Draft, schmaft: The Leafs look ahead to the Auston Matthews era

At the NHL draft Friday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs surprised absolutely nobody by choosing Auston Matthews with the first pick. Matthews gives the Leafs something they haven’t had since captain Mats Sundin left town after the 2007-08 season: a big #1 center who (theoretically) can dominate. Although there was some speculation that Finn Patrick Laine could go in the top spot, everybody knew that the Leafs needed a center and that Matthews, an 18-year-old out of Arizona of all places, was the man-child to fit the bill.

It’s been a long, winding road of futility for the Leafs since their last Stanley Cup win in 1967, but the current management team led by team president Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello has been essentially building a new team from scratch. Star winger Phil Kessel was dealt to the Penguins last summer for what seemed to be a fairly low price, Pittsburgh’s #1 pick this year (plus some prospects), especially after the Pens went all the way to win the Cup. But the Leafs then turned that pick into their new top goalie, getting Frederik Andersen from Anaheim. And then they used their remaining 11 picks to stockpile players with size and potential. You never really know what any of these players will do, but for now at least, the future looks bright.

This is a far different approach from Leafs management teams in the past. GM Cliff Fletcher loved getting veterans and in 1996 infamously uttered the words “Draft schmaft” when asked about the draft picks he was trading away for aging players. Successive Leafs GMs followed similar paths: John Ferguson Jr., Brian Burke and Dave Nonis (as well as Fletcher in an interim stint) traded away plenty of picks and young players including Tuukka Rask, Alex Steen, Tyler Seguin (the pick that turned into him, anyway), Anton Stralman and the picks that turned into Rickard Rakell and John Gibson (in return for a first rounder that they used to pick the immortal Tyler Biggs).

In short order, Shanahan and crew have loaded up on young talent. In addition to the likes of Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk, the Leafs have added the likes of William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner (who flat out dominated the OHL this season), Nikita Zaitsev and Nikita Soshnikov, as well as the slew of picks they chose over the weekend. The future’s bright indeed.

But now comes the question of how the rebuild proceeds. Do the Leafs go for another season of futility and build up more high picks, or do they start adding veteran pieces now? There are indications Toronto could go the latter route, with the trade and signing of Andersen and the persistent rumors that they’re going to make a run for free agent Steven Stamkos (although it appears they’ll have plenty of competition). Will they pick up some pieces to support Matthews in his rookie season (assuming he makes the team)? Certainly coach Mike Babcock is making himself heard in the debate as well.

With the NHL’s free agent season starting July 1, the Leafs will be the focus of many in the hockey world as we wonder which road they travel. The amazing thing about Shanahan’s reign so far is the eternally cynical Toronto fans have bought in to the plan. After decades of short cuts and disappointment, what’s a few more years to build a Cup winner the right way? Leaf fans (including this one) hope the wait will be worth it.

Sweet victory: How the Penguins turned things around

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Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor and diehard Penguins fan Stephen Mapes looks back at the unlikely path Pittsburgh took to reach hockey’s highest pinnacle.

There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing the team you’ve cheered, agonized over, and obsessively followed all year hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft. After a season like this one, though, it feels even sweeter.

Looking back at the preseason predictions from Jay and myself, I can’t help but laugh at just how wrong I was about my Penguins going into the season. I was convinced that Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel were going to gel immediately and that our defense was going to be A-okay in its early season form.

Neither of those things came true, and by late 2015, I had began to think perhaps GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason magic had all been for naught, as we were hanging onto playoff dreams by a thread thanks mostly to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and not much else. Crosby was quiet, Kessel wasn’t fitting in, and Mike Johnston’s defense-first strategy was failing to do much defensively.

Then, on December 12, the pieces began to fall into place. Johnston was fired, Mike Sullivan was ushered aboard, and the Pens began their climb through the Metro division, from 15-10-3 to 48-26-8. Sullivan brought with him a new commitment to speed and aggressive offense, a no-nonsense attitude that extended to even our star players, and, most importantly, his choice talent from Wilkes-Barre.

