Well, thank God that’s over. The all-star skills competition may be the league’s marketing department’s idea of an irreverent teen dream, but to me, it comes off as trying-too-hard and embarrasing: we, too, can be as dumbass goofy as NBAers and could you believe it when Patrick Kane wore those sunglasses oh man that was rich, I tell ya: rich! The all-star game used to be a place where Mike Walton would fight Gordie Howe, or where veterans from the previous year’s spring wars would exact vengeance on the league’s Cup champions. It was the season’s first heated battle, where hip checks were thrown and stickblades were eaten. Talk about skills.
If anything, the All-Star weekend—which, this year, robbed hockey fans of six days of game action—provided us with an opportunity to reflect on the first two-thirds of the year, a small blessing, but still. Among the bluebloods, the mirror flatters, partly because of Toronto’s two consecutive wins over the New York Islanders before the break—hardly enough of a reason to buy champagne, let alone pop the cork; although, surely, a few already have—and partly because of the sunny nature of the team’s play, as opposed to the bodies-strewn-about-a-flaming-train-wreck that was supposed to inform the year. Quite a few Maple Leafs have exceeded expectations—only a handful have fallen short—and, overall, team play has been estimable. Even recent losses to Ottawa and Buffalo were close, single-goal events. Actually, close flatters the opposition. The Leafs dominated both games and were beaten by a hot goaltender and their inability to score the killer goal.
As the calendar keens towards the February 27th trade deadline, thoughts turn to how the team can improve, and what pieces should or shouldn’t be moved about. It’s a confounding scenario, partly because the Leafs haven’t been this kind of team for a while; small, fast and good, and lacking the stand-tall leader at whose feet the club’s fortunes rest. Their offensive heroes—Grabovski, Lupul and Kessel—are reclamation stories seasoned through fine chemistry, and their mightiest weed, defenceman Dion Phaneuf, won’t ever be confused for the devour-the-heart-and-spit-out-the-bones Scott Stevens or Chris Pronger type of leader. In fact, in his own way he’s a sweetheart (others might call him another word, but I won’t), and unless Luke Schenn turns into Vladimir Konstantinov, the one thing the D corps will never be is terrifying.
A few days before the all-star break, I met Darryl Sittler outside Maple Leaf Gardens for a story about the 1976 Leafs. After answering a question about those harried Leafs-Flyers’ wars—players like Mel Bridgeman and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz would routinely end up at the cop shop after games; returning months later to face conviction—Sittler tapped me on the chest emphatically to stress a point, and the bruise has nearly faded, six days after getting jolted by the great captain. Just standing next to Sittler gives you the sense that this is the kind of the player lacking on the 2012 Leafs: someone who can throw a flatbed of bodies on his back and lead them across the rough dirt and flattened scrub; someone both hard-shouldered and soft-handed. Someone who is mean, but composed. And strong. And plays centre. Got anyone like that?
Actually: yes. That player is Corey Perry. Perry is Wendel Clark mean and Doug Gilmour good. If I were Brian Burke—I realize that this kind of thought is the domain of sports radio shut-ins, but here I go—I would do everything within my power—again, the suggestion that the Leafs’ GM isn’t doing everything within his power is absurd—to acquire him from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a failing group and one yet to remake itself in new coach Bruce Boudreau’s image (although, true, the Ducks have won five of their last six and are playing better than they have all year). I would give them Grabovski and I would give them Nazim Kadri and I would give them Luke Schenn, and if that weren’t good enough, I would give them Joffrey Lupul; rather, I would give them back Joffrey Lupul. Lupul has been nice—very, very nice—but neither himself nor Kessel nor Grabby possess that Gilmour-Sittler-Keon-Kennedy-Clark intangible: the kind of player who will skate across your throat to get to the puck. If the Leafs have any hope of getting beyond a mere first round apperitif, they have to find that player, and if Bob Murray, the Ducks’ GM and longtime ally and friend of Brian Burke, wants to start rebuilding, Perry should be square within the Leafs’ sights. I can’t see anyone on Toronto’s roster, or on the AHL Marlies, becoming this type of player. Only one option, it seems: go and get him.