It will sound wrong and feel a little off when Auston Matthews is voted the most valuable player in the National Hockey League — if that happens.
Nothing against Matthews, really. It’s about Connor McDavid right now. He’s doing what’s never been done before. He’s doing what we’ve never seen before. He’s turning hockey into fast-break basketball, with one player, not a goaltender, changing games all by himself.
He has elevated his play, his intensity, his push to a level perhaps never seen before in hockey history. He has been great for years. He has been the league MVP before. This is a whole new McDavid playing this post-season for the Edmonton Oilers. This is a player without equal in the NHL.
Now on a very short list of those who have ever played.
I was fortunate enough to be in Calgary the night Wayne Gretzky scored seven playoff points against the Flames. The Battle of Alberta in 1983 was not much of a battle in those days. In Game 3, the Oilers beat the Flames 10-2 and finished the series with a 9-1 win. Gretzky was everywhere back then.
But he was, in a different kind of way, more subtle than McDavid who is everywhere and forever pushing the pace.
I was fortunate enough to be at the old Boston Garden when Mario Lemieux slipped the puck through Raymond Bourque’s legs in 1992 and made one of the greatest defencemen in history look like a slug. It was breathtaking to watch live back then, that Penguins-Bruins series, still breathtaking now on replay.
But it was a different speed than we witness McDavid playing at today. He’s setting his own parameters on how to excel.
It’s a short list now — Gretzky, Lemieux, Bobby Orr — of the greatest to ever play in the modern era and through just nine Stanley Cup playoff games this year, McDavid is banging on that exclusive door. He has separated himself from everyone else in hockey. He has found another level. He has invented a new way to play.
In the past five playoff games, the Oilers have scored 21 goals: McDavid has been in on 14 of them. Like Gretzky before him, like Lemieux who once scored eight points in a playoff game, McDavid is now on stunning display, doing what’s never been done before.
If it was the intention of the NHL to schedule Game 2 of the Battle of Alberta — which turned out to be one of the great games in recent playoff history — with a 10:40 p.m. puck drop, then they succeeded tremendously. This wonderful game was played while half of Canada’s hockey-loving population slept … The reason for the scheduling snafu: ESPN. They had to find room on their schedule with PGA Championship golf going late and Carolina-New York starting late as well. Which makes you wonder: With two Canadian teams playing, why is the NHL allowing an American network to determine start times … Canadian rightsholder Rogers wasn’t at all happy to be stuck with the late start … The more I watch the Tampa Bay Lightning play the more impressed I am with the detail in their game, like stick positioning, shot blocking, and being on the right side of the puck. None of these are easy to teach or to have a team comprehend … The first three goals Friday night in Calgary came as a result of slap shots from the point. This is a weakness for the Maple Leafs, especially on the power play. Somehow they’ve neglected to find big shooters from the point. Makes it easy to clog the front of the net, the way Tampa did, and not worry about being blasted from the point … The Leafs have 10 free agents — six unrestricted, four restricted. The big decision is in goal where the club has to determine whether Jack Campbell is their goalie today, and for the future. And Campbell has to determine what kind of dollars he’s willing to play for long-term. Five million a year is too much for Campbell and he might command that in the open market … If Matt Murray, Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby, and Antti Niemi have all won Stanley Cups in goal, there is hope for Campbell as a Stanley Cup goalie. Just not necessarily hope if he has to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy year after year. Vasilevskiy turns 28 this summer: As goaltenders go, he’s still a kid … Jacob Markstrom had a fabulous season, is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, yet he has looked rather ordinary in two games in goal for Calgary against the Oilers … If Jason Spezza doesn’t re-sign with the Leafs, which would be their call not his, the club should find a spot for him on their coaching staff or the development staff. He’s a keeper long-term.