You can’t help but marvel at the apparent happenstance that lead to the playoff incarnation of the Penguins. First, there was the loss of Fleury to a concussion that gave the net to the young Matt Murray, one of the season’s feel good stories as the 21-year-old became one of the few rookies to lead a team all the way to hockey’s greatest accomplishment. I don’t know if I’d go so far to say Murray was the reason the Pens won. His side-to-side game was at times frustrating, his glove game still needs work, and the swarming Pens defense and heavy shot blocking kept his save totals modest.

But Murray brought with him a resiliency that steadied the team, bouncing back from his few bad games to clock in strong performances. In fact, Murray ended the playoffs having never lost back-to-back games and posting a sub 1.72 GAA after losses.

The real “fate” moment of the season, however, was the loss of Evgeni Malkin late in the season, which birthed the legendary HBK line as Kessel, who struggled all season to find chemistry on the Pens, found his home with the lightning fast Carl Hagelin and the gritty, playmaking Nick Bonino. Whereas I do believe the Pens may have seen similar success behind a healthy Fleury, I can say with confidence that without HBK, the Pens don’t make it past the second round.

Their existence gave the Pens a top 9, bottom 3 offense that simply wore down opposing defenses through sheer attrition. No longer could opponents commit their best D-men to the Crosby/Malkin threats. Now typically sheltered second- and third-pairing defenses were seeing a fast, end-to-end offense that would feel right at home on the first line of many other teams. That speed and depth became apparent as each series wore on, as the Pens dominated shot totals and spent long stretches camped in the offensive zone.

But my final kudos have to go our ragtag defense, which I grew to lovingly refer to as “Letang’s Island of Misfit D-men.” Here was a squad that found solid play from castoffs like Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, that swarmed and cleared pucks with such tenacity that typical big stars like Ovechkin, Thornton, and Pavelski all but disappeared, and who blocked so many shots that Murray rarely had to show his mettle. While the defense may have lacked big names and big bodies, it covered its shortcomings with raw speed. Letang was the leader throughout, putting up massive minutes and finding the scoresheet when needed. While most people were splitting the Conn Smythe debate between Crosby, Kessel and Murray, Letang was building his own silent case.

In the end, Crosby did earn the coveted MVP award, thanks to his leadership, playmaking, and efforts to wear down the top lines of each opponent faced. But the fact that there was such debate at all — that at least four players seemed equally deserving — speaks to why the Pens were able to outlast talent teams like the Caps and the Sharks. This was a team effort, the most balanced Pens squad I have ever seen, and the proudest I’ve been as a Penguins fan.

In year of playoff surprises, Pittsburgh’s march to the Cup was biggest of all

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Going into the Stanley Cup Final series between Pittsburgh and San Jose, most observers (including me and my colleague Phil) felt that the Sharks were simply the better team and would prevail. Nope. Not even close.

On the surface of it, the six-game final appeared fairly close, with three one-goal games (two of which were decided by overtime) and three two-goal decisions. But after Pittsburgh closed out the series last night with a 3-1 victory in the Shark Tank, it was obvious that Mike Sullivan’s charges were consistently the superior club throughout.

How did they do it? Speed. Tenacity. Opportunism. The Pens came up big whenever they needed to, and when they didn’t, it was Sharks goalie Martin Jones who prevented the series from being a sweep. Led by captain (and playoff MVP) Sidney Crosby, the Penguins never let up the entire series. Their team speed had the Sharks consistently on their heels, defending against the onslaught of the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (who got better as the series wore on), Phil Kessel, Conor Sheary, et al. Defensively, the Pens blocked so many shots and gave the offensively gifted Sharks little time to set up, and when shots did get through, Matt Murray made big saves. The line of Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin continued to bring the heat as they did throughout the playoffs, but it was the depth of the lineup that shone through for Pittsburgh. Everyone was dangerous. When it wasn’t one of the top offensive players delivering, it was a guy like Eric Fehr.

San Jose never quit, and had they been able to take advantage of their chances, we could be talking about getting ready for game 7 in Pittsburgh Wednesday night. The Sharks’ big threats—Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau—were never able to get rolling against the Pens’ defense led by Kris Letang. It was the team defensive approach—something we’ve never really seen from Pittsburgh before—that made the difference. Even the loss of Trevor Daley in the previous round didn’t affect the Pens D one iota.

