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Blue Jays off-season FAQ: Rogers Centre replacement far from a done deal – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are turning out to be a team of intrigue this off-season for more than just what they’re trying to accomplish with their roster.

As they continue to be connected to every available player of consequence – “They are being very flirty,” is how one agent put it – a story by the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Willis on Friday revealed team owner Rogers Communications Inc. is looking to build a new stadium, rather than renovate the 31-year-old Rogers Centre, as part of a wider property redevelopment.

The part about creating a sports-anchored real-estate project – a business model for team owners that’s becoming the industry’s new regional sports network – is not brand new. Discussions on that front have been ongoing for the past few years.

What is intriguing about Willis’ piece is that the thinking within Rogers (which also owns this website) and project partner Brookfield Asset Management Inc. seems to have settled around tearing down the dome to build a new stadium, rather than trying to refurbish it.

The possibility immediately sparked excitement, but a statement from Rogers sought to tamp expectations: “Prior to the pandemic, we were exploring options for the stadium but through this year our primary focus has been keeping our customers connected and employees safe, so there is no update on the Rogers Centre to share at this time.”

So, what’s up with all that? Oh, and like George Springer, D.J. LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto, Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor and all that fun stuff? Good time for a wide-ranging Blue Jays FAQ:

So, the Blue Jays are getting a new stadium then?

Definitely Maybe is the name of an old Oasis album and also an apt description of the situation.

Two of the people I spoke with today insisted that there was nothing new here, that this file has been largely dormant since last fall. A check of the City of Toronto’s lobbyist registry supports that, as there’s been no documented meeting since Oct. 17, 2019 when a staff member for Councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward includes the dome site, spoke with Jodi Parps, Rogers’ manager of government relations, provincial and municipal. That followed a bigger meeting July 10, 2019 that included Cressy, two staff members, Edward Rogers, the RCI chairman, Tony Staffieri, RCI’s chief financial officer, Parps, Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro and Ben Colabrese, the club’s executive vice-president, finance.

The discussions centred around the dome’s future, the surrounding area and the city’s relevant leaseholds. COVID-19 arrested the progress, but that doesn’t mean the entire project stopped. Modelling for the project likely continued between Rogers and Brookfield during that time, and they likely settled on a vision for the site, floated in broad strokes in the piece by the well-connected Willis.

Beyond what he outlined, the project is expected to entail some building out of the Rail Deck Park idea that’s circulated for years. That would create more greenspace that can be used year-round and will be an important piece of the entire plan.

Makes sense. It’s done then?

Far from. All three levels of government have a piece of this, each will need to be satisfied, and it’s complicated.

While Rogers owns the stadium, the land beneath it belongs to Canada Lands Company, a crown corporation which issued a 99-year lease that runs through 2088 and is zoned for stadium usage only. That’s a primary reason why the building sold for only $25 million in 2004 – how many companies in the city need a domed stadium? Right, one.

A plan of the nature being discussed would require substantial rezoning. In the process of examining a renovation, the sports-anchored development trend began taking hold, and a series of interests began to align, turning it into a much bigger project. In a statement Friday, Cressy said he’s ready to re-engage, underlining the city’s interests in the venture:

Other partners would likely be needed to pull everything off, too, especially the recreational and public-space components. Bottom line, a lot of elements still need to fall into place, so don’t expect shovels in the ground any time soon.

Cool, cool, cool. But what would happen to the Blue Jays if they demolished the Rogers Centre?

Before you start mapping out the drive to Buffalo or prepping your liver for a couple of seasons in Montreal, remember what the St. Louis Cardinals did when they went from old Busch Stadium to new Busch Stadium, which opened in 2006. The Cardinals broke ground on the new place on Jan. 17, 2004 and spent the next two years building the guts of the new park before razing the old one to finish things up. This photo essay from the St. Louis Post Dispatch nicely illustrates the process of what turned out to be a seamless transition.

The Rogers Centre footprint is tighter, but there’s some land to the south of the building, as well as some on the west side, and a bit less on the east that could be used in a similar process. That’s a possibility that has been raised, according to multiple sources, with the aim of ensuring the Blue Jays aren’t left homeless, even if briefly.

Phew, that’s a lot to digest. Exciting as all that is, what’s happening with getting this team more players?

