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Monday, November 28, 2022

Leafs mailbag: Borje Salming memories; Alex Kerfoot dilemma

Injuries appear not to be hurting the Maple Leafs. Injuries appear to be making them stronger.

I’ve often thought the Leafs don’t get enough credit for their defensive play. By that I mean play in their own zone (quite separate from mistakes in the offensive zone or neutral zone that lead to highly dangerous odd-man rushes).

When the Leafs are back, they tend to keep the play to the outside, keep the high-danger shots to a minimum and do a really good job in protecting their goaltenders.

The Leafs are allowing 28.5 shots per game, sixth fewest in the NHL. Perhaps the forwards have learned through the years of questionable goaltending to pay attention to defensive details. Perhaps they continue that trend through a season of mounting injuries on the blue line.

Whatever the case, it’s been effective. The goaltending of Matt Murray has been more than adequate, as was Ilya Samsonov when he was healthy. The scoring chances continue to come.

They have been far from perfect. Auston Matthews has yet to heat up. The lines are yet to settle. The young defence continues to make a few too many mistakes.

But given all that has happened through the first part of the season, the Maple Leafs have to like where they are one quarter of the way in.

To the Mailbag. My apologies, I missed last week due to unforeseen circumstances. So we’re catching up this week. That means some of the questions might be dated, so take that into consideration as you read. Some Börje Salming memories from readers below (sent in before news of his death). Let’s share some more next week in the Mailbag. Send Salming stories, or questions about the Leafs to askkevinmcgran@gmail.com so we can have another Mailbag next week.

Hi Kevin. A slow start to the season with a number of roster changes from last year to work in. The goalie transition appears fine, but the performance and chemistry lost with Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kaše, Ilya Lybushkin and Jason Spezza has hurt. I never see it mentioned but I think the Leafs miss Spezza, on the ice, more than one would think. I don’t care about the “in the room” stuff, but in his limited role last year, his 12 goals, 25 points and appearances on the second PP brought a spark to the team, that none of the replacements have delivered.

The Leafs are a .500 team with 10 wins in 20 games. There are 13 teams who have won more than half of their games. We can’t let the loser point mask our mediocrity and lack of depth. Would you agree?

Thanks

Tom F.

Well, I agree they miss Spezza and Mikheyev and I agree they haven’t found the right mix on their middle two lines. Alex Kerfoot has not been the solution he has usually been, though I think Pontus Holmberg is working out and Pierre Engvall is coming around. Never quite sure what to make of the loser point. You’d have been happy with a tie in the old days, right? (I’d be happy with them now, to be honest) and that’s what the loser point represents. So I think there’s more to the loser point than you give credit for. I imagine you’d think a record of 5-1-4 in the old days was good, while today you’d consider it mediocre. Food for thought.

Hi Kevin, I really enjoy reading your articles in the Star. Just a small correction I’d like to make. The other day you mentioned that at age 35, this past Saturday Jordie Benn was the second oldest player to score his first goal with the Leafs, and Patrick Marleau at 38 years and 109 days was the oldest to do that. I just checked and Mark Giordano (born Oct. 3 in 1983) scored his first goal for the Leafs this past March 31 when he would have been 38 years and 180 days old, making him the oldest to score his first goal as a Leaf.

Keep up the great work!

B.D.

Joe Thornton was also up there when he scored his first goal as a Leaf. If it wasn’t clear in the story, my apologies, but the stat reflected the age of the player scoring his first goal in his FIRST GAME as a Leaf. Like Thornton, it took Giordano to score a few games to score his first as Leaf. Marleau and Benn scored right off the bat.

Saw the big hit by Braden Schneider in recent Rangers-Bruins game. Leafs passed over the big defenceman for Rodion Amirov (who?) in draft. Not sure why when Leafs are a team always looking for a defenceman, right shot too. Schneider has already played over 50 NHL games, I don’t get it? Rangers moved up in draft to pick Schneider. How do you rank scouting departments in the NHL?

If a player has a history of injury concerns, why take a chance on a player? i.e., Jake Muzzin, Matt Murray. I also mentioned in an email to you they should have gotten rid of Muzzin when they could have. Even when he was in the lineup Matthews and Marner were outhitting him. All the hype, but they never know for sure their signings walk the walk? When will they ever learn? If Ottawa didn’t want Murray, let’s throw big money at him. Why?!? So, although a trade to bring in Jakob Chychrun seems like a great idea, perhaps not due to his injury history.

