The Weekend Warrior

By Randy Nicholson

Another in a series of weekly articles summarizing activity in Leafland during the previous 7 days – with some personal observations, commentary, prospect updates and fun thrown in for good measure.

Playoff redemption: Maple Leafs fans everywhere are left searching for answers after yet another disturbing week of pathetic efforts turned in by the team … though it has long been said that this year’s club was constructed to achieve greater post season glory, even this tiny shred of hope is becoming increasingly difficult to trust … the overall lack of defensive commitment and team cohesion evident lately is appalling and certainly doesn’t suggest the likelihood of anything positive happening this spring … the much ballyhooed grit added to the team prior to the beginning of this season was nowhere to be seen when the Sabres made them look like a group of frightened children in Buffalo earlier this week … its true that there are still many talented players on the roster and several veterans known for their leadership qualities … Pat Quinn remains an excellent bench coach (recent calls for his dismissal are patently insane) and Cujo has won playoff rounds single handedly on several occasions in the past … the Stanley Cup playoffs may offer a final chance for redemption to a squad that has underachieved badly since Christmastime but, based on recent developments, it would be foolhardy to actually expect that this will happen …

Rumours: Toronto fans disappointed by the team’s failure to add a marquee name or two prior to the deadline would be pleased to hear the rampant speculation around the NHL concerning this summer’s bountiful unrestricted free agent crop … Rob Blake’s long standing desire to come home to Southern Ontario has been documented in this column on more than one occasion … although Blake’s team mate Joe Sakic is generally assumed to be destined for Broadway, the Avalanche sniper is also said to be interested in returning to Canada for the balance of his career – there’s only one club north of the 49th parallel that can afford to punch Joe’s ticket – Mats Sundin’s finest offensive season (47 goals & 114 points) occurred in 1992/93 when the big Swede patrolled Sakic’s left wing with the Quebec Nordiques and the Leafs’ captain remains one of Joe’s best friends in the game … Flyers winger John Leclair is said to be interested in reuniting with former centerman Eric Lindros once the Big E determines his new address – powerful men in the Executive Suite down at the ACC secretly envision a renaissance for the “Legion of Doom” in Toronto (with Sundin replacing countryman Mikael Renberg) … incidently, snipers Brett Hull and Alexander Mogilny are both unrestricted this summer and either would look good beside Sundin and Roberts on the 1st line – I seriously doubt that Pat Quinn is very anxious to brave Mogilny’s act a second time, though by all accounts the former Russian “bad boy” has been a model citizen since landing in the Meadowlands last season … the Maple Leafs have recently initiated preliminary discussions concerning a contract extension with representatives for Curtis Joseph – it is known that Cujo is looking for signs of the organization’s ongoing commitment to building a champion before re-signing with Toronto – adding one or two of the names listed above would certainly go a long way toward convincing Joseph to stay … the Leafs’ have also lately given indications that they will try to sign Swedish sensation Mikael Tellqvist this summer and pair him with Mike Minard in St. John’s next season …

Leafs Trivia I: When Wendel Clark called it quits last summer he was the first former Maple Leafs’ captain to retire from the organization in many years … before Clark, who was the last Toronto captain to play his final NHL game with the Leafs (answer below Do you remember) …

Let’s be tough (not stupid): A particularly disturbing offshoot of the added toughness on this year’s Leafs’ team is the extent to which personal agendas are in evidence during game situations … when Bryan McCabe (whom I admire greatly as a player) decided to atone for a sucker punch administered earlier this season by Florida’s Len Barrie when the Leafs played the Panthers last weekend, it provided a clear example of this troubling trend … the Leafs’ blueliner jumped Barrie along the side boards with his team then trailing in the game 1-0 … that McCabe wasn’t assessed an instigator penalty and an automatic 10-minute misconduct was merely an act of charity on the referee’s part … if the call had been made properly, this selfish act would have put the team into a serious hole in an important game … this was by no means an isolated incident with many other Leafs guilty of putting their own interests ahead of the team’s too often this season …

