SIMMONS: Like all the great ones, Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews is inventing a new way to play the game - Canadanewsmedia
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SIMMONS: Like all the great ones, Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews is inventing a new way to play the game

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Wayne Gretzky scored more goals than anyone in hockey history, yet by sight alone, he would never be considered just a pure and natural goal scorer. He was so much more than that.

He invented new ways to play. He made his office behind the opposing net a part of modern hockey. He saw things no one else saw, slowed the game down the way no one has ever slowed it down, turned the game into advanced trigonometry on ice, the study of angles and triangles. He turned the turn-up into something other than a vegetable.

The greatest in all of sports do that, become special by doing what no one has done before, leaving their mark and their signature on the game they play.

Gretzky did that and in different ways — and so did Mario Lemieux and now Sidney Crosby — inventing a whole different way to play, with more bursts and stops and less finesse and power through his legs and his edging on the ice and his non-stop competitive spirit.


From left: Leafs Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, John Tavares and Mitchell Marner celebrate Matthews second goal of the game versus Dallas on Tuesday night. GETTY IMAGES

Auston Matthews isn’t easily defined in his third NHL season, but he’s reaching the place that makes the great ones different. He does so many different things well. There is a little bit of Lemieux in him, the way he likes to burst through the neutral zone and use his size and reach and strength.

There is a little bit of Brett Hull in him, and maybe a touch of Mike Bossy. How he shoots the puck, quickly, and from places other players can’t find. The angles. The lining up of the defending players. The quickness of delivery.

Like Gretzky, like Lemieux, like Phil Esposito, they all scored a ton of goals — Gretzky’s were so much finesse, Lemieux’s were sheer beauty and power and art, Esposito was never a painter, he was a pragmatic goal scorer, someone who could use his size and shape and width and hands to score.

His game wasn’t at all like Matthews’ is now, except they both had the knack.

With opportunities come goals. Seven in four games this season, in this third NHL season for young Matthews, after a disappointing seven-game series against Boston last May, after a summer of monster work on his game.

This Matthews is bigger, stronger, faster, more determined, more confident, more understanding of what he can and can’t do than he was in his first two years. We haven’t seen the best of him yet: That happens over time.

Yet he leads all of hockey with seven goals, the most difficult player in the NHL to control until Connor McDavid, who plays a completely different style in Edmonton, kicks into gear.


Edmonton Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky was at his greatest after the age of 24. How good can Auston Matthews, who is just 21, really be? POSTMEDIA NETWORK FILE

Gretzky was so different from Lemieux in size and shape and style of play and Bobby Hull was so different from Gordie Howe, who was different from Rocket Richard. Later came Bobby and then Brett Hull and Alexander Ovechkin.

Matthews is still so young. The best of Gretzky came when he was 24 and older. The best of Lemieux and Ovechkin came after the ages of 23 and 24. Matthews just turned 21.

Whatever it was we thought he could become when the Maple Leafs drafted him in Buffalo in 2016, he is growing into more than that. He’s leaving his mark already. He’s scoring goals the way few centres have scored goals over the past several decades.

The past 20 winners of the goal-scoring title — and for the past 19 years the Rocket Richard Trophy has been presented for that — have been mostly wingers. Sixteen of the past 20 years, wingers led the NHL in scoring.

Steven Stamkos and Crosby and, in an outlier year of sorts, Vinny Lecavalier led all goal-scoring. But over that time, Ovechkin has led for a record seven times, the same number Bobby Hull once led by. Howe led five times with Gretzky winning the same number. Lemieux won the goal-scoring title just three times.

Most centres set up goals. This season in Toronto, Matthews and John Tavares are scoring them at a crazy pace in the early going. This is relatively new for Tavares, skating on this magnificent Maple Leafs power play, working with the gifted playmaker Mitch Marner

But in nine previous seasons, he’s only scored more goals than assists once, and that came in a 48-game season.

In most of his 82-game seasons, Tavares has been assist first, score second, the way the position is usually meant to be played.

