Almost certainly, Auston Matthews will be a finalist for the Hart Trophy, as the NHL’s most valuable player.
Barring some kind of drastic change with Connor McDavid, Matthews won’t win the award but is likely to end up in the top three, which will put him in a place few Maple Leafs of the modern era have ever known.
Doug Gilmour finished second to Mario Lemieux for the Hart in 1993, then a year later placed fourth behind winner, Sergei Fedorov. Darryl Sittler finished third once in Hart voting. Guy Lafleur won the award that year, in 1978. Mats Sundin never finished higher than eighth on the Hart ballot and Wendel Clark never did receive a Hart vote.
Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon both placed fourth once — Keon losing to Bobby Orr in 1971, Mahovlich losing to Boom Boom Geoffrion in 1961. That same year, Leafs goalie Johnny Bower finished second in the voting.
Maybe the most decorated of the Leafs, post-Original Six, has been Borje Salming. In his first seven NHL seasons, he finished fifth, fourth, third, second, fourth, third and second for the Norris Trophy, as top defenceman. He lost to Denis Potvin three times, Orr twice, Larry Robinson twice. Hockey royalty, all of them. Salming also garnered Hart Trophy notice, finishing as high as fourth in 1977.
Matthews is a candidate now for the Hart, the Selke and the Lady Byng Awards in this shortened NHL season and is still the favourite to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, for most goals scored in a season. He is heading, on a multitude of platforms, where no Leafs individual has ever gone before.
THIS AND THAT
Maple Leafs salary cap maven Brandon Pridham pays for himself every time he pulls one of these rabbits out of his hat. The latest piece of business has the Maple Leafs picking up Riley Nash from Columbus and then immediately placing him on the long-term injured list. At the same time, the Leafs placed goalie Freddie Andersen on LTIR. The two moves, linked together, now provide Toronto with the salary cap room to pick up a significant player before Monday’s trade deadline. Nash is a historically decent defensive forward, who will likely come off LTIR in time for playoff usage, where he is known for playing his best hockey. The Leafs know exactly what they’re getting in Nash, he played against them in the past two playoff seasons. The Andersen situation is slightly more complicated. The Leafs want him ready for the playoffs as a possible tandem with Jack Campbell. Andersen isn’t ready to play now and, when he is ready, it’s quite possible he’ll get some work with the Marlies to get his game in shape for the post-season. It’s smart and it’s sneaky and they will need Andersen’s blessing on this, but it does give them the option of having two No. 1 goalies heading to playoffs rather than just one … On a fourth line in a playoff series, will the Leafs dress Nash ahead of the legend Joe Thornton? They might have to … Now the question is, where do Leafs turn next? Is it back to Columbus for Nick Foligno? Is it Buffalo for Taylor Hall? Is it Philadelphia for Scott Laughton? Is it Dallas for Jamie Oleksiak? I think their greatest needs are an everyday left winger and a sixth-seventh defenceman who can challenge Travis Dermott … The two teams the Leafs seem to trade with the most: Los Angeles and Columbus … One more question on Pridham: Can he do my taxes? Better yet, can he do yours?
HEAR AND THERE
LeBron James is a role model. Joe Maddon is a role model. Is it too much to ask to have them wear their masks properly during games? The masks are supposed to cover your nose, folks. It’s not complicated … Charlie Montoyo has talked all spring about the Blue Jays defence and how much it needs to improve this season. And you have to wonder already, how long before it makes sense for Montoyo to move Marcus Semien back to shortstop and send Bo Bichette to second base … Is it just me or does Semien looks something like an action hero carrying himself around the infield? He has that movie star look about him … Chris Boucher, who looks like he doesn’t eat, is doing commercials for a fast-food fried chicken place … It is rather amazing that the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jays have avoided missing games due to COVID-19, and they should be applauded, across the board, for keeping things as safe as possible. Jays have Teoscar Hernandez on the COVID list right now and William Nylander is on the contact tracing list for the Leafs. And all you have to do is follow the Vancouver Canucks to see how important the separation is once a problem is discovered … There is a Ted Rogers status outside the Rogers Centre and there should be. He owned the Blue Jays and the stadium and he bought them when there was next to no interest in buying the club. But there should be other statues there as well. Maybe a Paul Beeston or a Pat Gillick. Maybe a Roberto Alomar or a Jose Bautista. There are all kinds of good choices.
