Sunday, July 31, 2005

 

More Berger Fix

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto



Since posting my column on the Maple Leafs and their potential off-season activity earlier in the week, I’ve been swamped with e-mailers wondering why I spend so much time harping on the Leafs’ lack of a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman… and their need for the same.

First of all, thanks for your loyalty to The Fan-590 over the years. You’ve gotten my message, loud and clear. And, secondly, that message isn’t going to change. Not until the Leafs acquire this essential missing part, which they attempted to do a year ago March, you’ll recall, in the trade for veteran Brian Leetch. General manager John Ferguson recognized the importance of a front-line defenseman to the extent of yielding Jarkko Immonen and Maxim Kondratiev – two decent prospects – and a 2004 draft choice.

Leetch played very well in his short stint with the Leafs, but spotty goaltending by Ed Belfour in the Conference semifinal against Philadelphia (after Belfour stole the quarterfinal match-up with Ottawa) and the Leafs’ typical collapse on Wachovia Center ice late in the series, spelled a second-round elimination. An unrestricted free agent, the classy Leetch – a first-ballot Hall of Famer – will almost certainly not return to Toronto, but it must be remembered that Leetch is 37 years old, and on the twilight side of his brilliant career.

That’s what makes the acquisition of a player like Scott Niedermayer so important for Toronto. Adam Foote is a rock-solid defenseman, but not the type the opposition will be thinking about in its dressing room prior to a big playoff game. Niedermayer IS that type. So is Chris Pronger, for different reasons. Niedermayer’s ability to skate with and head-man the puck, smartly and effortlessly, is an essential ingredient for a championship team. Pronger – like Scott Stevens for many years before him – instills fear in the opposition. Almost all Stanley Cup winners over the decades have had either a wheelhorse or a “prick” on the blue line – New Jersey having both with Niedermayer and Stevens. The Leafs haven’t had a front-line wheelhorse since Borje Salming almost 30 years ago, and a first-class “prick” since Bob Baun in the 1960s.

Salming’s era, unfortunately for the Leafs, coincided with the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the late-1970s, when the Habs were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. Not coincidentally, the Leafs won their four Stanley Cups in the ‘60s with “pricks” Baun and Tim Horton, and with Carl Brewer, a top wheelhorse, on defense (though Brewer was not part of the 1967 champions). These types of defensemen obviously do not grow on trees, and rarely come available for straight purchase.

As such, this summer presents a golden opportunity for crafty general managers. With the new salary cap guidelines possibly thrusting players like Niedermayer, Pronger, Brian Rafalski and other difference-makers onto the free agency and/or trade market, the Leafs must make a move. How that might happen – with Ferguson choosing not to buy out any of his current players – is anyone’s guess, but it’s solely his responsibility to find a way, and it will largely determine his immediate future with the club.

If you think I’m stretching this theory, let’s go into detail. I’ve made the point on the radio many times that practically every Stanley Cup winner in the past 35 years has had a defenseman the opposition feels intimidated by – through either his offensive capabilities, or his physical prowess.

*The 1970 and 1972 Boston Bruins were guided on the ice by the incomparable Bobby Orr, who scored Stanley Cup-winning goals in both years, and could dictate the pace of a game like nobody before or since.

*The 1971 Montreal Canadiens were a surprise winner, as the Bruins set just about every scoring record during the regular season, only to be thwarted by upstart rookie goaltender Ken Dryden in the first round of the playoffs. But the Habs also had one of the NHL’s best defensemen in J.C. Tremblay (who would defect to the World Hockey Association a year later) as well as two-thirds of the Big Three of the late-‘70s dynasty – youngsters Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard.

*By the time the Canadiens won the Cup again in 1973, Lapointe and Savard had been joined by rookie Larry Robinson, who would become arguably one of the top half-dozen blue-liners in NHL history.

*An exception to my theory occurred in 1974 and 1975, when the Philadelphia Flyers won championships on the sensational goaltending of Bernie Parent. In ’74, the Boston Bruins took the charged-up Flyers a tad lightly and Philadelphia earned a six-game upset. In ’75, the Buffalo Sabres had a more talented team than Philadelphia (with Perreault, Martin, Robert, Korab, Luce, Ramsay, etc.), but the goaltending of Gerry Desjardins could not come close to Parent. As such, the Flyers won again in six. Parent won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP both years. The Philly blue line had solid, workmanlike players such as Joe and Jimmy Watson, Andre (Moose) Dupont, Ed Van Impe and Tom Bladon. A decent crew, to be sure, but it lacked a Norris Trophy type.

*Nothing more need be said about the 1976-77-78 and ’79 champions from Montreal than Robinson, Savard and Lapointe. Sure, those teams also had Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and others, and were coached by Scotty Bowman. But, the Habs of that era would not have won a single championship – let alone four in succession – without the Big Three on the blue line. It’s likely that no team has ever had three defensemen of that caliber – in their prime – at the same juncture.

