TORONTO - The closer the Maple Leafs come to training camp, the more the question is asked?
Will this be the year?
In most cities that means: Will this be the year our team challenges for the championship? In Toronto, it takes on a different meaning. In means: Will this be the year the Leafs can finish eighth?
It is a fair question without any definitive answer at this point, with so much of the Leafs success based on the second season of goaltender James Reimer. There are a variety of ways to look at Reimer but there is every reason to believe he wasnít a one-year wonder.
But hereís where it gets complicated:
The Carolina Hurricanes finished ahead of the Leafs. Is Reimer better than Cam Ward?
The New York Rangers made the playoffs. Is Reimer better than Henrik Lundqvist?
The Buffalo Sabres upgraded their lineup in free agency coming off a playoff season? Is Reimer better than Ryan Miller?
The Montreal Canadiens may have the thinnest lineup of any returning playoff teams but were still 11 points better than the Leafs? Is Reimer better than Carey Price?
The quality of goaltending in the East, with Tim Thomas in Boston, with Tomas Vokoun in Washington now, with Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, with Dwayne Roloson returning in Tampa, with Martin Brodeur (assuming thereís anything left) in New Jersey, is at an all-time high. The Leafs could have their best goaltending in years and still it might not be enough to secure the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
THIS AND THAT
Brian Burke used to talk about blue and white disease when he took over the Leafs, but I wonder if heís gotten a case of it himself: Burke declared there was one spot open among his top nine forwards heading to training camp. When you have a team that hasnít been in the playoffs post-lockout, shouldnít all spots be open? You can anoint your team in training camp if youíre the Vancouver Canucks. If youíre the Leafs, you canít fall in love with players who simply havenít been good enough ... After listening to all the experts, itís impossible to know when Sidney Crosby will return to Pittsburghís lineup. But if I was a betting man, my sense was he plays no more than 40 games this season ... In the old days, at least the Argos fans were clever and had fun. But never heard anybody singing: ďGoodbye, CleoĒ at home games again illustrating what an important figure Leo Cahill was in his Toronto days ... A quick Leo update: He has good days and bad days but heís hanging in there. He wonít say it so I will: Heís one tough son of a buck ... The Leafs canít say enough about the attitude of Keith Actonís son, Will, who has signed an AHL contract for the Marlies but will attend Leafs rookie camp. He is his fatherís son in tenacity. Keith, by the way, hasnít found a coaching job since being bounced by the Leafs at the end of last season.
HEAR AND THERE
I hope weíre not taking Jose Bautista for granted. He hit his 41st home run Saturday, which gives him 95 over the past two seasons. To put that into Blue Jays perspective, thatís 10 more than the best back-to-back years of Carlos Delgado, 16 more than the same from George Bell. And in baseball perspective, thatís 19 more than Albert Pujols, who is second best, has in the bigs ... So whoís less comfortable in front of television cameras: Phil Kessel or Colby Rasmus? ... Canít remember a .500 baseball season so chock full of stories as the Jays: The latest, the wonderful and very different comebacks of Dustin McGowan and Adam Loewen. Both could be made into movies of the week ... Whatís going on at Hockey Night in Canada, the Canadian mothership, with Pierre Lebrun, Scott Morrison and Jeff Marek all departing this summer? ... Cleo Lemon joins the long list of NFL backup quarterbacks (and part-time) starters who came to Canada and failed. Doug Flutie aside, the best CFL quarterbacks tend to be ones developed here over time ó like Anthony Calvillo, Warren Moon, Matt Dunigan, Danny McManus, Ron Lancaster, Jeff Garcia, Dieter Brock ... Now that Rogers has dropped out of the Olympic television bidding for 2014 and 2016 that leaves the unlikely consortium of CBC and Bell (which includes TSN and CTV) to bid against whom? Themselves? ... I see where Joe Will has been promoted to the assistant general managerís job with the San Jose Sharks. Canít believe they passed over John Ferguson.
SCENE AND HEARD
Cliff Fletcher used to say you could measure the success of any team by determining how many of your players played to expectations, beyond expectations and below expectations. Applying that to the Blue Jays, the one player who has exceeded expectations this season, Brett Lawrie aside, has been Edwin Encarnacion ó and who saw that coming? ... There was never a better basketball coach in Canada than Ken Shields, who was somewhat of a disaster as coach of the national team. Which brings us the passionate Leo Rautins, who fell on his sword, resigning his post the other day: He may not have been Phil Jackson for Canada, but he cared desperately to get the job done right. The job, frankly, is impossible. You canít get the players you want. Youíre in over your head before you begin. Youíre always fighting with somebody over something. The basketball world is rife with personal fiefdoms and agendas. Which sounds an awful lot like the soccer mess in the country ... Donít know anyone who believes the NBA will tipoff in November. In fact, most figure there wonít be a season at all ... RIP Jesse Jefferson, who had a great Afro, started 91 games for the original Blue Jays, completing a remarkable 21 of them in his four seasons in Toronto. He lost his battle to prostate cancer. He was only 62.
AND ANOTHER THING
Fans will not remember the late Igor Korolev the way his teammates do. He was one of those glue guys, who made teams better just by his presence, his knowledge, his friendships. Statistics never properly measure a person and player of his value. Korolev, by the way, was the godfather of one of Nik Antropovís children ... Still not retired: Mike Modano ... Still not signed: Bryan McCabe and Marty Turco ... An economy of scale: The new NFL deal signed with ESPN for Monday Night Football and no playoff games at all will pay each team in the NFL $59 million a season for the next 15 years. Thatís irrespective of the other deals the league has with FOX, NBC, CBS and its own NFL Network. Wanna feel tiny? One year of the ESPN deal could operate the entire CFL (all players, all employees) for 126 seasons ... Great to see an energized Labour Day crowd of over 4,000 for York Universityís football opener. Too bad the game wasnít any good ... The GTHL will celebrate its 100th anniversary next Saturday, naming an all-century team that is certain to include Paul Coffey and Brendan Shanahan. Wonder how many referee arguments thereís been in 100 years? ... Would never want my birthday on this date, but for those who do, happy birthday to the great Ed Reed (33), Jacoby Ellsbury (28), Craig Billington (45), Paul E. Dangerously (46) Duff Gibson (35) and Ellis Burks (47) ... And hey, whatever became of Reggie Slack?