Sports

Past playoff failures shouldnt be an issue for Mitch Marner

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The numbers don’t change — but the player has.

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The Mitch Marner who didn’t score against Montreal last year, against Columbus the year before, in the final six games against Boston before that, is not the Mitch Marner who will suit up for the Maple Leafs on Monday night against the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

This is a dangerous Marner. This is a 35-goal scorer: In the previous two shorter seasons he had scored 36 combined. This is one of the best playmakers in hockey who has increased his arsenal with a quick release and a surprising touch this season.

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Marner knows better than anyone it has been 18 games since he last scored in the playoffs. Marner keeps track of things like that. He expects to excel. The way Auston Matthews expects to score goals.

Now both have to do what they haven’t done before — be great in the postseason for the Leafs. They have to do it individually and they have to do it together.

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But in the past, truly, Marner wasn’t much of a threat to score. He was fourth in the NHL in points a year ago but with only 20 goals. He’s 10th in this uptick of a scoring season with more points than last season and with 35 goals scored, almost double his previous total.

The playoff numbers will haunt Marner until he changes them himself. This Marner can score, though, and should score. That hasn’t been the case before. It could be a difference-maker for the Leafs.

THIS AND THAT

The challenge for the Leafs is gigantic in Round 1. All they have to do is beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the best goalie in the world and the best defenceman in the world, and probably the best coach in the world. That’s all … If you have first pick in your playoff fantasy hockey draft, who are you taking? I’m thinking Johnny Gaudreau or Nathan MacKinnon, because one of them, I believe, is going to be playing for the Cup. Just not sure which one … Can’t make sense of the Eastern Conference. It’s too close. Who wins between Tampa Bay and Toronto? Who wins Carolina and Boston? Who wins Rangers and Pittsburgh? My only sure thing in the first round is Florida over Washington … In the West, Calgary beats Dallas, Edmonton beats Los Angeles, Colorado takes out Nashville, and Minnesota and St. Louis are going to overtime in Game 7. As a friend pointed out, that series is going to be so tough the reporters covering it will be bruised and battered by the end of it … Teams that can win the Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay, Florida, Toronto, Rangers, Carolina with Freddie Andersen. Teams in the West that can win: Calgary, Colorado, and the survivor of Minnesota-St. Louis. That’s a lot of contenders … It’s hard to do hockey play-by-play. It’s especially hard to be great at it. Few are. Dennis Beyak was and so was Rick Jeanneret. Both are stepping aside now although I wish Beyak was staying. Winnipeg needs him … Kirill Kaprizov was the rookie of the year last year and a longshot Hart Trophy candidate this year. A pretty amazing first two NHL seasons for the 24-year-old in Minnesota. If he played in Canada, everybody would be talking about him … The betting here is that Calgary’s Elias Lindholm will get overlooked for the Selke Trophy and it will wind up with one of the usual suspects Patrice Bergeron or Sasha Barkov. Lindholm, centring the best line in hockey, deserves the award this season … The good Morgan Rielly news. He was on the ice for more goals at even strength among defencemen, 105 than all but two NHL defencemen — Cale Makar and MacKenzie Weegar. The bad Morgan Rielly news: He was on the ice for more goals against, 89, than any defenceman on a playoff team.

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HEAR AND THERE

Four starts for Yusei Kikuchi as a Blue Jay, four losses for the Jays. Average innings per start: 3.6. And two more seasons after this one at $12 million a shot. It’s over to you, Pete Walker … Alek Manoah has made 24 starts as a Blue Jay over two seasons. The Jays are 20-4 in those games. Manoah will be paid $730,000 for the season. Kikuchi will be paid around $400,000 a start … The best home-developed starting pitchers in Blue Jays history are Dave Stieb and Roy Halladay. Maybe followed by Jimmy Key, Pat Hentgen, and David Wells. Manoah looks like the real deal early on … Houston has a player named Siri. I keep wanting to ask him to call one of my friends … Why wouldn’t Major League Baseball throw the Alomar book at Trevor Bauer. Whatever he’s done is apparently deserving of more than two years of suspensions. Why not just remove Bauer from the game, the way they removed Roberto Alomar … Should commissioner Rob Manfred not take a stand with the umpire’s union and say incompetence will no longer be tolerated. It’s best for baseball, for the umpire’s union, for everybody, to get rid of those who can’t distinguish between a ball and a strike … The most disappointing teams in hockey this season: 1. Vegas; 2. Montreal; 3. Winnipeg; 4. Philadelphia … The best athlete in the world nobody talks about: Tennis star Iga Swiatek … Brampton’s John Metchie, the wide receiver from Alabama, was drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans, who have Davis Mills as their quarterback, which is neither good for Houston nor for young Metchie. Houston traded up to get the Canadian WR.