*The New York Islanders took over from the Canadiens in 1980 and duplicated the feat of four consecutive Stanley Cups. Who did they have on the blue line? None other than Denis Potvin – one of the great combination wheelhorse/”pricks” in the annals of hockey. Potvin, at the time, was the second-best offensive defensemen in NHL history (behind Orr), and he could dish out physical punishment as well as anyone.

*The Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup teams of 1984, ’85 and ’87 will always be remembered for the uncharted accomplishments of Wayne Gretzky, but Gretzky might be the first to tell you that Edmonton’s dynasty would not have developed without defenseman Paul Coffey – simply the best skater EVER in the NHL and the closest offensive talent to Orr. The Oilers of 1988 won without Coffey (who had been traded to Pittsburgh) and the 1990 Edmonton squad won without Coffey and Gretzky (by then in Los Angeles). But, those were rare years in which there was not a truly dominant team in the NHL. The ’90 Oilers were the biggest surprise winner since the ’71 Canadiens.

*Montreal interrupted the Oilers’ dynasty with a surprise Cup in 1986, but only after Edmonton defenseman Steve Smith scored that lamentable “own goal” off the back of Grant Fuhr’s leg in the Oilers-Flames western series. Still, the Habs had Robinson playing well late in his career, and one of the truly meanest defensemen of all time – a young Chris Chelios. Pretty fine duo.

*Calgary won the Stanley Cup in 1989 with a terrifically balanced team, and with a dynamic pair of defensemen in Al MacInnis and Gary Suter – possessing perhaps the two hardest shots from the point in the NHL at the time. Though Suter was injured for much of the playoffs, MacInnis won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and will one day be in the hockey hall of fame.

*The Pittsburgh Penguins arrived on the scene with back-to-back Cups in 1991 and ’92, chiefly because Mario Lemieux was at Gretzky’s level among NHL behemoths. But, Coffey was still very much a front-line defenseman and was joined by Larry Murphy in the prime of his career. Not a bad tandem, and highly superior to anything the Leafs have had since ’67.

*Montreal won another unexpected Cup in 1993 by doing something that will never be duplicated – winning 10 overtime decisions in the same playoff year (though Anaheim came close with seven in 2003). Pittsburgh was the best team again that season, but the Islanders staged a colossal upset of the Penguins in the opening round. Still, the ’93 Habs provided another exception to my theory, as the unspectacular Eric Desjardins – who played fabulously and scored clutch goals in the Final against L.A. – was the team’s best defenseman.

*The New York Rangers ended their exhaustive, 54-year Cup drought in ’94 with Leetch in the prime of his career, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, alongside an up-and-coming Sergei Zubov. Leetch had lost a step by the time he joined the Leafs ten years later.

*New Jersey’s Cup dynasty began in the lockout-shortened season of 1995. As mentioned, no team in ’95, 2000 or 2003 (the Devils’ championship years) had as versatile and dominating a defense duo as Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens.

*The 1996 Colorado Avalanche appeared to have an all-time great in the making, as defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was among the NHL’s best offensive rearguards that season. Troubles away from the rink slowed Ozolinsh’s career, but he was a dynamic force in ’96 (along with Uwe Krupp, who scored the overtime Cup winner at Miami).

*Another interminable Cup drought ended in 1997 when Detroit won the first of consecutive titles, and who was more competent on defense anywhere in the league in those years than Nik Lidstrom? Teamed with Larry Murphy, who clearly was not finished when he got booed out of Toronto, Lidstrom was as good as any defenseman in hockey, and was still at the top of his game when the Red Wings won the Cup again in 2002.

*The 1999 Dallas Stars beat Buffalo with the infamous “toe-in-the-crease” overtime goal by Brett Hull, but they also had a tremendous and versatile defense duo in Darian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov.

*By the time Colorado won its second Cup, in 2001, GM Pierre Lacroix had acquired Rob Blake and Raymond Bourque. ‘Nuff said.

*The most recent Cup winner – the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning – proved to be another exception to my theory. They were paced by perhaps the best collection of young, star forwards since the ‘80s Oilers, with Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier leading the pack. Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor led a good, but modest blue line.

So, by my count, only six teams in the past 35 seasons (the ’74 and ‘75 Flyers, 1988 and ’90 Oilers, the ’93 Canadiens and the ’04 Lightning) were able to win Stanley Cups without an overwhelming presence on the back end. It’s absolutely no coincidence that all other champions featured the best defensemen of that period – and of all time – in the likes of Orr, Savard, Robinson, Lapointe, Potvin, Coffey, Lidstrom, Niedermayer and Stevens.

I’d say it presents a pretty convincing argument for John Ferguson, and for long-suffering Maple Leaf fans.

I’ll be happy to answer any constructive and mature e-mails at howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.



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