In an improving Eastern Conference, where the playoff competition actually outstrips the West for the first time in years, making the playoffs will be an accomplishment. Leafs management understands the heat it is under to get there: Thus the external desperation this close to a brand new season.
THIS AND THAT
Wonder if Ron Wilson knows that only one coach in NHL history has missed the playoffs four years in a row and not been fired because of it. In fact, almost no coaches have missed three years in a row and survived the way Wilson has. The only four-year survivor is Barry Trotz, who missed the playoffs five years in a row and remains the Nashville Predators only coach some eight years later ... Gustavsson will never be the kind of successful NHL goalie the Leafs had hope he can be until he learns to square up to the puck more. His constant movement in goal must drive goalies coach Francois Allaire crazy and it indicates The Monster has learned little through three training camps ... Ken Dryden, who always makes more sense than anyone else when it comes to talking hockey’s big picture, has a wonderful piece on the state of the game at grantland.com ... A lot of hockey people are touting Ottawa’s Mika Zibanejad, the sixth overall pick last June, as a rookie-of-the-year favourite. And one pick after Zibanejad, Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele has probably been the best rookie in the pre-season. The question with Scheifele is: What do the Jets do with him? Do they keep him? Send him back to junior? Keep him for nine games and then make a decision? The prodigy of Dale Hawerchuk has turned heads in the early going.
HEAR AND THERE
Who says the Blue Jays can’t make the post-season? Their players can. At or near the top of the Blue Jays rotation in 2008: Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and Shaun Marcum, all of whom are pitching in the playoffs (Okay, so odds are Burnett won’t pitch, but he’s on the Yankees roster). Also in the baseball post-season: Aaron Hill, John McDonald, Lyle Overbay, Chris Carpenter, Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel ... John Gibbons, the former Jays manager, has been fired by the Kansas City Royals as bench coach and catching instructor. The reason, mostly, is he doesn’t speak Spanish. The young catchers in the Royals organization are almost all Latin. Gibby speaks only two languages: English and Mumble ... The Vernon Wells deal basically cost Tony Reagins his job as general manager of the Angels, while a final-month collapse cost Terry Francona his time in Boston. Francona had eight great seasons in Boston and one terrible month. And you have to wonder: If Alex Anthopoulos had a choice between Francona and John Farrell as his managers, who would he choose? Who would you choose? ... My favourite Titos: Tito Francona, Tito Santana, Tito Ortiz, Tito Fuentes, Tito Jackson and the salsa man, Tito Puente.
SCENE AND HEARD
Anthony Calvillo is 39. Henry Burris is 36. Ricky Ray is 32. And I wonder: Where are the next great CFL quarterbacks coming from? And who are they? ... In Jim Barker’s two seasons as Argos coach, his quarterbacks have been Cleo Lemon, Ken Dorsey, Gibran Hamdan, Dalton Bell, Danny Brannagan, B.J. Hall and Steven Jyles. If I were Barker, I’d have a word or two with the general manager about his signings. Oh, never mind ... What Vancouver has that we don’t have: Winning hockey, an NFL-ready domed stadium, better weather, Wally Buono and Olympic memories ... This is how thin the New York Rangers are on defence: Nice guy Brendan Bell, who has bounced all over the place in recent years, has made the team ... What a day for Matthew Lombardi, the new Leaf who is coming back from concussion. He was pencilled in early Saturday to play his first game in a year with Joey Crabb and Jay Rosehill, which may have been more punishment than promotion. By the time the pre-game skate ended, he was lined up with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Should Lombardi be ready to play for real any time soon, he may make a more suitable centre for Kessel than Tim Connolly. Both Kessel and Connolly are right-hand shots. Lombardi is a lefty and may complement Kessel better with his speed.
AND ANOTHER THING
The Jays and other media outlets are urging Toronto fans to vote for Tom Cheek on the online Hall of Fame ballot. In other years, that was the obvious tout. But this year, Jerry Howarth is on the ballot, as well. And how do you advocate one over the other? ... At 41, Nicklas Lidstrom, playing defence, had 62 points for the Red Wings. At 23, Kessel led the Leafs in scoring with 64 points ... Jaromir Jagr’s first point with the Philadelphia Flyers will be his 1,600th NHL point. He needs 42 this season to pass Joe Sakic on the career scoring list ... For the record, 78 players have scored more than 1,000 points in NHL history, but only seven are defencemen: Lidstrom, Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque, Larry Murphy, Al MacInnis and Brian Leetch. All of them are in the Hall of Fame except Lidstrom, who is first-ballot bound ... Confirm or deny: What’s this we hear about Brian Burke taking Harry Sinden’s place as a voting member on the Hall of Fame committee? .... Happy birthday to Phil Kessel (24), Maury Wills (79), Glenn Anderson (51), Bashir Levingston (35), Mark Rypien (49) and Karen Cockburn (32) ...
And hey, whatever became of Charlie Bray?
THE END FOR NO-TOUCH ICING
My old friend, Jim Hunt, used to say that the best thing about getting old was being able to say just about anything you want because nobody really took you seriously any more. I thought of that view on Saturday, after Taylor Fedun’s hockey season ended before it ever began. How many times has Don Cherry screamed for the abolition of no-touch icing in hockey? How many times has he shown the injured victims on video on Hockey Night in Canada? And I wonder: Has hockey chosen to do nothing about this unneccessary part of the game because an old man on television shouts about this year after year? When it comes to some things — not necessarily fighting — Cherry stands out. He was a leader in the stop-patch movement, spoke out about equipment being too hard, but his pet peeve for a long time has been no-touch icing. At the expense of another injured player, Cherry was proven right again in his advocacy. The time to make that change was long ago.
DOUGHTY AND THE KINGS
With the signing of Drew Doughty, the Los Angeles Kings have put themselves in a rare position to contend for the Stanley Cup for the next five years, and maybe longer. And considering the franchise has never won the Cup and played for it only once, that is indeed something progressive. The Kings have eight impressive players 26 years old or younger, almost all of them signed long term: Forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, defencemen Doughty and Jack Johnson; and goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. And with costs basically controlled, that nucleus of depth and strength matches or surpasses any emerging team in hockey. The Kings may not win the Cup this year, but it will happen in the very near future.
For as long as there has been sport played at the highest level, there has been varying degrees of trash talk. Had those kinds of expressions been heard in open society, away from the games, it would offend most right-thinking people. But what’s happening now, with more media and more microphones, with analysts between benches of pro games, words are being heard, names are being called, and the discussion of what can and cannot be said has become real. But what needs to be understood, and seems lost in translation, is that the field of play in almost any sport, should not be confused with the rules of society. You cannot, walking down the street, plow your neighbour into a wall. In hockey, it’s called a body check. You cannot sack the paper boy, delivering late on your driveway. In football, that is part of the game. It is the same with words. What is spoken on the field has no relevance to real life and historically no real meaning, either. Confusing one with the other is unhealthy and basically unnecessary.