When Punch Imlach coached the four-Cup Maple Leafs (1962-64 and 1967), he divided the seasons in half.
In Punch's mind every game from October through Christmas was taken seriously. No question. But when it came to the second half games, Imlach treated them with more seriousness than the others.
But that was so long ago, only Toronto fans remember what glorious event happened in 1967.
What I'm focused on is the here, the now and precisely who looks like the Cup-winner next spring when Auston Mathews' mustache becomes a beard.
I now go on record telling you that Toronto will win The Stanley Cup next spring. Like Imlach's Leafs, they haven't even zoomed into their highest gear. But that will happen at the turn of a calendar. And, no, they don't miss Zach Hyman.
Naturally, others -- especially the "Show Me" cynics -- will disagree and, for that reason, I hereby open a very-mini town hall on the subject. I want to hear what some "Non-Insiders" think.
My un-scientific survey is based on pure thought -- and no analytics, if you please. Call it "Off-The-Top-Of-Your-Head" stuff. But it's fun and nobody's feelings are hurt except, perhaps, the figure-filberts of Analytics Land.
My "experts" simply are smart hockey-watchers with absolutely no axes, swords nor bayonets to grind.
(Read the first (Matt Fineman) analysis carefully because it goes a long way toward explaining my position.)
1. MAPLE LEAFS: Long Island-based tv producer Matt Fineman comes to the point: "Toronto checks all the boxes. Depth, Scoring, Secondary scoring, Goaltending, Leadership. Special Teams, Coaching and All-In Ownership."
Fineman agrees that it will be a major challenge but makes a solid point about coaching. "Sheldon Keefe won the Calder Cup with the Marlies. If his Leafs can survive the loaded East, they'll win it all." RUNNER-UP: VEGAS: "They're battle-tested and Peter DeBoer already has guided them to the NHL Final Four. This time they'll get to the Final Round -- and bow to Toronto."
2. LIGHTNING: Manhattan tax counselor Noam Kogen rejects Toronto out of hand. "The Leafs are not as good as their record indicates. Plus, their defense is suspect. I go with the Champs because they know how to win. They have the NHL's best goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy and clutch players such as Steve Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Braydon Point and Victor Hedman who all are clutch players. Jon Cooper is terrific and almost never gets out-coached." RUNNER-UP: CALGARY: "The Flames are well-balanced with a tough Jacob Markstrom in goal. But Tampa Bay is better."
3. AVALANCHE: Four-book author Matthew Blittner of Brooklyn says,"I spoke with ESPN's John Bucigross and he touted the Panthers. But I'm convinced that the winner will come from the West. Colorado is solid in almost every area although an upgrade in goal would make them even better." RUNNER-UP: "Pittsburgh will surprise a lot of people; same as Montreal did last year. The Penguins have succeeded -- despite endless injuries -- 'til now because of Mike Sullivan. Right now he's my coach-of-year choice, but he won't beat the Avalanche.
4. HURRICANES: Seattle-based hockey scribe-podcast host-producer-entrepreneur Glenn Dryfuss picks the Canes by asking a question and then answering it: "Find me a weakness in Carolina? They have none. But every other team in the East does. Toronto is burdened with unproven mental toughness, Florida's goals against is scary, and that goes for Washington's goaltending. Tampa has lost one of its best lines and, as for the Rangers, they've had one of the softest schedules so far. In the West, it has to be Colorado. The Avs are poised to make it an 'All-Adams Division' Final with the Canes being a bit stronger enough to take Stanley.
5. LIGHTNING: Toronto-based hockey scribe Mike Augello goes with the Champs, "Despite injuries to top stars -- Kucherov, Point -- the Bolts are still on top. Each of their contenders have flaws." Mike likes the Knights all the way in the West. "In the end," Mike concludes, "I take the Bolts in seven over Vegas!"
6. LIGHTNING: Hockey author George Grimm of Suffern, N.Y. believes in the Bolts surviving Carolina and moving to a Final against Vegas. Along with others, George cites the goaltending advantage (Vasilevskiy) who tops the Knights' Robin Lehner. Grimm sees a remarkable third straight Cup for Jon Cooper's team.
7. PANTHERS: Also from Toronto, author-reporter Rob Del Mundo has facts to back his pick. "Florida is the 'sleeper' team with plenty of assets," Rob asserts. "Sergei Bobrovsky has rebounded well in goal and Aaron Eblad is looking like a Norris candidate. Add the fire power of Jon Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov and you have a strong contender." Rob picks the Avs as runner-up. " Florida in six."