Matthews’ developing game doesn’t work that way. He has scored 81 goals in 148 NHL games — all on an entry-level contract and without a good deal of power-play time before this season.

He might score 50 this year. He might score 50 next year. The leap from Year 2 to Year 3 has been easy to surmise and quantify from the moment training camp began. This pace can’t be kept up — no player can score that much — but how much can Auston Matthews score?

How many goals? How many Rocket Richard Trophies will he win? Can he reach the six Esposito won, the most from any centre, at a time when the sport was so different than it is today? Will his shot be like Ovechkin’s, like Brett Hull’s, the kind of shot goalies never seem to be able to figure out?

Along the way, he is inventing a new game that is his and his alone. The way Gretzky once did, the way Lemieux once did, the way Connor McDavid is doing in Edmonton: The great ones are originals who paint their own canvases, turn artistry into sport.

Auston Matthews is just beginning on this trail. The possibilities are endless.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

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Brian Burke considered favourite to replace Don Cherry

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The Canadian Press


Published Tuesday, November 12, 2019 10:56AM EST


Last Updated Tuesday, November 12, 2019 11:09AM EST

TORONTO – Former NHL executive Brian Burke is listed as the heavy favourite to be Don Cherry‘s successor on “Hockey Night in Canada” on one sports betting site.

SportsBettingDime.com has released odds on candidates to replace Cherry after the commentator was sacked by Sportsnet yesterday for a rant about immigrants not wearing poppies on his “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday.

Burke, who currently works as an analyst at Sportsnet, is listed as the 3-2 favourite (must bet $2 to win $3) to appear on Cherry‘s longtime “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday.

Burke is the 5-4 pick to be the full-time replacement next season.

Sportsnet has not said whether it plans to keep the “Coach’s Corner” segment, which has been a first-intermission staple on HNIC.

Sportsnet hockey commentators Kelly Hrudey, Colby Armstrong and Craig Simpson are among the other betting favourites for Cherry’s job.

The site also is taking odds on what Cherry does next, with working for another media organization the favourite.

If he goes into politics, the odds consider Cherry’s most likely destination to be under Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Conservative party.

Cherry is listed as a 2,000-1 pick to join the NDP.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.

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Equestrian star Nicole Walker suspended

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In this Aug. 9, 2019, file photo, Nicole Walker competes at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games. Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images

Canada’s equestrian jumping team is likely to lose their invitation to the Tokyo Olympics after rider Nicole Walker tested positive for a banned substance, a cocaine metabolite, at last summer’s Pan American games.

Walker, aged 26, was a top performer at the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, and her scores helped qualify the four-member jumping team for the Olympic Games. On Tuesday, regulators at the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) in Switzerland announced Walker was provisionally suspended from the sport after testing positive for Benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, in Peru on August 7, after the finals of the jumping competition. Canada placed fourth in the event.

Walker’s positive drug test is being separately investigated by the game’s governing body, Panam Sports. According to sources close to the Canadian equestrian team, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak for the athletes, Walker has told Panam Sports that her failed test stemmed from drinking coca tea, a legal and common pick-me-up in South America. The stakes are high for Canada’s equestrian team, as the positive doping test and cancelled trip to the Tokyo games would mean cuts in funding from the Canadian Olympic Committee and the potential loss of corporate sponsors.

On Tuesday, the FEI said Walker exercised her right to request a hearing before the Panam Sports disciplinary commission. The Swiss group said: “Once the disciplinary commission has made a decision on the disqualification of the athlete, and team Canada’s final placing, the FEI will be in a position to make any necessary reallocation of the Olympic quota place.”

Walker is royalty in horse circles. She went into the Pan Am Games as reigning Canadian show-jumping champion. She is the daughter of auto-parts maker Magna International Inc. CEO Don Walker and his former wife Belinda Stronach, who runs a global horse racing business built by her father, Frank Stronach, a prominent racehorse owner and Magna’s billionaire founder. According to multiple sources in the equestrian community, Walker is a hard-working, grounded athlete who doesn’t use recreational drugs, and has a rational explanation for her positive test. Through a spokesperson, Walker declined to comment on Tuesday.