John H.

Wow, lots to unpack there John. First off, I guess you haven’t heard the news on Amirov. He was an excellent prospect and was dominating international tournaments for Russia until he was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour. He’s being treated. But that’s not the sort of thing that can be predicted when drafting. Good for the Rangers for drafting Schneider is all I can say. Looking at drafts five years or 10 years later is always fun. In a redo, Morgan Rielly would have been first overall in 2012, probably. So four teams screwed up there, I suppose you could say.

And I suppose if you want to get “rid of” players with a history of injuries, you wouldn’t have much of a lineup on any team.

Hi Kevin. What’s with Alex Kerfoot??? He has been absolutely ineffective, can’t score, passes when he should be shooting and shooting when he should be passing. Since we lost Ilya Mikheyev we lost all that speed and short-handed goal threat. Kerfoot is badly underachieving and not a threat on short-handed chances because he can’t score goals.

He has been ineffective on the Auston Mathews line and now he’s on the John Tavares line.

He’s not playing like a player whose contract is expiring and this is all on Dubas who traded for him in the Kadri deal.

Kadri won a Cup, what’s Kerfoot done? Tyson Barrie never worked out here either.

Dan W.

Relitigating the trade are we? I won’t bother explaining the two-for-one nature of the deal in a salary cap world. I will agree that Kerfoot has looked terrible on the top two lines. Ideally, he’s the third line centre, but the Leafs don’t have top six winger. That should be Nick Robertson, but it’s not happening for him.

Kev, I have two letters, below.

About Börje: I am old enough to have watched his whole career. In his first season I was truly shocked at how effortless his skating was. And how his stick seemed longer than all the other players’ sticks. He and Ian Turnbull were the perfect partnership. And I remember most of all how he stared down the Broad Street Bullies and the other abuse, and stood his ground. Every game he played forced all of us to admire him more. I will never forget his breakaway goal against the Flyers in the playoffs ….

Although I grew up a Leafs fan, I often wonder what would have been if Salming had found his way to Montreal instead of Toronto. The Big 3 of that era (Savard, Robinson, Lapointe) would have been the Big 4. Just imagine that. He was a profoundly loyal, tough, devoted man.

This is why those of us who had the luck of seeing him in his prime want to believe very much that he will beat this. Watching my other Leafs’ hero — Darryl Sittler — be so emotional at the pre-game on Friday helped me to reflect on how much friendships grow from playing together … the 70s team was so tight. And note to Darryl: We didn’t know Salming as you did, but we all cried with you. Sittler is the epitome of class, and Salming is his equal. When I think about the best Leafs ever, I imagine Horton and Salming as the best Ds. Kev, I am a big Beatles fan, and I often wonder if Sir Paul understands the impact he has had on millions of people. I can say the same about Salming. We love you Börje. Keep fighting.

***

Kev, would like to voice an opinion regarding two former Leafs, Jim Rutherford and Bruce Boudreau. I have lost a lot of respect for Rutherford. He has thrown his coach under the bus in a very public way. I wonder how your readers would feel if their boss said on a public platform that essentially they were not doing a good job. After undermining him, don’t know how Boudreau can focus on the games. In the summer, Rutherford made the point (which he has repeated) that he didn’t hire Bruce, and he only had a small sample (last year) to work with … well, he was not talking about a first-time coach, rather a man with a .631 winning percentage and over 600 wins who has made every team he led better. He hasn’t forgotten how to coach … Rutherford should be ashamed of himself. Not sure why a new coach would want to work for him. I suppose Boudreau will be fired any time now, and it could very well be his last head coaching job. A terrible way to go out for such a players’ coach, great guy and winner.

SJ

Hey, basically your asking all about 1970s Leafs, so you’re kind of giving your age away. The Salming story is incredibly moving. We all feel for him. Thanks for adding your voice to it. As for Rutherford, he has a few more Cups than Boudreau, so he gets to make whatever calls he wants to. The Canucks, to me, might have to bite the bullet and “play for next year” in which case it would make little sense to change coaches now.

In your column you mentioned there are many Börje Salming stories.

I remember the Leafs were playing the Broad Street Bullies in a playoff series. In one game they actually targeted Salming to fight and they pummelled him.

The next game Salming’s face was battered and bruised. Everyone wondered how the beating would affect him. Salming answered by rushing end-to-end, going through the entire Flyer team to score a spectacular goal. Remember that one?

David M

Even if it’s not true, I remember.

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