Brit Selby would have been a familiar hockey player name to fans of a generation gone by, but not for the majority of us. Though you may recognize it now after coming up on recently both on Toronto telecasts and online. Why? If you haven’t heard already, his 27 points in 1965/66 won him a prestigious hockey award while a new member of the Maple Leafs. An award no Maple Leaf has won since. It’s not just the ultimate silver mugged team goal that’s avoided the grasps of our Blue & White for a 50 year stretch. Another piece of loot has escaped Toronto for far too long, the Calder Trophy.
Individual accolades aren’t something the Maple Leafs have a plethora of or are particularly known for. To state the obvious, they aren’t known for them because quite frankly they haven’t won any in my lifetime. I guess we had Mogilny’s Lady Byng (*rolls eyes and mutters to self in Bubbles voice “Lady f’ing Byng.”).
No slight to Miss Byng, it’s a distinguished honor. But if that’s the big win we’ve had in the last forever, and I struggle now with how to put this, it’s simply not good. What else is there to say, fans deserve the entertainment experience of bonding with individuals based on outstanding performances. The empty shelf room on the Leafs personal achievement trophy mantle is indicative of the lack of overall success here. The two go hand in hand. Enough is enough, and if Toronto is going to step up and be winners, the time is now and no better or more symbolic place to start than with a first year player earning the distinction “Rookie of the Year.” One fifty-year trophy drought at a time.
Carouse the rosters of the National Hockey League and there is brand new talent everywhere. In the ‘Zona desert, the streets of Philadelphia, out West in the ‘Peg & Alberta, the Jersey Shore, Broadway, names in the hat from all over. This is a stand out year for the strength of its rookie class. Nowhere does that ring truer than in the center of the hockey universe.
Originally I was thinking of a story revolving around this year’s campaign not acting as the sole forecaster when it comes to the future of our kids. I was planning on attempting to help temper the freshmen expectations for their inaugural seasons. Remembering their eliteness but keeping in mind the stages of the development process can often breed frustration. As it turns out, I can’t make this case today. Instead, I’m going to get a bit foolish, but very real.
I wanted to talk to you guys a bit about William Nylander’s struggles in last year’s AHL playoffs and how possibly he has to be battle tested before he becomes truly NHL battle ready. How it may take time for his competitiveness to develop like it did for some of the great Red Wings forwards. While a portion of the above may hold true, the player however, has gone off script on me. Nylander may need some rounding out, but what is most evident is when the puck is on his stick he’s a game-breaking killer. An assassin with his shot and speed. His early trademark is the ability to drive wide and then peel back to get the puck on his forehand going against the grain while curling towards the slot is a talent of its own. If you cheat him he keeps driving wide. Nylander gives himself options, dangerous ones. With his deadliness and feel for the net, he’s a one shot shooter and a top tier passer who could very well produce a staggering number of points in 2016/17. He’s already a point per game player in his budding career, a pace helping to make him the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for October and an early Calder favorite. There’s nothing else I can tell you about Nylander, his play is doing all the talking.
Any of you who’ve listened to me at all over the last couple years, or read anything I’ve written on the guy, I bet you probably figured I thought Mitchell Marner was going to pyroette into the Maple Leafs locker room, take over as the top dog, collect his Calder trophy, and that’s the end of this story. You’re very warm. Well, sort of.
No, to be perfectly honest that wasn’t my 100% expectation. I’m a bit biased, as I haven’t believed in a rookie Maple Leaf succeeding more (see past story title – Mitchell Marner “Believe“). Even with that belief, my vision was and remains for a long-standing and memorable career in Toronto. The results of 2016/17, or 2017/18 for that matter, I wasn’t going to get too wrapped up in and hoped nobody would. Show you belong, make the club, display gradual improvement, then thrive. This was the template. No pressure. Before his draft when getting to know Marner and his game, I spoke to Assistant GM at the time and now General Manager of the London Knights Rob Simpson in regards to Marner’s NHL timetable, “The thing with Mitch is that you know he’ll figure it out. You just know that no matter how long it takes him that he’ll do whatever he needs to do to excel in the NHL because that’s who he is.” Slow and steady, right? Yeah, not so much. Marner won the Molson Canadian Cup for October as the Leaf with the most “stars”.
This is a young player still very much settling into the league, but that shouldn’t make us afraid to call it straight. Mike Babcock isn’t. “He’s outstanding. He pisses excellence. I pretend he’s my own boy sometimes and I have a picture of him in my wallet. Good plyrrr.” Okay I took some liberties with the quotes, but Babs is as smitten as the rest of us. Marner has been the best skater on the ice multiple nights so far, a sensation to watch. Despite showing off his incredible speed and creativity, Marner may be earning most of his praise for the “details”. “Great defensively”, a true remark from the coach, the gifted winger has blocked shots, back- checked like the antidote to a deadly disease is in his own end, and displayed enough awareness to cover for pinching D consistently when called for. And those puck flips? I warned you about those. Tenacious on the forecheck, creating turnovers time and time again. My contrived idea of trying to sell everyone on patience with him in retrospect would’ve been as halfhearted and transparent as me just now telling you I wasn’t expecting this. Bull shit. The kid’s a star already and will only keep getting better and more dominant in his own way. Personally, he’s my horse in the race, which should come as no shock to anyone. The key for Marner could be if his line with 42 & 25 coming to life, currently on life support, or finding new playmates. Any offense he’s been involved in he’s primarily created. So would I still bet the farm on him based on that? This I’m not so sure of. Another reason being, there’s another Toronto horse lining up at the gates. A thoroughbred stud.
