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Your Berger Fix

December 5, 2005, 7:59 AM ET
Howard Berger
Toronto Maple Leafs Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
TORONTO (Dec. 5) Somewhat lost in the uninspiring effort the Maple
Leafs turned in against San Jose on Saturday night a blown 3-1 lead
that became a 5-4 defeat was the expected milestone achieved by
captain Mats Sundin, who assisted on Darcy Tucker's first-period goal
to move past hall of famer Borje Salming and into third place on the
Leafs' all-time scoring list. Sundin and Salming, of course, both hail
from Sweden.

The question now is: Will Sundin remain a Leaf player long enough to
overtake Darryl Sittler for top spot overall? He has to average 80.5
points this season and next to match Sittler's 916-point total before
his current pact with the team expires. And, I've made it known several
times in this forum that I'm not convinced Sundin will automatically
re-up with the Blue & White in the summer of 2007. He may well
choose to finish his career with another NHL club one he believes
will provide him a better opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.

In order to become the Leafs' all-time scoring leader, Mats will have
to somehow avoid the freakish type of injury that cost him 12 games
early this season when he was clunked in the eye by a stray puck. He
has certainly proven capable of recording the 147 remaining points to
match Sittler again, an average of 80.5 this campaign and next. In 14
NHL seasons prior to the current one, Sundin has averaged 77.8 points
per year... that average bumping to 80.2 points when you erase the
lockout-shortened 48-game schedule of 1994-95 and factor in only
seasons that have been 80 games or more.

Going into Tuesday night's home game with the Los Angeles Kings, Sundin
is 89 points in back of Dave Keon for second place on the Leafs'
all-time list a spot he should claim, at his career pace, around
Christmas of next season. That would leave him with 58 points to equal
Sittler before his contract runs out. One might think this would be an
easier feat to accomplish in the new attack-friendly NHL, but it must
be remembered that Sundin is going to be 35 years old in February, and
has never been graced with prolific wingers during his time in a
Toronto uniform. So, the challenge will be a steep one unless, of
course, he re-signs with the Leafs beyond the 2006-07 season.

I had an opportunity to chat with Sittler on Sunday afternoon. He
played eight-and-a-half seasons with Salming in Toronto, before the
trade that sent him to Philadelphia in January, 1982. Sittler passed
Keon for top spot in Leafs' scoring late in the 1980-81 season, meaning
he has carried the mantle for almost a quarter-century. As such, he is
not at all taken aback that someone has finally played with the club
long enough and well enough to threaten his mark.

"Frankly, I'm surprised it has lasted this long," Sittler said. "With
all the years that have passed, and the players who have recorded 1,000
points or more in their careers, it could have easily happened with a
Maple Leaf. I've never really been one to measure the worth of a player
totally on points scored, anyway. To me, there are so many other
factors that go into being a complete player and a good teammate. But,
it's been nice to hold this statistic for as long as I have. And, if
Mats is to be the player who passes me, then he'll have earned it and
he'll deserve it."

Sittler has great memories of his years playing with both Keon and
Salming. He was Keon's young teammate from 1970-71 to 1974-75, at which
point Keon was rudely dismissed by Leafs' owner Harold Ballard and
signed on with Minnesota of the World Hockey Association. That decision
as poorly handled as it was by Ballard did allow Sittler to assume
the undisputed role of No. 1 centre with the Leafs... veteran Norm Ullman
also having bitterly departed after the '74-75 campaign.

Around the midway point of the following season 1975-76 Sittler
blossomed into one of the top half-dozen middlemen in the NHL, and it
coincided with the development of Salming from a hesitant rookie and
sophomore to a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman. Along with Ian
Turnbull, Lanny McDonald, Errol Thompson, Dave (Tiger) Williams and
goalie Mike Palmateer, that Leaf era was easily the best of Ballard's
18-year ownership tenure.

"It's quite an accomplishment for Mats to pass Borje on the team
scoring list," acknowledged Sittler. "Borje was probably the most
talented and best conditioned teammate I ever had. He was tremendous at
rushing the puck, and I often benefited from his ability to hit me in
full stride with a perfect pass. Had it not been for the dominant
Montreal teams of that era, with their Big Three on the blue line
Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe I think Borje would
have easily won the Norris Trophy at least once.

"His point totals speak for themselves, but what I remember most about
him was his incredible stamina. He was the type of guy who could have
played all 60 minutes in a game and not been tired. For those who never
saw Borje in his prime, I can tell you that Mats has certainly passed
one very special player."

Sittler clearly remembers leapfrogging Keon for top spot in the Leafs'
scoring list, but he never considered it a phenomenal achievement. "It
wasn't a reflection on Davey at all," Sittler said. "His era was quite
a bit different from mine, when there were many more 100-point scorers
per season. So, the numbers don't tell a completely accurate story. It
was an honor to spend my first five years as Davey's teammate. He is,
and will always be considered one of the best players in franchise
history, and he could really do it all. He was as good defensively as
he was with the puck; he had a great backhand shot, and he was as
tremendous a skater as anyone in the NHL. Scoring points was only a
part of his overall game."

As all Leaf fans are infinitely aware, the club has not made it past
the Stanley Cup semifinals since its last championship, in 1967.
Toronto advanced to the penultimate round only once in Sittler's tenure
after upsetting the favored New York Islanders in the 1978
quarterfinals. The Leafs were then overwhelmed by the powerful
Canadiens. Pat Quinn's Leaf teams have twice played into the semifinals
losing to Buffalo in 1999 and Carolina in 2002. But, Sittler told me
there is only one Toronto club that reminds him of the good teams he
played on.