SEL Playoffs: The Djurgarden-Lulea semifinal series was a wild one but Djurgarden is now marching on into the final … the series started in surprising fashion one week ago in Lulea … Djurgarden played well but only Lulea was able to find the net … Tellqvist did not play up to his own high standards as he allowed some very easy goals … before long, Djurgarden found themselves down 0-4 … the favorites kept pressing hard, outshooting Lulea 15-7 in the second period, but it wasn’t to be for Djurgarden on this night … the final score of 5-2 was not very indicative of the balance of play … to Djurgarden´s credit, they rebounded in excellent fashion at Globe Arena two days later … in a very physical encounter (there were 84 penalty minutes in the game including 2 game misconducts), they outplayed Lulea thoroughly and won the game 7-1 … after two games in which there had been practically no defence played, the fans were happy but the coaches were definitely not … during the rest of the series, both teams returned to strict defence and it was time for the goaltenders to take over … Djurgarden’s advantage in goal is clear (though Lulea has proven Finnish puckstopper and former NHLer Jarmo Myllys) … the third game, back in Lulea, began rather typically for Djurgarden with some silly penalties … this gave Lulea an excellent opportunity to score first, which they did thanks to four straight power play chances … despite that goal, Tellqvist was excellent as it could has very easily been 4-0 early without his strong play … Djurgarden rallied back and built 3-2 lead in the third period but this lead did not last long as Lulea tied the game again only one minute later … near the end of the period, Djurgarden again took a stupid penalty (holding in the neutral zone), thus giving Lulea a golden opportunity to win the game … in the dying seconds of regulation time, Tellqvist made a spectacular glove save on Akerstrom in order to force overtime … the overtime period was a very short one as the first shot from Djurgarden won the game … the sold-out Globe Arena saw the very same script in game 4 … Djurgarden allowed the first goal again (for the third time in the series), after being penalized early but again managed to build a lead before blowing it in the third period … the overtime period featured the best hockey of the game … a lucky goal scored by Djurgarden penalty killer Olvestad (following a terrible giveaway by a Lulea defenceman) finally ended the match … Djurgarden took a 3-1 series lead heading into Lulea for game 5 … in the finale, Mikael Tellqvist took over, stopping 27 of 29 shots and leading his team into the next round … Djurgarden now moves into the league finals against either Farjestad or Malmo …

Leafs Trivia II: Complete this deal … Mike Eastwood and a 3rd round draft choice to Winnipeg on April 7, 1995 in exchange for (answer below Trivia I answer) …

Leafs Trivia III: Former Leafs’ great Tim Horton stands first all-time amongst Toronto defensemen in games played with 1,185 … Hall of Famer Borje Salming is next on the list of Maple Leafs’ blueliners with 1,099 games … name the former Toronto rearguard who is 3rd on this list (answer below Trivia II answer) …

Prospect news: This week we’ll take a quick look at the organization’s goaltending picture (which is decidedly more attractive that it was just 2 years ago) … Mike Minard (St. John’s AHL – 38 games, 2.44 GAA, 1 shutout, .923 save percentage) – signed to an AHL contract last fall when the organization became concerned about its lack of goaltending depth in St. John’s, Minard has far exceeded all expectations – he was selected to play in the AHL All-Star Game and has all but wrested the starter’s job away from veteran Jimmy Waite – recently signed to a new 3-year NHL contract, expect Mike to backstop the Baby Leafs again next season and then to challenge for the back-up role in Toronto by 2002/2003 … Mikael Tellqvist (Djurgarden SEL – 49 games, 2.08 GAA, 5 shutouts, .914 save percentage) – we have reported on this 2000 draftee’s progress almost weekly here at Hockey’s Future – now widely considered to be Toronto’s “Goaltender of the Future”, Tellqvist must soon decide whether or not to undertake the next step in his hockey career in 2001/2002 – in a perfect world, Mikael would share netminding duties with Mike Minard in St. John’s next season and then stage a spirited battle with him for the right to back-up Curtis Joseph in Toronto the following year … Jamie Hodson (Brandon WHL – 29 games, 3.47 GAA, 0 shutouts, .900 save percentage) – big and quick, there is certainly a lot to like about Hodson’s physical make-up – Toronto’s master plan called for this 1998 3rd rounder to support Jimmy Waite in St. John’s this season – unfortunately, Jamie wasn’t able to hold that job and has been mainly unimpressive since returning to Brandon as an overage player – Hodson’s short-term future may well be determined by Mikael Tellqvist’s next move and by his own performance at training camp next fall … Sebastien Centomo (Rouyn-Noranda QMJHL – 45 games, 3.62 GAA, 3shutouts, .885 save percentage) – this QMJHL veteran was signed by the Maple Leafs as an undrafted free agent following his strong performance at the team’s Rookie Camp in 1999 – Sebastien is acrobatic and plays low, utilizing the butterfly style associated with an entire generation of Quebec goaltenders – look for the Maple Leafs to find a place for him in the professional ranks next season, perhaps with South Carolina of the ECHL … JF Racine (Drummondville QMJHL – 59 games, 3.36 GAA, 4 shutouts, .893 save percentage) – Racine differs from his QMJHL counterpart Sebastien Centomo in that he is taller (6-3) and still has another season of junior eligibility left – Jean-Francois has enjoyed a strong season with the Voltigeurs and remains a solid prospect for the Maple Leafs … Vladimir Kulikov (Memphis CHL – 8 games, 4.48 GAA, 0 shutouts, .847 save percentage, Russian Superleague statistics unavailable) – Although Kulikov really turned some heads at the 1999 Rookie Camp, the Maple Leafs hadn’t really expected to see the slight Russian goaler again for some time – somewhat surprisingly, Vladimir accepted their $40,000 contract offer (made simply to guard the team’s long term negotiating rights) and reported to Training Camp in Kitchener – after trying for several weeks to find the youngster an opportunity to play in North America, the Maple Leafs were ultimately unable to accommodate him and he was forced to return home to play for Red Army again this season – Toronto will again try to place him with a junior or minor pro team next fall …