With the first pick overall in the 2016 NHL entry draft the Maple Leafs selected the big, skilled, smart, NHL ready franchise centre with excellent vision and strength. Everything we longed for, and his name is Auston Matthews. Matthews was to have an immediate impact and *insert fainting gif*, oh my he’s lived up. Had he struggled early like I told you, I would have been quick to state it’s only year one. Whether he’s the rock solid piece to build around couldn’t be judged immediately. We’ve seen it before with big, talented centres taken first. It’s not as if Matthews had a bad start he’d have been cursed to be a player you couldn’t bank on for long term stardom. The next…*gasps* Joe Thornton. Oh no! Yes, in his first NHL season Thornton, sharing many of the same traits as Matthews, amassed just 7 pts in 55 gms. How things going for him. 37 or 49 or however old he is, he’s still one of the best C’s in the game. Wouldn’t it be horrific for Matthews to mirror the path Thornton took? The obvious point of this comparison was to say don’t worry about the early excerpts from the career of Auston Matthews. This is what I was planning to say if it didn’t start out great, remember. About that….
The “wait it out” thought process would’ve been wonderfully logical if it not for Matthews being un-goddam-believable. 7 points as a rookie? How about 10pts in his first 6gms alone. We saw at the World Cup and are seeing now, this is a grown ass man. As for Joe Thornton, we all know what he would’ve been doing on October 12th if it were him and not Matthews with the 4 goal performance, stroking away. Matthews is still feeling his way around and has more offensive assertiveness in him. Has Matthews “hit a wall”? I think playing C at his age and being involved in the number of chances he has is a tremendous sign. You see the potential he has to be an unstoppable force in all three zones, and coinciding with that, you see the limitless potential for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Marner may be my pick and Nylander looks poised for massive production, but it’s probably Matthews who the house money is on. All, every one, are good bets.
If you want to be a “big boy” team in the NHL, competitive and commanding respect, you better have some tickets to the year-end banquet. That’s all there is to it. The Clark Kent/Superman lookin’ mofo we were just talking about, you know that big strapping lad can fill out a suit. Not only that, AM has star demeanour. No problem, send him on the Leafs behalf. Auston can hit the after party with Will Arnett in Vegas and be totally laid back about it. “Like yeah man no bigs, we hung. Jay-Z dropped by, I said what’s up. Got my bling, went home, ate a nice porterhouse. Worked out. We’ve got a good team, the guys have been great. I’m pretty much perfect in every way but I would never say that because as I said, I’m too humble and as I said, perfect.” It’s so true, he is. (Again, all quotes are loose.)
So if it’s not the “American Dream” Toronto sends to the ball, there are fantastic alternatives. Go back to the start with the stylin’ and profilin’’, limousine ridin’, Swedish version of a 20 year old Ric Flair, David Bowie, Jimmy Dean and a guy from Sprockets, all wrapped into a stone cold right winger. Rest softly knowing this guy will represent well at any ceremony. Slick Willy has never met a lens that didn’t love him back. William Nylander has the “Look” Roxette was singing about, “Double Flamingo” and all. With a shot and scoring touch like his he can line the opposing path to the net with rose petals for all I care. He’s been dynamite and a cool breeze blowing. Nylander could easily take the stage in late June as the first Calder trophy winner most of us have ever seen in Toronto.
When you get right down to business and the Leafs end up sending someone to the party to pick up a trophy, who better suited than Mitchell Marner. He handled more hardware last year than Home Depot. Like Eddie Murphy in Delirious, only it was awards falling from his pockets. “Oops, excuse me, dropped an award.” Mitch is on the subway and all “Sorry a sec there, I sat my award under your feet before you got on..and..thanks, got it.” Hit their stop, “No, I don’t need a hand with the rest thanks, there’s a separate rickshaw coming for my huge trophies..” I have my own personal reason to want Marner nominated. If you haven’t witnessed it, his bowtie game is strong. If Mitch Marner wins the Calder Trophy and rocks a bowtie this could be a (*counts kids in head, adds token wedding day tally) top six moment in life. Or seven, I dunno. Point is, things are going from not good to good and it’s all starting with our rook’s.
I know it’s incredible to think these kids best hockey is yet to come. By that, I don’t necessarily mean this year going forward. This could very well be true, all three have faced their own challenges and a long season lies ahead. What I’m really getting at, is it feels like the early stages of seeing what it’s like to be the best at something. For the first time in a long long time, there’s a category we are tops in. Toronto has the best rookies and it’s not close. I haven’t even mentioned the eventual winner yet.
Nikita Zaitsev, I could tell you is coming over from Russia and it’s going to take him a some time to adjust and let’s not be quick to judge and yadda yadda yadda. Then you could say “Jude, just please shut up man with the we better wait nonsense. He’s our best Dman already so stop.”
Ok, I’ve been told. You’re right, there’s no acclimatization period at all for Zaitsev. I know where to jam patience. He’s been very good and really does look like his game is going to elevate as we go. Listening to Gary Roberts this week talk about his drive and training regiment when working with the ex-Leaf made me like him even more. A complete defenseman, Zaitsev is smooth as silk and ultra competitive. If he was to finish the year playing 22-24 minutes a night while putting up 50+ points, which he’s quite capable of doing, how does he not win it or at least be named a finalist with a seat at the NHL Awards dinner table.
It’s admittedly ridiculous to be talking about a year-end award in early November. No wonder other markets shake there head sometimes. What I wish for everyone to understand is this is about more than the Calder. It’s getting ourselves into a winning mindset. Both as a fan base and most importantly as an organization. There’s a trophy out there for the taking. Go after it, go win it, take it home. Toronto has the horses to win so let’s watch it unfold and in the end, close it out.
And maybe, just maybe, on your quest for Calder you find another old friend from days gone by, Art Ross. Absurd? Not when you think like a winner. Get used to it.