Work continues on that front, and boy is what I’m hearing interesting. To build on the analogy made by the agent who said the Blue Jays are being flirty, it sounds like they’re legitimately trying to put some rings on it, too. D.J. LeMahieu was described to me as “the perfect fit” and that he didn’t immediately re-sign with the New York Yankees suggests he’s seriously considering his options in more than a cursory way. The New York Mets, under new owner Steve Cohen, are probably gumming things up there after making it clear they’re in it to win it on multiple fronts. While the Blue Jays may be willing to set the market, agents will probably want to wait for the Mets to drop the gauntlet.

That impacts the market for another Blue Jays target in George Springer, with whom they’ve progressed beyond just talking. Same thing with Michael Brantley, but while his left-handed bat and offensive profile are perfect for the batting order, how he fits defensively is less seamless. Since he’s limited to left field and DH, that means pushing Lourdes Gurriel Jr. out of a spot in which he just started settling in. The Blue Jays don’t mind creating redundancies – good luck keeping everyone happy, Charlie Montoyo! – but that also creates surplus to trade.

Speaking of surplus, what’s going on at catcher and the report on J.T. Realmuto? Don’t they have a bazillion catchers already?

Craig Mish, who does a fine job covering the Miami Marlins, dropped this tidbit earlier in the week:

Intriguing, and not entirely surprising, as the Blue Jays also checked in on Yasmani Grandal last winter, even if they do have enviable depth behind the plate (bazillion might be a bit hyperbolic). Certainly they hope that one of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, Gabriel Moreno, Riley Adams and Reese McGuire eventually becomes an impact backstop like Realmuto. But if they want to advance their program, well, Realmuto is an all-star right now.

People are being really quiet and guarded around this chatter, which lends credence to Mish’s tweet. Such a move would be reminiscent of the Blue Jays signing Russell Martin to an $82-million, five-year deal ahead of the 2015 season to push the team forward. Adding a sixth catcher to the 40-man now would definitely be suboptimal, but again, surplus creates opportunities to trade and they could use some of their young catching to get pitching help.

What about pitching? Are they done at re-signing Robbie Ray?

No. The Blue Jays need someone who can win a playoff game for the rotation if they’re going to be for real.

Trevor Bauer is the obvious big ticket, but right now they seem more fixated on position players than pitchers. Not to get repetitive, but my sense is they’d like to nail down their lineup adds, figure out what’s staying, and then trade to get pitching help. They must feel like some teams will need to off-load arms eventually (Texas with Lance Lynn, or Cincinnati with Sonny Gray, perhaps).

The Asian market is another opportunity here, with right-handers Tomoyuki Sugano of the Yomiuri Giants and Kohei Arihara of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to be posted. The signing of Shun Yamaguchi last off-season was done partly to build a bridge into the Japanese market, with an eye towards the class of players available this winter. Sugano and Arihara are both intriguing, but the real prize could be Kodai Senga of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, if he’s posted.

Lastly, what about Francisco Lindor?

I’ve had several people tell me that the Blue Jays really want him. Well, duh. Who wouldn’t? As perfect as LeMahieu is for them, Lindor is even more perfect, even if he pushes Bo Bichette off of short. This one is complicated, though, both because of the acquisition cost in trade, but also with his pending free agency. The ongoing lack of clarity about what it would take to re-sign him is a big yellow light here and my sense is the Blue Jays won’t meet Cleveland’s price without knowing if they can extend him.

Maybe that forces the acquisition cost for Lindor down, but Cleveland could also wait for the impact free agents to sign and then work with any teams left on the sidelines.

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Hank Aaron, baseball's one-time home run king, dies at 86 – CTV News

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ATLANTA —
Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.

“I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king.

It was a title he would be hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

Aaron’s death follows that of seven other Baseball Hall of Famers in 2020 and two more — Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton — already this year.

“Aaron was beloved by his teammates and by his fans,” said former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime friend. “He was a true Hall of Famer in every way. He will be missed throughout the game, and his contributions to the game and his standing in the game will never be forgotten.”

Before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Hall of Famer finished his career with 755, a total surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007 — though many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds finished his tarnished career with 762, though Aaron never begrudged someone eclipsing his mark.

His common refrain: More than three decades as the king was long enough. It was time for someone else to hold the record.

No one could take away his legacy.

“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said, summing it up better than anyone.

He wasn’t on hand when Bonds hit No. 756, but he did tape a congratulatory message that was shown on the video board in San Francisco shortly after the new record-holder went deep. While saddened by claims of rampant steroid use in baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aaron never challenged those marks set by players who may have taken pharmaceutical short cuts.

Besides, he always had that April night in 1974.

“Downing was more of a finesse pitcher,” Aaron remembered shortly before the 30th anniversary of the landmark homer. “I guess he was trying to throw me a screwball or something. Whatever it was, I got enough of it.”

Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714, much of it sparked by the fact Ruth was white and Aaron was Black.

“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am Black.”

Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.

“It’s very offensive,” he once said. “They call me `nigger’ and every other bad word you can come up with. You can’t ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for black people in America. It’s something you battle all of your life.”

After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered, almost mythical figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight. He was thrilled when the U.S. elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.

“We’re a different country now,” Clinton said at a 75th birthday celebration for Aaron. “You’ve given us far more than we’ll ever give you.”

Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the Deep South in 1966. He finished his career back in Milwaukee, traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.

While knocking the ball over the fence became his signature accomplishment, the Hammer was hardly a one-dimensional star. In fact, he never hit more than 47 homers in a season (though he did have eight years with at least 40 dingers).

But it can be argued that no one was so good, for so long, at so many facets of the national pastime.

The long ball was only part of his arsenal.

Aaron was a true five-tool star.

He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average — the last of them at age 39 — and claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.

Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics — with undoubtedly racist overtones — mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.

Then there was his work on the base paths. Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963 when became only the third member of the 30-30 club — players who have totalled at least 30 homers and 30 steals in a season.

To that point, the feat had only been accomplished by Ken Williams (1922) and Willie Mays (1956 and ’57).

Six-feet tall and listed at 180 pounds during the prime of his career, Aaron was hardly an imposing player physically. But he was blessed with powerful wrists that made him one of the game’s most feared hitters.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt described Aaron as “an unassuming, easygoing man, a quiet superstar, that a ’70s player like me emulated.”

“He was one of my heroes as a kid, and will always be an icon of the baby boomer generation,” Schmidt said. “In fact, if you weigh all the elements involved and compare the game fairly, his career will never be topped.”

Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team, a liner down the left field line off Cincinnati’s Rawley Eastwick on Oct. 2, 1974. Exactly one month later, he was dealt to the Brewers for outfielder Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander.

The Braves made it clear they no longer wanted Aaron, then 40, returning for another season on the field. They offered him a front office job for $50,000 a year, about $150,000 less than his playing salary.

“Titles?” he said at the time. “Can you spend titles at the grocery store? Executive vice-president, assistant to the executive vice-president, what does it mean if it doesn’t pay good money? I might become a janitor for big money.”

Aaron became a designated hitter with the Brewers, but hardly closed his career with a flourish. He managed just 22 homers over his last two seasons, going out with a .229 average in 1976.

Even so, his career numbers largely stood the test of time.

Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174) and 13th in doubles (624).

“I feel like that home run I hit is just part of what my story is all about,” Aaron said.

While Aaron hit at least 20 homers in 20 consecutive seasons, he was hardly swinging for the fences. He just happened to hit a lot of balls that went over the fence.

Through his career, Aaron averaged just 63 strikeouts a season. He never whiffed 100 times in a year — commonplace for hitters these days — and posted a career on-base percentage of .374.

He was NL MVP in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games to give Aaron the only World Series title of his career. It also was his lone MVP award, though he finished in the top 10 of the balloting 13 times.

Aaron also was selected for the All-Star Game 21 consecutive years — every season but his first and his last.

His only regret was failing to capture the Triple Crown. Aaron led the NL in homers and RBIs four times each, to go with those two batting crowns. But he never put together all three in the same season, coming closest in 1963 when he led the league in homers (44) and RBIs (130) but finished third in hitting (.319) behind Tommy Davis of the Dodgers with a .326 average.

“Other than that,” Aaron said, “everything else was completed.”

Making his accomplishments even more impressive, Aaron didn’t put up his numbers in an era of gaudy offence and watered-down pitching. He faced Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton on a regular basis.

Still, Aaron never received the attention he deserved until late in his career. He played in only two World Series. He was stuck far from the media spotlight in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Early in Aaron’s career, the press focused on outfielders like Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, who benefited from playing in the media glare of New York City.

“In my day, sportswriters didn’t respect a baseball player unless you played in New York or Chicago,” Aaron said during a 1999 interview. “If you didn’t come from a big city, it was hard to get noticed.”

He was much more appreciated with the passing of time.

Aaron was elected to Cooperstown in 1982, his first year of eligibility and just nine votes short of being the first unanimous choice ever to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1999, baseball began honouring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers. Three years later, a nationwide vote named Aaron’s No. 715 as the second-most memorable moment in baseball history, eclipsed only by Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

Also in 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Bush praised Aaron for overcoming “poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time.”