In this 2018 file photo, Nicole Walker, left, and Belinda Stronach appear at The Stronach Group Chalet in Baltimore, Maryland.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

In Lima, Walker placed fourth among 50 riders at the Pan Am Games in August, the best individual performance on an otherwise veteran Canadian jumping team. Overall, the Canadian team also placed fourth, with Walker’s scores critical to carrying the entire squad to next summer’s Olympics. Over the years, Canadian equestrians have won five Olympic medals for jumping. The Tokyo games are expected to be an emotional experience for the group, as three-times medalist Eric Lamaze is planning to compete after announcing this summer that he is dealing with a brain tumour. Lamaze was unable to participate in the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics after testing positive for cocaine.

Prior to the Lima games, all of Canada’s athletes were warned that they are responsible for everything they ingest – medication, food and drinks – by event organizers. Inadvertently breaking the rules has cost Canadian athletes in the past. Rower Silken Laumann and three teammates lost their PanAm gold medals in 1995 after Laumann turned in a positive drug test from taking an over-the-counter cold medication.

After the Lima games, doping watchdog Panam Sports said in a press release that 15 athletes tested positive for a banned substance. According to sources close to the team, Walker apologized to all her teammates, and told both colleagues and officials with Panam Sports that traces of cocaine in her urine test came from drinking tea made from coca leaves while she was in Peru. Coca leaves are the source of cocaine.

Coca tea, known in Peru as mate de coca, is a legal drink with a mild kick. It’s common for Peruvian hotels and restaurants to serve a cup of mate de coca to tourists, to combat jet lag and altitude sickness. Medical studies show drinking one cup of coca tea can result in a positive drug test for up to 24 hours.

Positive drug tests from coca tea are a well-document issue for athletes. In 2005, the Jockey Club in Great Britain commissioned a study of the beverage after several jockeys tested positive for cocaine and claimed it was a result of drinking coca tea. The British racing group found a single cup of coca tea can translate into a positive test for cocaine for 24 hours or more. In writing up the Jockey Club’s study, the British Journal of Sport Medicine said: “Although the teabag packaging reports benefits such as increased energy and improved digestion, most people who sample the product report little subjective effect at all.”

In the U.S., a number of government employees, including police officers, blamed coca tea consumption in South America for positive drug tests at work. Some were fired, others had the explanation accepted by employers, and kept their jobs.

Panam Sports has already disqualified seven athletes for doping at the Lima games – three were stripped of gold medals – while athletes appealed the other eight tests. Sources say Walker is one of the athletes who challenged a positive test. Decisions on all eight appeals are expected as early as this month, according to officials at Panam Sports. If the doping authority upholds the positive result, Walker’s scores from this summer’s games in Lima will be dropped from the team’s total, and the Canadian equestrian team will no longer qualify for the Olympics, according to sources close to the equestrian team.

Walker and her horse were the country’s featured jumpers going into the Pan Am Games. “Wearing the red jacket brings added pressure, but it is an incredible feeling to have a whole nation behind you,” Walker said in an Equestrian Canada press release this summer. She pointed out that the country fielded an experienced team and her horse was in good health and said: “Together, I think we can pull off a great result for Canada.”

Walker delivered in Lima. Her fourth-place finish in the individual competition saw her lose PanAm bronze to an American athlete by less than a two second margin, in a four-rider “jump off.” The Canadians qualified for the Tokyo games by placing fourth overall. Brazil’s jumping team won gold, while Mexico took silver and the United States went home with bronze.

There were three other athletes on the Canadian PanAm jumping team, Erynn Ballard from Ontario, Alberta-based Lisa Carlsen and Mario Deslauriers from Quebec. Carlsen and Deslauriers, both aged 54, competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and Deslauriers also rode in the 1984 Los Angeles games. Ballard, aged 38, has not competed at the Olympics. She also had a strong showing in Lima.

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Maple Leafs couldn’t afford to wait for Hutchinson’s play to improve

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It finally reached the point where it would have been insane for the Toronto Maple Leafs to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result.