Some may quibble at Crosby receiving the Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP; it could have gone to Murray or Kessel or even Letang. But there’s no disputing the leadership, the big plays and the selfless effort that the Artist Formerly Known as Sid the Kid displayed during the grueling four-round gladiator showdown that is the NHL playoffs. Once derided as supremely talented but a whiny crybaby, Crosby has remade himself as a gritty competitor who delivers in high-pressure situations. He was always a clutch performer, but leading this team to this most unexpected of Cups has elevated Crosby to another level of greatness. A lot of fans in opposing cities may not like it, but they can’t deny it.

Ultimately, the Penguins won four series in which they were considered the underdog. At midseason, the team was a shambles under coach Mike Johnston, who was fired in December. Sullivan, a longtime assistant who had a stint coaching Thornton and the Bruins a decade ago, was able to turn a troubled team around in a remarkable fashion. That he was able to do so with a rookie goalie and a patchwork defense is all the more impressive. There were plenty of other teams that appeared to have a better shot at winning the Cup: Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa, St. Louis, Anaheim, and yes, San Jose. They all fell by the wayside as Pittsburgh kept working hard and surprising opponents and observers alike. It was a championship well earned and no doubt for the Pens, it was immensely satisfying to prove all the naysayers wrong.

Saying farewell to Mr. Hockey

Fans love to argue about the greatest teams and players in their favorite sports. For hockey fans, that debate tends to center around Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, but there’s no denying the greatness and longevity of the man who dominated the sport for decades.

Gordie Howe, who died yesterday at the age of 88, didn’t just dominate pro hockey, he embodied the game. Hence the nickname Mr. Hockey, of course, but the Saskatchewan native combined all the attributes of an ideal player: Power, sublime skill, finesse, a mean streak and class. Those last two were often at odds because Howe wouldn’t hesitate to drill you with one of those massive elbows or drop the gloves if you were out of line.

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Howe played in an era where nobody wore a helmet (though he played long enough that he was one of the last to not wear one). He was a brawny farm boy who combined brute strength with offensive smarts and an occasionally nasty disposition. And even though it has been 36 years since he played in the NHL, the term “Gordie Howe hat trick” (when you get a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game) is still used regularly.

Howe played 25 years with the Detroit Red Wings from 1946-1971 before retiring, leading the Wings to four Stanley Cups and racking up incredible scoring achievements; he was in the top 5 league scorers for a ridiculous 20 straight years. But after a year of retirement (and induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame), he came back to play in the new World Hockey Association, a rival to the NHL that lured established stars like Howe and Bobby Hull with the promise of higher salaries. Another attraction for Howe was getting to play with his sons Mark and Marty on the Houston Aeros (and later the New England/Hartford Whalers). Now in his 40s, Howe led the team to consecutive championships and continued to score at an impressive pace. The WHA folded in 1979 and the Whalers were one of the four teams absorbed by the NHL, which allowed Howe to play one final NHL season at the age of 51. He played all 80 games and scored a respectable 15 goals and 26 assists before hanging up his skates for good.

I’m old enough to have seen Howe play on TV as a kid for the Whalers, but the memories are hazy now. Obviously, I never saw him in his prime, just like I never saw Orr until his last hurrah in the 1976 Canada Cup. I grew up on Gretzky and his obliteration of the record books (mostly Howe’s records) in the ’80s and ’90s. And later came players like Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but to me, it always comes back to Gretzky, Howe and Orr.

I’ve always felt Gretzky was the greatest of all time, but Howe was a close second. Gretzky’s biggest influence was Howe, even though their games were polar opposites. Gretzky left the hitting and fighting to bigger guys; he was more concerned about putting the puck in the net. Whereas Howe went to all the dirty areas of the ice and could beat you with his stick or his fists. In his later years, Howe built the Mr. Hockey brand and became a pop culture icon long after his playing career ended. He was a prominent part of a classic Simpsons episode, his jersey was featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by director/longtime fan John Hughes, and he appeared in ESPN promos. And he was the ultimate ambassador for hockey, appearing at countless events and always approachable to fans and non-fans alike.

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Gordie Howe represented a bygone era, when the game was primarily played by Canadians, but he also played a large role (along with Gretzky) in introducing the game to Americans. Was he the greatest of all time? Maybe. To me, he transcended the world of statistics. Gordie Howe WAS hockey. Pure and simple.