Who am I: I am an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and played on one of the most famous forward lines in NHL history while with the Maple Leafs … I also hold the Toronto team record for goals scored in one period (answer below Trivia III answer) …

Prospect thumbnail – Alyn McCauley (C): There can be no question that this is one extremely unlucky hockey player … broken limbs, concussions, mysterious viruses – Alyn’s experienced them all during his relatively short stay in the Toronto organization … to make matters even worse for this Ottawa 67’s grad, each mishap seemed to arrive at a time when McCauley was on the verge of establishing himself on the Maple Leafs’ roster … since being demoted to St. John’s earlier this season, McCauley has played consistently well … he has produced 42 points on 15 goals and 27 assists in 44 AHL games … though solid, these numbers do little to convey the versatility that exists in McCauley’s game today … he is an excellent skater, attentive to his responsibilities at each end of the ice, makes plays both decisively and creatively, is strong on face-offs, plays on the power play and penalty killing units and works as hard as anyone on the team … there is also an element of intelligence to everything that McCauley does on the ice that is very difficult to quantify … Alyn will turn 24 in May and can hardly be considered a prospect at this point in his career … there were reportedly several NHL teams anxious to acquire him prior to the trading deadline … one visiting scout remarked that it was virtually pointless for a player of McCauley’s stature to continue playing in the minor leagues … yet the Leafs’ front office maintains that they have no real interest in moving him at this time … Alyn will undoubtedly be one of 4 Baby Leafs’ players added to Toronto’s playoff roster and he may still be given further opportunities to make the Air Canada Center his permanent home … we can only hope that fate has finally grown weary of impeding McCauley’s progress …

Do you remember: Mark Kirton …

Trivia I answer: George “Chief” Armstrong was the Toronto captain from 1957 until his retirement from the game in 1969 …

Trivia II answer: Current Leafs’ enforcer Tie Domi rejoined the organization in this deadline deal … Tie had been selected by the Maple Leafs in the second round of the 1988 Entry Draft and he ultimately became the only Toronto selection from that year to secure a significant NHL career … Domi was subsequently dispatched to the Rangers in 1990 (for former Marlie Greg Johnston) without really being given a serious look … this trade allowed the Maple Leafs to correct an earlier mistake and Tie has since repaid the organization many times over with his spirited team-oriented play …

Trivia III answer: Bobby “Boomer” Baun currently sits third on the Leafs’ all-time list amongst defenders with 739 games played in two separate stints with the club …

Who am I answer: Former “Kid-liner”, Harvey “Busher” Jackson scored four times in the 3rd period of a game against the defunct St. Louis Eagles on November 20, 1934 …

Leftovers: In the aftermath of the NHL’s roster freeze at 3:00 PM EST on the 13th, it became clear that waiver pick-up Wade Belak is going to be sticking around the ACC for a while – though most observers assumed that Belak had been acquired simply to alleviate a short-term manpower crisis on the Leafs’ defense, Toronto’s pro scouting department had consistently returned good grades on this player during his time in Calgary – Belak is certainly big and tough as advertised but moves much more fluidly than expected – at this juncture, Wade appears to be far more NHL-ready than the team’s most recent blueline project, Chris McAllister (now with the Flyers) … sadly, one man’s gain is very often another’s loss – Nathan Dempsey was again caught up in the NHL numbers game and was returned to St. John’s on the 13th – Nathan performed admirably while in Toronto but newcomers Belak and Berg are both younger and in possession of one-way contracts – more importantly, the accepted wisdom in hockey circles remains that its impossible to teach someone to be 6’4” no matter how gifted the student might be … some random thoughts following Toronto’s 5-3 win over Florida on St. Paddy’s Day – though he’s perhaps the most electrifying player in the game at this time, Pavel Bure seems intent on bringing the “half-court” offense to the NHL – rarely did the Russian Rocket venture back into his own end of the rink on this night – this particular style of play, even when associated with a gifted scorer like Bure, just doesn’t seem very admirable to me … early returns on the Aki Berg acquisition are fairly positive and not simply because he potted the winner against the Panthers – at this juncture, I see a massive young blueliner who is extremely mobile – Berg also passes the puck so well that its hard to fathom why he hasn’t picked up more points thus far in his career – I suspect that Berg is going to be an excellent fit in the flow and motion game that Pat Quinn likes to play … with studs like Berg, Kaberle, Markov and McCabe already in place (backed by the solid Dmitry Yushkevich and hopefully to be joined by Rob Blake this summer), perhaps the organization should now focus on adding (or developing) a sniper or two who can reliably finish the plays likely to be launched from the blueline … random thoughts following the March 20th debacle in Buffalo – kudos to Coach Quinn for having the courage to ice a line-up filled with guys who obviously had never played organized hockey before – in a season that has featured far too many low points, this was definitely the lowest …

Many thanks to European corespondent, Jan Buben, for his weekly updates from Sweden and elsewhere.

Thanks also to “the Bay Boy” for his on-site reports from Newfoundland.

You’ll find all the hot news and rumours concerning the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization here at Hockey’s Future – see you again next week.