Jon Cooper and Mike Sullivan have combined to win four Stanley Cups as NHL coaches in recent years but have no coach of the year awards. Reminds me a little of Scotty Bowman, victor of nine Cups and the most wins in history, but just two coach of the year trophies … Leon Draisaitl leads the Stanley Cup playoffs in most goals against when he happens to be on the ice … I wondered as I watched Nikita Kucherov’s game-winning blind backhand pass in Game 2 against Florida, who else is actually capable of making a play of that quality and finesse? The first two names that came to mind were Gretzky and Kent Nilsson … Who would have ever believed this? But Darryl Sutter has become the best sound byte in hockey. Short answers. Long answers. Doesn’t seem to matter … When Sutter coached the Los Angeles Kings, his players would gather in the dressing room to watch his interview sessions, strictly for the entertainment value … If there’s a World Cup of Hockey coming up, one of Canada’s defence pairs has to be Cale Makar alongside Colorado teammate Devon Toews … In one draft in 2017, the Dallas Stars wound up with two first-round picks, defencemen Miro Heiskanen and goalie Jake Oettinger, and they added 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson in the second round. You can’t do better than that … The headline said that Rick Bowness had stepped down as coach of the Stars. The truth: He was pushed out. Owner Tom Gaglardi wanted the change. Good-guy Bowness is now contemplating between retirement, family time, grandchildren visits, and continuing to coach in the NHL … This must excite Masai Ujiri: The Boston Celtics won only three more games than the Raptors this season. And they’re the toughest team in the NBA.
I don’t know what I loved first — baseball or baseball books by Roger Angell, who has passed away at the age of 101. My favourite Angell book: Five Seasons, a baseball companion … The list of Blue Jays hitters having fine offensive seasons: 1. Santiago Espinal; 2. Santiago Espinal; 3. Santiago Espinal … The list of Blue Jays’ hitters not performing to expectations: Just about everybody else, headed by Vladdy Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. … And who saw this coming? Marcus Semien, so great in Toronto last season, is batting .177 with the Texas Rangers and has no home runs. How is that even possible? He had 11 home runs by this time in his only Blue Jays season … The Cincinnati Reds are in Toronto, playing the Blue Jays this weekend. Not in the lineup for the Reds: Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, and Ken Griffey Sr. Not managing, Sparky Anderson. The Big Red Machine. One of the great, likable, star-driven teams in modern baseball history … If the Blue Jays, with all their struggles, do make it to the post-season, they will be a handful to hit against in a playoff series with Kevin Gausman, Alek Manoah and Jose Berrios as their starting rotation, and possibly Hyun-jin Ryu … We don’t say enough about Andre De Grasse. Now that another disqualification has changed his medal colour from Tokyo 2021, De Grasse officially left the Games with a gold medal in the 200 metres, a silver in the 4 X 100 relay, and a bronze in the 100 metres. To date, the 27-year-old De Grasse has run in six Olympic events and has six medals to show for it. That makes him one of the greatest Canadian Olympians in history.
Boy that was generous of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, donating $50,000 to a Buffalo Social Justice Fund, after the heinous grocery-store shooting in Buffalo. I think that represents about one-tenth of one percent of his salary from last season. Which is about the same as you or I donating $50 or so to a cause … What are we to do now that Stephanie McMahon has decided to take some time away from the WWE? … With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal nearing the end of their careers, who’s next on the list of great tennis players? Answer seems to be teenager Carlos Alcaraz, like Nadal, a Spaniard … For those keeping track, the Miami Heat have played 13 playoff games heading into Saturday night. Kyle Lowry has missed eight of them. He has scored 31 playoff points in all, in parts of five games played … Fred Van Vleet got a lot of voting support for all-defensive team in the NBA, just not enough to make the first or second-team … This is how you know what a valuable statistic OPS happens to be: The top three players all-time are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig. Joey Votto is 37th all-time on the list, tied with David Ortiz, ahead of Alex Rodriguez, Hank Aaron, and Albert Pujols. That’s the number that should end up getting Etobicoke’s Votto to the Hall of Fame … CFL fans and haters alike should appreciate the settled negotiation of the shortened strike. The biggest change: The naturalization of American players. If an American plays three years with his team or five years in the league, he will count as a Canadian. That should lead to more roster stability, which has been a giant problem with the league for years … Happy birthday to Josh Allen (26), Bobby Cox (81), Tommy John (79), Ricky Williams (45), Craig Anderson (41), Novak Djokovic (35), Jamaal Magloire (44), Kent Hrbek (37) and Daniel Bryan (41) … And, hey, whatever became of Martin Gelinas?