SCENE AND HEARD
If you’re Kyle Lowry and your season is drifting away, don’t you wish you were traded at the deadline? Don’t you wish you had the opportunity to play for a championship instead of being injured on a Raptors team now playing for a place in the lottery? … There will be a lot of noise in the coming days about Patrick Marleau’s pursuit of Gordie Howe on the all-time list of NHL games played. Howe played 1,767 NHL games. Marleau, heading into Saturday night, had played 1,762. What doesn’t get mentioned often enough is that Howe played 419 WHA games and somehow that gets forgotten in the record books … Alex Ovechkin is five goals away from passing Marcel Dionne for fifth overall in NHL goal scoring. Ovechkin has 727 goals. After he moves past Dionne, he’ll be 10 goals away from passing Brett Hull for fourth overall. And a weird Ovie stat: He has the least penalty minutes of his career this season and might be a longshot Lady Byng candidate … My all-Nash team, in honour of the newest Leaf, Riley: Steve Nash, Rick Nash, Johnny (I can see clearly) Nash, Graham Nash, Kevin Nash and Nash Bridges … Early season Vladimir Guerrero is looking like the guy we’ve been hearing about for years. And all of it with a big smile on his face … Leon Rose is the president of the surprising Knicks. And when the Knicks did nothing at the trade deadline, Mr. Rose chose not to speak to the local media. Rose works for James Dolan. Which means something always goes wrong, even when it’s going right … This is both on power play and at even strength: The Leafs don’t get enough shots on goals from their defence. They have 108 fewer shots than Montreal and almost 60 shots fewer than Edmonton. You don’t get deflection goals if you don’t shoot the puck.
AND ANOTHER THING
Jeopardy! has had five different guest hosts since Alex Trebek passed away. My Jeopardy Power Rankings to date: 1. Producer Mike Richards; 2. Longtime champ Ken Jennings; 3. Katie Couric; 4. Dr. Oz; 5. The great quarterback Aaron Rodgers … Another list: My favourite CFL players to watch, all-time, no particular order: Pinball Clemons, Brandon Banks, Gizmo Williams, Leon McQuay, Russ Jackson, Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Terry Greer, Mervyn Fernandez, Tony Gabriel, Anthony Calvillo, Angelo Mosca, Dan Kepley, Ron Lancaster, Milt Stegall. All of them American but Gabriel and Jackson … I can’t see the CFL starting its season on time without fans in the stands. The owners don’t have the willingness — or maybe the foolishness — to carry team expenses without having ticket revenue of some kind … If I’m Team USA general manager Stan Bowman, my choice to coach in Beijing — if there is NHL involvement in China, and that’s still to be finalized — would be Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan … Sullivan is on a long list of those with coach of the year credentials this season. The others: Rick Tocchet in Arizona, Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina; Sheldon Keefe in Toronto; Dean Evason in Minnesota; Joel Quenneville in Florida; Barry Trotz, again, every year, in Long Island. That’s seven strong candidates and only three can be finalists … Isn’t it great to watch Connor Brown develop into such an important leader with the Ottawa Senators? … Don’t understand why the Blue Jays are playing six of the next seven Saturday nights opposite Hockey Night In Canada. Sportsnet televises both. It’s splitting your audience. Makes zero sense to me … I think all Saturday and Sunday baseball games should be played in the afternoon … Sidney Crosby doesn’t age. He had 18 points in his first 20 games. In his past 20, he’s up to 29. Heading into Saturday night he was one point behind Mitch Marner and Matthews. In Year 16 of his career … Happy birthday to Cavan Biggio (26), Dion Phaneuf (36), Trevor Linden (51), Jim Nill (59), Ken Griffey Sr. (71), Kelvim Escobar (45), Bret Saberhagen (57), Steve Tasker (59), Jennifer Heil (38), Mel Blount (73) and Dustin Rhodes (52) … And hey, whatever became of Jason Blake?
