEARD
How can Brian Burke be such a fine father and, at times, such a despicable human being? The way Burke writes about Steve Moore in his recent book, Burke’s Law , is enough to turn your stomach. Not a word of sympathy. It’s 16 years after the horrible incident that cost Moore his career, and Burke piles on him in the book, apparently sad about what happened to Todd Bertuzzi’s career, with not an ounce of empathy for the injured Moore, who he denigrates as a minor leaguer, like that meant it was OK to ruin his life. “To this day, I’m convinced that the injuries weren’t severe enough to end his career. I think he could have come back and played if he wanted to,” wrote Burke. The 10 or so pages on the subject in Burke’s Law border on disgraceful … Paul Kariya, with 989 points in 989 games, is rightfully in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not in the Hall but with similar or better statistics: Alex Mogilny, Rick Middleton, Steve Larmer, Pierre Turgeon, Theo Fleury, Jeremy Roenick. And not far behind them: Daniel Alfredsson, Rod Brind’Amour, Patrik Elias, and Pat Verbeek … If given a choice between Middleton, Dino Ciccarelli or Dave Andreychuk on their best day, I’ll take Middleton every time … When the Leafs won their four Stanley Cups in the 1960s this is how deep they were as a team. Frank Mahovlich had 39 points in the four wins, followed by Dave Keon and George Armstrong with 37, Red Kelly at 36, Bob Pulford at 34, and Tim Horton at 32.
AND ANOTHER THING
You can never completely write-off a professional athlete and, frankly, I’ve done it often enough to know better. Luke Schenn looked completely done after bouncing around from Arizona to Anaheim to Vancouver to three different AHL teams. Then he wound up in Tampa Bay, somehow fit in, somehow found a role, won a Stanley Cup and earned a new contract with the Lightning. And nobody saw any of that coming … You don’t get rich playing U Sports in Canada. You normally don’t get famous. You just play, because you love it, because you want to be part of something special, because it enhances the university experience. And now, no sports in this COVID-19 year, just another piece of life lost in the pandemic … It’s not the least bit surprising that Clippers players apparently aren’t happy about the special treatment Kawhi Leonard got during his first season in Los Angeles. You might have heard exactly those words had the Raptors not beaten the Philadelphia 76ers last year. Championships change the mood of a team … From the department of Life Ain’t Fair: The formerly talented Le’Veon Bell basically walked out on the Pittsburgh Steelers, signed for huge money and acted badly with the New York Jets. So what does he get for all the damage he left behind? The punishment comes in a contract to play with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs … Steelers fans were not happy when the team selected Canadian Chase Claypool from Notre Dame with their second round pick in the NFL Draft. They wanted running back J.K. Dobbin from Ohio State. Just not anymore. Claypool is doing crazy-great things with five touchdowns in four games, four of them coming last Sunday. Dobbin barely plays for the Baltimore Ravens … You can read Dave Sheinin’s work on occasion in these pages. He writes very well for the Washington Post . He also sings very well. Now he has an album out, his voice, his own songs. Sign me up … Mississauga’s Josh Naylor, 23, left an imprint in his two post-season games with the Cleveland Indians. He batted .714 with four extra-base hits in the short series against the New York Yankees … Happy birthday to Charlie Montoyo (55), Alex Cora (45), Mike Ditka (81), Willie Horton (78), Martina Navratilova (64), Thomas Hearns (62), Rachel Nichols (47), Rick Mercer (61) and Doug Lidster (60) … And, hey, whatever became of Bob Bailor?
LEAFS’ MATTHEWS NEEDS TO EXPAND HIS GAME
In his four years in the NHL, Auston Matthews is second in the entire league in goal scoring, behind only Alex Ovechkin, and just ahead of David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov and Leon Draisaitl.
It is indeed an individual place where no Maple Leaf has ever been before, surrounded by three Hart Trophy winners and Ovechkin, the nine-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, who tied with Pastrnak for the award this past season.
In his rather brief time playing, Matthews leads all of hockey in even-strength goals, ahead of Ovechkin 121-116 and that means even more when you consider Matthews has played 31 fewer games the Ovi.
That’s the great aspect of what Matthews brings to the Leafs. What isn’t so great or impressive are his assist numbers, where he ranks 80th in the NHL over four years, just behind Jake Gardiner of all people. Matthews has yet to hit the 40-assist mark in any season. By comparison, Connor McDavid has averaged 69 assists a season over the past four years.
In point scoring, Matthews is just 19th overall, 10th among centres. Among the first orders of business for coach Sheldon Keefe in his first full season with the Leafs is to find a way to expand Matthews’ game. The more playmaker he becomes, the more offence he creates, the more dangerous a centreman he will be.
PRO SPORTS SO HARD TO FIGURE OUT THESE DAYS
With the NHL, like all leagues, trying to figure out what next season will look like, the notion of having an All-Canadian division is indeed intriguing. Especially considering the array of talent and the apparent flaws in almost every Canadian franchise.
The thought of seeing Elias Pettersson one night and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl the next followed by Jacob Markstrom, Carey Price and Connor Hellebuyck, followed by the kids in Ottawa, and the core four on the Maple Leafs, and Johnny Hockey, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele — well, its almost a buffet of hockey talent and potentially emerging franchises.
What fun that could be to watch night after night.
And it made me think of the Raptors and what might be ahead for them when the NBA gets back to playing, whenever that will be.
There aren’t seven Canadian teams in the NBA. There’s just one. And we don’t know where anything is going with COVID-19 and with quarantine laws and border openings. We can’t know. They don’t know. And certainly, despite plans of some kind, we really have no idea when fans of any kind will be back in buildings paying to watch NBA or NHL games.
Is it possible the Raptors will have to pull a Blue Jays and find a U.S. home for the coming season? Is it possible NBA teams won’t be allowed into Canada the way Major League Baseball teams were prevented from playing in Toronto this summer?
Everything about sports begins with: who knows? The Raptors are on an NBA island. And that’s just part of an equation that currently has no answer.
CANUCKS HIT JACKPOT WITH D-MAN SCHMIDT
Nate Schmidt is a better-than-average top-four pairing NHL defenceman — and a real character player to have around — who became available when the Golden Knights signed prized free agent Alex Pietrangelo.
It wasn’t that the Knights didn’t want to keep Schmidt. It’s that at almost $6 million a year Vegas couldn’t afford it under current salary-cap constraints.
So the Golden Knights looked to trade Schmidt, give him away really. And preferably to a team in the Eastern Conference, where they wouldn’t have to see much of him during the season. But no deal was made. Not by the Boston Bruins, who failed to retain Torey Krug and may not have Zdeno Chara back next season. Not by the cash-strapped Maple Leafs, who signed T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian as free agents, neither of whom is the equal of Schmidt. Not by the Buffalo Sabres, who could use help in the back end. In fact, you could go almost team by team in the Eastern Conference and see where Schmidt could have helped just about everybody.
With nowhere else to turn the Knights traded Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks for a third-round draft pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. In other words, they gave him away. A defenceman more impressive than Brodie or Chris Tanev or any of those middle-range defencemen who moved teams as a free agent in the past week.
The Canucks were certainly stung by losing No. 1 goalie and likely MVP Jacob Markstrom in free agency. But they bounced back rather nicely by stealing Schmidt. Why other teams weren’t interested is indicative of a rather unexplainable hockey marketplace.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020