Either the organization had to change how it deploys the backup goaltender in back-to-back situations. Or the Maple Leafs had to change the backup.

That explains why Michael Hutchinson found himself on waivers Monday, just hours after a 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The veteran only received junk-mail assignments this season — going 0-4-1 behind a tired team while closing out back-to-backs for Toronto — but he allowed 23 goals in those games and twice squandered multi-goal leads.

The Leafs were a leaky outfit when Hutchinson played, plain and simple, and will now give farmhand Kasimir Kaskisuo a chance to step into that role with another tough back-to-back set looming later in the week.

“We have [14] back-to-backs this year,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said in Chicago. “You’ve got to get going, you’ve got to get points.”

Kaskisuo was enjoying a strong start to his American Hockey League season, but this promotion arrives entirely because of circumstance. Hutchinson has struggled in the No. 2 role and the Leafs don’t have the salary cap space available to add money for the remainder of the year by acquiring someone from outside the organization.

This was always going to be their next easiest option, with Kaskisuo ($675,000) and Hutchinson ($700,000) basically amounting to a cap neutral transaction.

If this doesn’t work out they’ll have to look for another goaltender in a similar price range, or ship out salary to make room for a more expensive option.

All the team is looking for at this stage is a couple wins on the nights where Frederik Andersen watches from the bench. That basically only occurs during the second half of a back-to-back because Babcock remains steadfast about using Andersen for the first game regardless of opponent, venue or any other circumstance — a strategy that has seen Toronto go 35-8-7 in those situations dating back to 2016-17 compared with 19-28-3 in the second game.

What Hutchinson failed to do in his five starts this season was come up with the one extra save needed to produce a result. He was hung out to dry early in Sunday’s game at the United Center, for example, but saw his teammates mount a feverish rally after going down 4-1 to Chicago.

Then Hutchinson allowed another goal with less than four minutes to play in regulation. They lost by one.

“Obviously, five goals is never great,” he said afterwards. “The fifth goal, looking back on that, that one stings a bit. That’s one, a big save in the third period that you’d like to come up with.

“Knowing how well the guys are pushing in the third period, it’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to make that save to give us a chance to come away with at least a point.”

The 29-year-old was a popular teammate who grew up nearby in Barrie, Ont., cheering for the Leafs. Everyone involved wanted this to work. It just didn’t.

Remember that Hutchinson was acquired in a trade last December to be the organization’s No. 3 option and may well have occupied that same spot to start this season if Michal Neuvirth’s training camp tryout had gone better.

Now Kaskisuo gets a turn in the Leafs backup role after a four-year apprenticeship in the AHL and ECHL. He led the Marlies to the conference final last season and has a .928 save percentage and 6-1-1 record so far this year.

There’s been a carousel of goalies behind Andersen since he came to Toronto more than three years ago.

Only veteran Curtis McElhinney thrived in the role over parts of two seasons. He was lost on waivers to Carolina last fall so that the Leafs could make room for Garret Sparks, who subsequently struggled and got traded to Vegas in the summer.

Here’s a look at how the Toronto goaltenders have fared behind Andersen:

NameGamesSave %RecordShutouts
Curtis McElhinney32.92517-12-14
Garret Sparks20.9028-9-11
Michael Hutchinson11.8952-7-11
Jhonas Enroth6.8720-3-10
Antoine Bibeau2.9271-1-00
Calvin Pickard1.8570-0-10

Hutchinson’s tenure this season most closely resembled Enroth’s short stint in 2016-17 with one more important difference — he seemed to have the coach is in his corner. Babcock made no secret of the fact he wanted a change when Enroth struggled, but wasn’t nearly so hard on Hutchinson with his public comments.

Even after another five goals against in Chicago, he reserved judgment when asked where his confidence was at with the struggling goalie.

“I think the big thing to do always is after a game, instead of me commenting a whole bunch, I always try to watch the game and see where it’s at and go through every situation,” said Babcock.

Ultimately, time ran out on Hutchinson. They couldn’t wait any longer for things to change and decided to see if the next man up is more capable.

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