DOES ATKINS LACK CONFIDENCE?
Ross Atkins has signed up for five more seasons after this one as general manager of the Blue Jays, a contract that will carry him right through the 2026 Major League Baseball campaign.
So why does he still sound like he’s in the internship phase of his career in baseball management?
He doesn’t come off as confident, the way Kyle Dubas is confident. He doesn’t come off as self-assured, the way Masai Ujiri is self-assured. He doesn’t come off as being relaxed, being in charge, being someone to trust the next five seasons of Blue Jays baseball to.
I heard three interviews recently on local radio, one with former Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, one with first-year Los Angeles Angels GM Perry Minasian, the former Jay executive and the other with Atkins.
Anthopoulos was funny, anecdotal and comfortable in his interview. Minasian was the just about the same, telling stories about Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. When he finished, you wanted more. In the Atkins interview I heard, he made me uncomfortable.
I wanted to scream at my radio and say “Relax Ross, you’ve got the job.”
The audition is over. He has the job, whether we like it or not, whether we like him or not.
Maybe he’ll grow into all of it one day. Maybe.
COVID HAS KILLED CONVERSATIONS
I have a confession: I am Zoomed out.
All I’ve been doing for the past year — all we’ve been doing — is taking part in Zoom calls, Zoom meetings, Zoom weddings, Zoom funerals, Zoom interviews.
I’m tired of clicking the mute and unmute button. I’m tired of putting my hand up. I’m in need of a conversation, in a locker room, lasting more than a question and a follow-up. A conversation that flows in whatever direction it takes.
Maybe because it’s baseball season and there was no spring training to cover under regular circumstances, this has hit me so hard. Baseball is a sport made for conversation and storytelling and it’s probably why the best sporting books are written about baseball and maybe the best sporting movies are made about it.
Baseball used to be the sport with the most access. The clubhouse would be open every day. The players, for the most part, would be available.
One day, years ago, I showed up late for a Dave Stieb availability and he stared at me like only Stieb could when I approached his locker: “What do you want?”
I told him I needed 250 words from him. I’d write the other 500. Stieb smiled. That little exchange altered our relationship. It was always friendly after that, which for Stieb was saying something.
The kind of back and forth that can never happen on something as antiseptic as Zoom.
JENKINS AN OVERLOOKED CANADIAN LEGEND
We don’t spend enough time celebrating the greatness of the legendary Canadian pitcher Ferguson Jenkins.
When you look back at all he accomplished in the Major Leagues, there is no one to compare his work with — no Canadian is even close.
And now at the age of 78, Jenkins will be honoured with a statue outside Wrigley Field, the fifth such statue to represent the history of the Chicago Cubs.
It may be late in coming, but it is coming nonetheless, a statue right there alongside those made of Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and broadcaster Harry Caray.
Back when wins mattered for pitchers, Jenkins won 20 games in six straight seasons in Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s. His earned run average for 10 seasons in Chicago, in a hitter’s park, was 3.20. He pitched more than 300 innings four different times — something no Blue Jay has ever done or will ever do — and started as many as 42 games in a season.
In a seven-year period, Jenkins started 38, 40, 42, 39, 39, 36 and 38 games for the Cubs. In his Cy Young Award-winning season of 1971, he pitched 30 complete games. No one has thrown more than that since Robin Roberts and that was 68 years ago.
Of course, times have changed and the way in which starting pitchers are utilized has changed but in his day, and for 19 seasons, Jenkins stood alone among Canadian ballplayers and Canadian athletes — and sometimes we seem to forget all that.