“He might be the greatest player of all time,” said the late Tony Gwynn, a fellow Hall of Famer. “Just look at his numbers. Everybody characterizes him as a home run hitter because he’s held that record so long. But he was a great baserunner, a great defender, a great player period.”

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 5, 1934. He headed a long list of outstanding players who came from that Gulf Coast city — Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith among them.

Life was hard for African-Americans in the segregated South.

Baseball was a way out.

“You could say that God kind of had his hands on me, directing me on the right path,” Aaron said in a 2018 interview. “I don’t know any other way I would have gotten out of Mobile, Alabama except for baseball.”

Aaron, who initially hit with a cross-handed style, was spotted by the Braves while trying out for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team. The Giants also were interested — imagine him in same outfield with Mays — but Aaron signed with Milwaukee, spent two seasons in the minors and came up to the Braves in 1954 after Bobby Thomson was injured in spring training.

Aaron’s debut was hardly glowing: he struck out twice and hit into a double play while going 0-for-5. His first homer came before April was done, against Vic Raschi. By season’s end, the rookie had put up promising numbers: 13 homers, 69 RBIs, a .280 average.

Aaron was a full-fledged star by 1957, when he led the Braves to that World Series victory over Mantle’s New York Yankees. The following year, Milwaukee made it back to the Series, only to blow a 3-1 lead and lose to the Yankees in seven games.

Though he played for nearly two more decades, Aaron never came so close to a championship again.

In 1959, the Braves finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first in the NL, only to lose a best-of-three playoff to the Dodgers for the pennant. Aaron’s only other playoff appearance came in 1969, when the Braves were swept by New York’s Amazin’ Mets in the inaugural NL Championship Series.

His dearth of October appearances was baseball’s loss. In 17 post-season games, Aaron batted .362 (25 of 69) with six homers and 16 RBIs.

In the early 1970s, as the Braves tumbled toward a period of futility that would largely last for two decades, Aaron’s steady, sustained excellence suddenly put him in range of the Bambino.

No. 600 came early in the ’71 season.

No. 700 followed in ’73.

“It was some of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen,” recalled former teammate Dusty Baker, who was watching from the on-deck circle when Aaron hit 715. “The way he set up pitchers, the way he was patient. His concentration level was beyond compare. If he was supposed to hit a ball hard, he didn’t miss it.”

The antithesis of Aaron in more than skin colour, Ruth was a bombastic slugger who once hit 60 homers in a season, many of them towering shots that were worthy of their own word.

Ruthian.

The Babe launched the last of his 714 homers in 1935, leaving a career mark that many felt would never be broken — or, if it was, surely by a player capable of spectacular feats, someone such as Mays or Mantle.

However, those two were gone when Aaron came to bat on a chilly April night, facing a left-hander on the downside of his career. Downing walked Aaron the first time up, the bat never leaving his shoulder.

On his way to the plate in the fourth inning, Aaron had a few words for Baker.

“He told me he was tired and he wanted to get it over with right now,” said Baker, who now manages the Houston Astros.

Aaron took ball one in the dirt, then swung at a breaking ball that didn’t break much. He whipped his 34-ounce Louisville Slugger through the strike zone with those powerful wrists. The ball rose higher and higher as the crowd of 53,775 rose to its feet with a collective roar.

Finally, it came down in the Braves bullpen. Despite a mighty leap that left him dangling stop the fence, Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner never had a chance. Atlanta reliever Tom House made the catch at 9:07 p.m. and swiftly returned the ball to Aaron, who was celebrating at home plate with his teammates and parents.

“I know that was the highlight of my baseball career,” House said three decades later. “I know that’s a bad statement for a pitcher to make. But I got to play a very small part in a very historic moment.”

As Aaron rounded second, two young fans sprinted in from right field, startling No. 44 when they patted him on the back before racing back to the stands in left.

“I guess that will always be a part of me running around the bases,” Aaron said. “I never had anyone run with me before. They were just kids having a good time.”

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully was among those delivering the call on the historic shot.

“There’s a high drive into deep left-centre field,” Scully bellowed. “Bucker goes back to the fence — and it is gone.”

Scully remained silent for nearly 30 seconds as Aaron rounded the bases. Finally, the announcer piped up again.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said, well aware of the cultural significance. “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”

 

——

This story includes research from the late Ed Shearer, a longtime Atlanta sports writer for The Associated Press who covered Aaron’s 715th homer

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Matthews out for Maple Leafs-Oilers tilt, fractured rib sidelines Thornton – Toronto Sun

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With Thornton and Matthews out, forwards Pierre Engvall, Alex Barabanov and Adam Brooks will be inserted into the lineup. Keefe had gone with 11 forwards and seven defencemen in the past two games, but said regardless of the injuries, had made the decision to revert to the more common lineup of 12 forwards and six defencemen.

