Forty-two years vanished in an instant for Toronto Maple Leafs fans Thursday night when Montreal Canadiens journeyman forward Paul Byron scored a breakaway game-winner late in the opener of their highly anticipated playoff series.
Déjà vu was undoubtedly felt by Leafs’ faithful of a certain age given the last playoff matchup in 1979 between the NHL’s two all-time Stanley Cup winners. In that quarterfinal, journeyman Canadiens’ forward Cam Connor put the dagger in Toronto’s chances with a Game 3 double-overtime winner, also on a breakaway, in what became a Montreal series sweep.
Now, the style differences between goals was night-and-day. Byron’s was a thing of beauty in which he outraced two Maple Leafs to the puck while short-handed and then, falling to his knees, still tucked a shot past poke-checking goaltender Jack Campbell.
In Connor’s case four-plus decades ago, he attempted to deke Toronto goalie Mike Palmateer by sliding the puck to his forehand only to have it roll off his stick. Somehow, the puck still eluded Palmateer and went in.
But in both cases, Byron and Connor were among the least-likely scoring heroes imaginable.
Of course, all of this and more no doubt got revived after Game 1 in Leafs Nation, which has remained in an ever-growing state of angst since Toronto’s last Cup win way back in 1967.
Yeah, it’s still early in this best-of-seven series. But 54 years is a long time.
As one of my favorite Twitter follows, “Since Leafs’ Last Cup’’ updated postgame on Thursday night, it’s been: “19,743 days since a Cup; 6,240 days since winning a playoff series; 453 days since losing to an AHL Zamboni driver; 44 days until breaking the record for the longest Stanley Cup drought in NHL history.’’
Nonetheless, the Leafs, after falling behind 1-0 in Game 2 on Saturday night, rallied for a 5-1 win. So, crisis averted at least another 48 hours. On to your questions.
Q: @Hunsicker asked: We’ve all seen the list of potential names for a head coach. But what 2-3 attributes is Ron Francis looking for? What 2-3 should he look for?
Francis has left little doubt he wants somebody experienced at NHL head coaching that he can work with on a personal level.
There’s ample opportunity for both given what’s out there. Travis Green appears to be staying put in Vancouver, but with Rick Tocchet, Gerard Gallant, Bruce Boudreau, Claude Julien, John Tortorella, David Quinn and Mike Babcock out there and Rod Brind’Amour still not extended by Carolina, that’s a good range of experience.
Now, I’m not saying they’ll all get official Kraken interviews. In fact, some won’t. But I’d be stunned if Francis reverses course and goes with an untested NHL coach at this point because there’s too much that can go wrong. Assistant coaches tend to specialize in specific areas like power-play units or defensemen, while head coaches are more generalists. Some new head coaches take time to adjust and the Kraken doesn’t have any to offer because it must immediately combine mostly average players from 30 different teams into something better.
That lack of all-star talent makes hardworking players and coaches that can maximize effort a must. It’s why some of the names I’ve seen tossed around in mock drafts of potential Kraken player candidates will never fly because despite decent statistics, a handful also have “loafer” reputations for vanishing over extended periods.
The Kraken can’t afford those, nor inexperienced head coaches hesitant to demand hard work.
Francis, interestingly, took Bill Peters straight out of the American Hockey League as his first head coaching hire in Carolina. Peters got so-so results with the Hurricanes and much better ones for a season in Calgary before resigning in a scandal over his prior alleged used of racial epithets in the AHL and possible physical abuse of some Carolina players.
I’m not saying that scandal will play any role in who Francis hires now. But the fact he’s already given an AHL coach his first NHL shot and is now wanting an experienced guy for his expansion team tells you he sees potential pitfalls here that may not have mattered in Carolina.
As for personal relations, yeah, he played junior hockey with Tocchet and again with him in Pittsburgh. And he played alongside Brind’Amour in Carolina.
But this is more about melding styles.
Francis has put much work and trust into his analytics team and any coach less-than-open to embracing those tools probably won’t work. Also, Francis will want a coach that can communicate with today’s players and that he can trust not to cause him repeated off-ice headaches.
That’s why you can probably rule out Tortorella and Babcock. Players from roughly 30 clubs carrying gossip from 30 differing vantage points into the Kraken dressing room for training camp will have too many preconceived notions about that pair. Francis doesn’t need it.
Q: @MHarbak asked: What is the most important thing for the team in the expansion draft?
It has to be goaltending. The Kraken will have a shot at a top-10 defenseman in the amateur draft and centermen via free agency. But it all starts with your goalie, which is why the NHL allows teams to only protect one apiece. The Vegas Golden Knights got somewhat fortunate that veteran Marc-Andre Fleury still had solid years left as a true No. 1 guy when picking him from Pittsburgh in 2017.
The Kraken might find that in Braden Holtby from Vancouver, but it’s far from certain. Cam Talbot also looked good with Minnesota. Or, the Kraken may go more toward tandems of guys not quite proven as true No. 1’s yet — such as Chris Driedger in Florida or Vitek Vanecek in Washington — and solid backups such as Jake Allen in Montreal.
Q: @rjarnoldsafe asked: Hey Geoff, I occasionally see comments from people complaining about the overtime rules in the NHL and the point system for tie games during the regular season. What drives this disagreement and what are your thoughts on the current system?
The big bone of contention seems to be that it keeps mediocre teams stacked too close to good ones. A kind of artificial inflation of the standings, if you will. Every year, a majority of teams are still seemingly entering the final month bunched within 10 points of each other to where a two-week surge by one and slump by another can vault a bad squad into the postseason.
It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.
But the Dallas Stars this season came awfully close to the playoffs despite a 23-19-14 record — meaning they technically finished 10 games under .500 if you count overtime defeats. No team losing that many games in a shortened season should be playoff-bound and yet a Nashville squad with eight more wins barely edged Dallas out by four points because of the 14 the Stars collected in losses.
Part of the fan frustration is really good teams not gaining any real separation from the pack, always leaving them vulnerable to a season-altering skid. Then again, arguably the best team in history, the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, went 60-8-12.
So, yeah, even dynastic teams have tied a lot of games throughout NHL history. And since everybody generally hates ties, the league finally instituted five-minute regular-season overtimes for 1983-84. But not enough games were being won within five minutes so they added shootouts in 2005-06 to guarantee a winner would emerge — albeit through a process akin to a coin flip.
That created a new problem as mediocre teams not only played for ties to get a point, but then tried to hold on five more minutes and fluke off a shootout win. So, they’ve added 3-on-3 overtime, which is about as authentic to the NHL as street-hockey games played by 10-year-olds. But hey, at least you’ve got more overtime wins now courtesy of whoever scores first during their inevitable series of 2-on-0 breakaway chances.
Thing is, hockey traditionalists, like myself, didn’t like the old 1970s system of ties either. And you can’t have teams playing five extra overtime periods during the regular season to decide a “pure” winner as with playoff rules.
So, as mucked up as things are, this may be the best system. At least it’s got entertainment value.