"The '93 team, led by Doug Gilmour," he said. "It was a group that
really came together, if I remember, around the mid-season mark just
like we did in that [1975-76] season. Then they got hot and almost made
it to the Cup final, losing in the seventh game [of the semis] to Los
Angeles. That's the kind of a team the fans like to identify with.
Several really good players leading a whole bunch of hard workers. It's
the kind of teams Borje and I played on, and that's why it should be
special for Mats to pass Borje on the scoring list."

It is incredible to think that the 30th anniversary of Sittler's
NHL-record 10-point game is just more than two months away. I was
sitting in the corner Reds at Maple Leaf Gardens on that Saturday
night, February 7th, 1976, as a disbelieving 17-year-old, watching
Sittler dismantle a blazing-hot Boston team, 11-4. The Bruins were
coached by Don Cherry. Thirty years... unreal.

* *

I had a rather unique experience this past Saturday night, sitting in
the stands for the first time at a Maple Leafs game at the Air Canada
Centre (the arena opened in February, 1999). I took my son, Shane, to
the game also his first at the A.C.C., though he's been with me in
several arenas on the road over the past five years. I found it
interesting listening to and observing the fans around me. They seemed
to have very little patience for goalie Ed Belfour, who did not enjoy
one of his finest hours in the loss to the Sharks. And they like many
of us in the media, and Quinn, himself appear driven to distraction
by the club's unwillingness to shoot the puck, unless it's Bryan McCabe
with a wide-open chance on a powerplay.

There was also some personal irony in taking my son to his first Leaf
game on Saturday. It just happened to be exactly 39 years to the night
my father first took me to see the Leafs play Sat. Dec. 3, 1966
against Detroit in Maple Leaf Gardens. That game was shown on LEAFS TV
sometime last year, as part of the station's popular "Sunday Night
Classics" series, and I now have it on videotape. Paul Henderson, still
playing with Detroit, skated around that night looking rather
ridiculous in a surgeon's mask the result of a virus he had
contracted. Henderson wasn't yet wearing a helmet, so you could see the
bands of the mask tied off on the back of his head. It must have taken
some courage on his part.

Speaking of Ed Belfour, I'm starting to believe that Quinn might have a
goaltending issue on his plate. Though Belfour has turned in a handful
of scintillating performances, he has not developed the consistency
that is almost always part of his repertoire by this stage of a season.
Whether he's merely late in establishing that routine after the
lockout, or has simply seen his best NHL days, should be answered in
fairly short order. If by the start of 2006, Belfour is not stringing
together good outings like in the past, Quinn could be faced with a
dilemma. He has never been a coach to criticize or admonish his No. 1
Maple Leaf netminders, preferring to allow either Curtis Joseph or
Belfour to work out the kinks without interrupting their playing
rotation. But, Quinn does appear to have a confident and capable
back-up this season in Mikael Tellqvist, who is developing into a
legitimate NHL puck-stopper. The Swedish native recorded his first NHL
shutout in a 4-0 blanking of the Atlanta Thrashers last Thursday night
at Philips Arena, and clearly would like more of an opportunity to
strut his stuff. Quinn, however, would have to break the mold for that
to happen, which might not be a bad thing for the Leafs. Belfour is
still clearly the No. 1 man, but he doesn't yet seem capable of
handling his usual 60 to 65-game workload with the same level of
competence. It might be doubly important for Quinn to work in Tellqvist
more often not only to help his team during the regular season, but
also to keep Belfour from hitting a wall of fatigue in the playoffs,
should the Leafs qualify. It's a situation that bears watching.

* *

As bored as I am, quite frankly, of the NHLPA shenanigans, I can't help
but notice how the fallout from the lost NHL season, and the spanking
from the owners, has apparently hindered the reputation of some pretty
solid people. Wasn't it only a year ago so many of us were saying that
if Ted Saskin and Bill Daly were the front men for the players and
owners rather than the intractable Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman a
deal would have likely materialized to save at least a part of last
season? It seemed, for all appearances, that Saskin and Daly were far
more moderate and reasonable than their immediate superiors, yet look
at the pickle Saskin finds himself in today.

Then there is Saskin's unshakable right-hand man, Trevor Linden. I
can't think of too many NHL players who have been considered as
professional and classy as the veteran forward during the past
decade-and-a-bit. Who can forget the role Linden played in helping
Quinn's Vancouver Canucks advance to Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup
final, only to lose to the New York Rangers in the best championship
series I've ever seen? Now look at Linden. He is the butt of criticism
from dissident players all over the league for the role he's allegedly
played in the contentious (some say illegal) hiring of Saskin to
replace the departed Goodenow.

There is also Mike Gartner, one of the finest people I've met in my
years covering the Maple Leafs and the NHL for The Fan-590 here in
Toronto. Gartner is simply a nice person, who speaks kindly to others,
and always seems to be walking around with a pleasant smile. I still
treasure my time spent around him during the parts of three seasons he
played for the Leafs (1993-94 to 1995-96). Though he never skated on a
team that threatened to win the Stanley Cup (the Rangers traded him to
Toronto three months before their '94 championship), Gartner did score
more than 700 career goals, and there were a lot of happy faces when he
was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001 mine among them. Yet,
Mike is also embroiled in this NHLPA fiasco, and has chosen not to
speak publicly about the controversy swirling around Saskin.

For the sake of these three individuals and a bevy of otherwise
decent people I'm hoping the current mess will be resolved in a
manner that allows them to retain their hard-earned reputations, though
I concede that might be a bit much to expect.

E-mail your comments to [email protected]
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