So it happened a little late. Thirty-nine years after Ferguson Jenkins last pitched for the Chicago Cubs. Forty-nine years after Jenkins was traded from Chicago to Texas after five 20-win seasons. Better late than never for unveiling the statue honouring the 79-year-old Jenkins outside Wrigley Field. Jenkins is the greatest and probably least celebrated of all remarkable Canadian baseball players, coming from a different era, a different place really, where he once completed 30 games in a season pitching for the Cubs, and won 20 or more games in five straight seasons in Chicago.
Nobody does that anymore in these times of analytics, spin rates, and pitcher protection. Jenkins threw 2,673 innings and won 167 games in just under 10 years with the Cubs before moving on to Texas and Boston. By comparison, Blue Jays ace Kevin Gausman has pitched 10 years in the big leagues, won 67 games, thrown 1,227 innings, has one complete game in his career, has never won more than 14 games in any season.
It’s impossible to compare pitching statistics, era to era, except to say greatness is easily recognized on paper no matter what the circumstances happened to be. Jenkins came before Larry Walker was an MVP or a Hall of Famer, before Joey Votto has pushed his way towards Cooperstown in his final big-league season in Cincinnati.
Etobicoke’s Votto is in Toronto this weekend. Chatham’s Jenkins was in Chicago for the honour of a lifetime.
Canadian baseball seems very much alive as summer approaches.
If there is a World Cup of Hockey coming up and Carey Price is no longer available or at the level to play goal for Team Canada, who would be the starting goalie?
And with that, you might ask, what has happened to Canadian netminding?
Maybe Jordan Binnington of St. Louis would start? Maybe Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper? Possibly Carter Hart of Philadelphia? Tristan Jarry of Pittsburgh had a decent season. That’s the apparent A-list right now.
It’s hardly Ken Dryden or Tony Esposito of the 1970s. Grant Fuhr or Patrick Roy of the ’80s. Roy, Ed Beflour, Martin Brodeur or Curtis Joseph of the ’90s. Brodeur and Roberto Luongo in the following decade. Heck, at one Olympic Games, Hall of Famer Ed Belfour was Canada’s third-string goalie.
The U.S. will be blessed to choose from a list that would include Jake Oettinger, Connor Hellebuyck, Thatcher Demko, and John Gibson in goal.
Should there be a Russian team — and really there shouldn’t be — they would be picking from a pretty impressive group that would include Andrei Vasilevskiy, Igor Shesterkin, and Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Finns would have Juuse Saros to start and maybe Ville Husso or Antti Raanta to backup with Jacob Markstrom likely as the Swedish starting goaltender.
Binnington is having terrific playoffs with the Blues but he lost his starting job during the season to Husso. We don’t really know yet what Kuemper is like under pressure. And who knows when Hart next plays a playoff game with the Philadelphia Flyers?
For a while, Quebec was providing a bevy of goalies for the NHL. Now Hockey Canada must figure out what isn’t happening in goal in this country and how that can be corrected.
The most pressing of Kyle Dubas’ off-season needs? Finding a way to rid the Maple Leafs of Petr Mrazek’s contract.
The hardest thing to do in a salary-capped environment is bury a mistake. And the Mrazek signing was a mistake on any number of levels, least of which being that his previous team in Carolina, who desperately want to win the Stanley Cup, didn’t want him in goal.
This is $3.8 million a year for each of the next two years for a team that doesn’t have a starting goaltender signed (Jack Campbell we assume) and doesn’t have a lot of cap money to spend elsewhere. They need that $3.8 million to disappear — they need it as part of their off-season spending.
In the past, both Lou Lamoriello and Dubas, with the help of his assistant Brandon Pridham, have been creative in finding ways to make bad contracts go away. Sometimes, as in the case of Patrick Marleau, it can be an expensive proposition. Sometimes, as in the case of Joffrey Lupul, it was more opportunistic and nasty than expensive.
It’s going to cost Mrazek’s money and more to sign a starter and maybe one-third of his money to find a backup goalie. Buying him out is probably too expensive, at around $1.2 million a year for the next four years. The buyout window ends in late June. The Leafs don’t have a lot of time to play with here: They made this mistake. Almost before they can go forward, they need a way to make Petr Mrazek go away.