Sports Hockey


Sabres vs. Leafs: Clash of the Titanics

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

Joffrey Lupul of the Maple Leafs lowers the boom on Andrej Meszaros of the Sabres. The Sabres are the worst team in the NHL, the Leafs aren’t that much better. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun)

Joffrey Lupul of the Maple Leafs lowers the boom on Andrej Meszaros of the Sabres. The Sabres are the worst team in the NHL, the Leafs aren’t that much better. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun)

Toronto - 

A member of the Leafs hockey office stopped by our work station the other day. No need to sneak a peek at the computer screen for the carving scars, he could guess the content.

“We aren’t this bad,” he insisted before departing.

Well, they could’ve fooled everyone the past 10 weeks, in which Toronto fell from playoff contention, fired its coach, went winless in 11 games and traded six players to get a head start salvaging the self proclaimed flagship franchise of the NHL.

On Wednesday, if they lose to the last-place Buffalo Sabres in a Clash of the Titanics, the Leafs could even strengthen their lottery chances for No. 1 pick Connor McDavid. But somewhere between fourth and sixth pick in the draft, with less than a 10% chance at moving up for McDavid, is their likely fate next month.

“We’ve talked to (general manager) Dave Nonis and his staff and our mandate is to win as many games as we can,” assistant coach Steve Spott said during a conference call on Tuesday, a day off for the Leafs. “They demand we play our best 20 every night. That’s our focus.

“We know Buffalo is having a challenging season (coming up on a goal differential of minus-100), but our motivation is to win.”

Well and good, but it’s also an ideal night for that PBS channel in Buffalo to have operators standing by for a cross-border pledge drive. More than a few disenchanted fans on both sides might re-up for Downton Abbey rather than tune in this downer. The Sun’s Rob Longley reported that the St. Louis-Toronto game, a 6-1 Blues’ romp, was possibly an all-time low for a Saturday telecast under current ratings data, an average of just 743,000 viewers.

Many fans from both ends of the Peace Bridge that watch or listen Wednesday will be hoping the other team makes the key save or goal, all in the name of better drafting.

Spott said that keeping players from slacking with 15 games to go, the trade deadline gone and little hope of improving their lot in the standings remains “our biggest challenge”. For others hanging on to jobs, Peter Holland, Trevor Smith, Zach Sill and Tim Erixon, no prodding is necessary.

It’s rather extreme to call this the worst Leafs team ever, though one of the most underachieving certainly applies. At one time they had a run of 10-1-1 and did become just the third Toronto entry since 1977-78 to win 20 games before Christmas. And thanks to their spectacular fall after New Year’s, they’ll be the first to hit that number and miss the playoffs. Toronto has been slightly better in recent days, getting points out of one-goal games for a record 3-4-1. It could open up a potential 17-point lead on Buffalo with a win. Jack Eichel might be further out of their reach, too, with a win against 29th-place Edmonton on Monday.

While Nonis addressed the players directly a few days ago about not throwing in the towel, Buffalo counterpart Tim Murray has been getting the nudge-nudge, wink-wink all season about moves that position his team to land McDavid. Of course he views his machinations differently.

“I was brought here into a team that was in the middle of a rebuild,” Murray told the Buffalo News after the trade deadline. ”I’m going to continue the rebuild and try to get better. If we finish 28th, that’s where we’ll pick. I assume the players that we have here will try to win every game. I assume the coaching staff will try to win every game. They’ve never had any interference from me from Day 1.

“The players have never been told by me to not win. There’s never been any talk of that. The only talk I get of that is from the press.”

As for the shell of a team Murray has kept for the final weeks of the schedule after the deadline, it’s the price of a tear-down.

“We’re in 30th place,” he said. “Our time is the future, and we added assets for the future. I talked to (the surviving Sabres) and they all understood. When you are at the bottom or near the bottom, you trade out guys that can help other teams for future assets.”


Benching Nazem Kadri on Monday wasn’t just a beneficial lesson in better time management for the young centre.

It gave the Leafs a look at firecracker forward Zach Sill in the middle for future reference. And assistant coach Steve Spott, who works with the forwards, says he’s aware Joakim Lindstrom played that position in Sweden, too.

“We felt Zach had the grit to go head-to-head against (Islander) Casey Cizikas,” said Spott of replacing Kadri after he’d missed a team meeting the day before.

It’s expected Kadri will be back Wednesday against the Buffalo Sabres, though it would have been an interesting call had the Leafs hung on to Monday’s two-goal lead and beaten New York, instead of losing late in overtime. Would interim head coach Peter Horachek hesitated putting Kadri back in?

If and when Kadri returns to the lineup, Spott predicted he “will take a step up” in mind and body. Though spared at the trade deadline, former first-round pick Kadri needs a strong finish as he enters restricted free agency.


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