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SCENE AND HEARD

The goal for Scottie Barnes this summer: Work on his shooting. The 76ers basically allowed Barnes to shoot from outside in Game 6 without bothering to cover him. He shot 16.7% from three-point land in the playoffs. If he can become a threat from the outside, develop a jumper, it makes him all the more dangerous on the inside. He had a remarkable rookie season with the Raptors. He can become one of the great players in the NBA with a little fine-tuning … Pascal Siakam made the jump this season and this playoff season, from a good player to a great player to a possible bust to a great player again over a three-year period. If Siakam is your No. 1 offensive option next season and Barnes is second — and you have O.G. Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., and Fred VanVleet around them — there are your 100 points a night. You just have to figure out how and where — and who else gets the ball … One thing the Raptors are going to have to learn on offence — playing faster. You watch the successful playoff teams to date. They move the ball so quickly. Toronto’s offence is a touch too stagnant … Time was, the first round of the NBA playoffs was predictable and sometimes unwatchable and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was must-see TV. For some reason, this season, the first round of the NBA playoffs was hockey-like, remarkable, with memorable game after memorable game … Canadians still alive in the NBA playoffs: Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke on Memphis; Andrew Wiggins on Golden State; Dwight Powell on Dallas. All of them contributing. And what a terrific playoff for the pending free agent, Chris Boucher, who shot 61% for the Raptors and 40% for threes against Philadelphia … The Raptors essentially knocked the 76ers out of the playoffs by inadvertently knocking out Joel Embiid and his airplane act.

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AND ANOTHER THING

This is baseball in 2022: Five New York Mets pitchers combine on a no-hitter Friday night. Great moments, no names. The sport needs help … Goal scoring is way up in the NHL this season unless you happen to be Phil Kessel. The ironman managed just eight goals this season. Six at even strength. He’s a free agent come July … Was given a copy of Sport Magazine from 1961. The cover story: An urgent plan to end gambling scandals in sports … And today, you can’t turn on your television or radio without getting sports gambling advice primarily from those who know little about it. And where, please tell, is Cash Pomer when you need him? … This is the world in 2022: Al Sobotka, best known for picking up octopus off the ice in Detroit and driving the Zamboni, has been fired for urinating in an apparent public place. Sometimes, when you gotta go, you gotta go … Selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft: Michael Clemons. The pick right after him, Coby Bryant. No relation in either case … The department of awkward: Walking down the hallway toward the Raptors dressing room Thursday night after the Game 6 defeat, Drake reached out to hug me. I kind of froze. I suspect he thought I was someone important … I’m keeping a list of memorable quotes from Toronto general managers Bobby Webster and Ross Atkins: To date, I have none … Ryan Getzlaf’s retirement got all kinds of play, and deservedly so. Dustin Brown’s retirement — not so much. Getzlaf was central to Anaheim’s Stanley Cup win in 2007. Brown captained two Los Angeles Kings teams to win Cups in 2012 and 2014. Among Brown’s greatest accomplishments: Overcoming his childhood stuttering to become comfortable as a spokesman for a great NHL team … Pretty amazing that Southern California won three Stanley Cups in an eight-year period where Ontario has been waiting 55 years for the Cup and Quebec has been waiting 29 years … Happy birthday to William Nylander (26), Timothy Liljegren (23), Jaccob Slavin (28), Chris Kreider (31), Isiah Thomas (61), Roy Lee Jackson (68), Margene Adkins (75), Wes Welker (41), Steve Smith (59), Bryan Marchment (53), Amir Johnson (35) and Clint Malarchuk (61) … And hey, whatever became of Lonny Bohonos?