WHY TORONTO WILL WIN: I go with the Leafs for seven reasons:
A. Tampa will fade because of attrition; B. The Law of Averages says that Toronto's time has come: C. Jack Campberll's game has been lifted to a Vezina level; D. Coaching is first-rate; E. With Marner's help, Tavares will finally deliver;
F. Maturity has resulted in mental toughness; G. Motivation is sky-high. They'll take Calgary in six with Campbell, the Conn Smythe-winner!
I'M JUST SAYIN' (TEN TIMES WORTH)
1. KING CONNOR'S IDEA: Captain McDavid's idea for a non-Olympic Best Vs. Best is a good one. What's really challenging is the how, when and where of it. If Connor's agile brain can figure that equation, we'll have to strike a new trophy for him.
2. GRETZKY ON OVIE: Ever the sportsman, The Great One predicts that The Great Eight eventually will break Wayne's goal-scoring record. Right now, that's a reasonable bet. Matter of fact it reminds me of when Rocket Richard opined that soon-or-later Gordie Howe would top Richard's red light mark -- and Gordie eventually obliged.
3. LABOR PIECE: If anything possibly can be extracted from the Pandemic, it's the fact that the NHL and the NHLPA have never cooperated more closely on vital issues than since this awful disease infected our planet. Good for Gary Bettman. Good for Donald Fehr.
4. THE EXTRA LEAF: Whether it's because of having Marner on his wing or not, Tavares is looking more like the hockey player whose game almost is matching his oversized salary.
5. MELNYK'S POINT: Senators owner Eugene Melnyk reminds us that when Dom Hasek was hurt in the 2006 Olympics, it cost Ottawa a very good chance at winning the Stanley Cup that year.
6. RETIREMENTS COMING: Two of the very best people I've ever met are retiring. Terry Crisp as Preds tv analyst and Gerry Helper, Nashville's A-1 p.r. ace. I know Crispy from his player days. Smart, funny, affable. And Gerry from his NHL and Buffalo days. Available, helpful and just an all-round swell fellow.
Both will be missed.
7. A BEANTOWN RETURN: I expect that Tuukka Rask will be starting in goal for Boston within a month.
8. USA ADVANCING: I get the feeling that Uncle Sam is producing more NHL players than ever and two Rangers call-ups brought this to mind. Defenseman Zac Jones is from Richmond, Virginia while forward Tim Gottinger hails from Cleveland, Ohio.
9. GOOD FOR JOHNNY AND DAVID: USA Hockey picked two good men to steer their non-NHLers through the Olympic shoals. Yay to Beezer and The Quinn Man.
10. HAPPY, HEALTHY NEW YEAR TO ALL!
THE NON-NHL OLYMPIANS: Now that Brad Marchant has exercised his constitutional right to beef about non-NHL Olympic participation, how about we all cheer for the Team USA and Team Canada stickhandlers who will be vying for Gold. Let's face it, either team could turn this into a "We against the World" theme and surprise everyone with a Gold.
A CHALLENGE -- AND LESSON -- FOR JON COOPER
After the ramrod Detroit Red Wings bulldozed their way through the 1952 playoffs with eight straight wins -- first Toronto and then Montreal -- the Motor City boys were regarded as one of the strongest teams ever! And why not? Future Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk, among other aces, were in their prime.
That explains why the Wings were overwhelming favorites a year later to bop the Bruins in the first playoff round. In fact, Detroit won the opening playoff game in that 1953 series, 7-0. But the Beantowners rebounded to take the round, four games to two.
Let that be a lesson to Jon Cooper and his double-champ Bolts. Cockiness can kill a successful club. Coop has to guard against it; those '53 Wings did not.
A CAREER ON THE LINE:
At age 27, Matt Murray should be in the prime of his goaltending career.
Instead, Double-M's big-league future is hanging by a gossamer string. Recalled by g.m. Pierre Dorion, the onetime-two-time Cup-winner in Pittsburgh has not come remotely close to duplicating those halcyon days.
That's the bad news.The good news is that Murray is getting another shot at the Sens varsity. It could be a career-saver.
WHO SAID IT? "If I wasn't coaching hockey, I'd be driving the Zamboni!" (Answer below)
GOOD QUESTION DEPARTMENT: Could Connor Bedard become the next Connor McDavid? (Good answer in about five years.)
ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Frequent NHL coach Tom McVie!