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PITCHERS HAVE ADJUSTED TO BICHETTE, NOW HE NEEDs TO HIT BACK 

Their names have always been linked together — Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The present and the future of the Toronto Blue Jays. The kids who grew up together, sons of big leaguers, who won together in the minors, have that special individual hugging moment after every home run.

It’s always been Bo and Vladdy. Vladdy and Bo. At least, until recently.

Guerrero is off to a decent start as the first month of the major league season comes to a close. He isn’t dominating the way he did a year ago but that might not be possible. The question now is: What about Bichette?

And is it possible that Guerrero is separating from Bichette, the way the two of them separated from their third Amigo, Cavan Biggio, about a year ago?

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And another question: Has baseball figured out Bichette this early in his career, throwing him an assortment of fastballs and nothing else? Or is this just a forgettable month for the young shortstop?

He’s 68th in the American League in batting. He’s near the bottom in home runs and the top in strikeouts. He looks uncomfortable at the plate almost every at-bat.

This is what happens sometimes in baseball. They adjust. You adjust. They adjust some more. You adjust some more. Some hitters, like Vernon Wells, never found their way again after some sensational seasons. Bichette should be better than that.

This is the greatest challenge he’s faced in his young career – where until now, almost everything at the plate seemed so natural for him.

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NHLPA FINALLY GETS RID OF FEHR … NOW WHAT?

Donald Fehr is essentially being pushed out as executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. The question: What took the players’ this long to come to a decision they should have determined years ago?

This is, in fact, a deep-rooted problem with most professional hockey players. They don’t really care about their union or its leadership until they need it to accomplish something: And then they find out they have the wrong man in charge.

Alan Eagleson, who essentially started the union, wound up going to prison. Bob Goodenow, who vowed there would never be a salary cap on his watch, cost the players a whole season of salary, lost a negotiation to commissioner Gary Bettman (which everyone does), and wound up being booted out once the players accepted the salary cap. Ted Saskin took over after Goodenow and he was shown the door after being caught reading players’ emails.

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Paul Kelly had a short reign which no one really understood and then Fehr took over and spent way too many years leading the players nowhere. He lost in negotiations to Bettman. He failed to negotiate the players’ into the 2018 Winter Olympics, much to the demise of the stars. He was paid a giant salary and was barely noticed until the PA embarrassed itself with the look the other way treatment of the Kyle Beach circumstance.

The truth is: Not enough NHL players have ever been involved enough to realize the lack of leadership they’ve had over the years. By their own disinterest, they get what they deserve. And now it’s time to pick a new leader.

MCDAVID’S TALENT NEEDS TO SHINE IN THE PLAYOFFS

This is Connor McDavid’s seventh season in the NHL and so many of his numbers border on the impossible. He has already won four scoring championships. He is a two-time winner of the Hart Trophy and a candidate to win again this year. In a rather short time, he has become almost singular in his ability to dominate NHL scoring.

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Wayne Gretzky won nine scoring titles in his career and that likely will never be matched. But Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux — you may have heard of them — won six Art Ross Trophies. Phil Esposito and Jaromir Jagr won five apiece. Stan Mikita won four.

McDavid is almost certain to jump Esposito and Jagr and to move within distance of Howe and Lemieux in the not too distant future.

And all of this happening without any real playoff success.

Sidney Crosby, with one scoring title in his career, had won one Stanley Cup and played for another in his first seven NHL seasons. In his first 68 playoff games, he scored 90 points.

Lemieux didn’t make the playoffs until his sixth season and won the Cup in his seventh: And the Conn Smythe Trophy along with it. In his first 34 playoff games, he scored 63 points.

McDavid has played just 21 Stanley Cup games to date, scoring 11 goals and 22 points in all. Decent numbers, just not usual McDavid numbers. Four series played so far in Edmonton, three defeats. This is a year with some promise. At least for two rounds.

After that, it might take a superhuman effort for the Oilers to advance. The kind McDavid is capable of and overdue for.

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