It was not clear which defenceman will be sitting. Mikko Lehtonen started each of the past two games as the seventh D-man.

Keefe wouldn’t give any hints as to how his lines will be set, but did say William Nylander will not be playing centre.

The greater issue for Keefe is his team’s lack of goals at five-on-five. The Leafs (3-2-0) were structured well defensively in a 3-1 loss to the Oilers (2-3-0) on Wednesday, limiting Connor McDavid to an assist, but had little in the way of pressure on Edmonton goalie Mikko Koskinen while the teams were playing even. And that won’t get much easier with Matthews and Thornton, two-thirds of the top line with Mitch Marner, in spectator roles.

“No matter who is in the lineup, what the lines are, we have to find a way to get to the net a lot more,” Keefe said. “It has been an issue for us, not just in the last game — certainly the last game highlighted it a lot because we did not get the power-play goal to supplement our offence.

“We have to find ways to get to the net more consistently. JT (John Tavares), Will (Nylander), Mitch, Hymes (Zach Hyman), all these guys, but all the way through the lineup — (Jimmy) Vesey, (Ilya) Mikheyev, all these guys have to do a better job of helping us get there, (Alex) Kerfoot.”

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With key Maple Leafs injuries, Round 2 against Oilers is about depth – Sportsnet.ca

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The day after a defensive battle between the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett had this to say about the game and the reaction to it from fans and media:

“It’s almost funny to me how everybody talked all summer about Toronto and Edmonton have to defend better and then Toronto and Edmonton actually defend well, and now they think it’s a bad hockey game. It just baffles me sometimes hearing what’s going on.”

A well played hockey game, sure. An exciting one for the fans watching at home — not so much.

Fans like goals and chances and at the NHL level, both are usually born from mistakes. There weren’t many in Wednesday’s 3-1 Oilers win. To Tippett’s point, mistake-free hockey hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of the Oilers’ or Maple Leafs’ game — two teams that rely on their offensive firepower to cover up any defensive deficiencies.

Well, both teams defended really well on Wednesday — the kind of game most coaches love and fans…less so.

The game had all the ingredients for an offensive slugfest with plenty of fire-power on both sides. In the end, it proved to be a defensive battle with few scoring chances and even fewer goals. A cautious start to the season series between two of the NHL’s most potent offences, but also the type of game both teams need to be able to win in order to take the next step in their quest to become Stanley Cup contenders.

All eyes were on Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews ahead of the highly anticipated match-up and Maple Leafs head coach, Sheldon Keefe, did his part by matching Matthews’ line against McDavid’s for most of the night. In the 12-plus minutes McDavid and Matthews went head-to-head at five-on-five, they played each other pretty even with Matthews providing the only goal while on the ice against each other.

Both players had a point in the game and led their respective teams in offensive zone puck possession and shots on goal from the slot. McDavid led the Oilers with 11 controlled zone entries and Matthews ranked second on his team to Ilya Mikheyev with six. The two superstars put up the type of underlying numbers we’d expect from them, but beyond that, there was little offence created in the game.

Matthews said his team “definitely has to do a better job of creating offence” and he’s right. The Maple Leafs were limited to a season low number of shots from the slot and the inner slot, where roughly 50 per cent of goals are scored year-over-year.

The Oilers finished the game with their second-lowest shot total from the slot this season (13). However, eight of those shots came from that high-danger inner slot area including both of their non-empty net goals. As with most games, the team that wins the shot battle from this location will likely be the team that wins the game.

So, should we expect more of the same in the rematch Friday night? Not necessarily. While both teams played well defensively on Wednesday, goaltending has not been a strength for either so far early in the season. The odds of both of these teams combining for less than 25 slot shots again, as they did on Wednesday, are slim considering each team averaged nearly 20 per-game entering their first meeting of the season.

James Neal will likely make his season debut tonight after skating on a line with Josh Archibald and Devin Shore at practice Friday. Neal also took reps on the Oilers’ top power play unit which has stumbled out of the game, going 3-for-21 to start the season. Neal has the ability to make an immediate impact as he scored seven goals in his first five games last season, with five coming on the power play.

Joe Thornton left Wednesday’s game with an injury and is going to miss at least four weeks. Matthews will also miss Friday’s game with a minor upper body injury. This means that John Tavares’ line becomes the de facto top line for Toronto — one perfectly capable of going punch-for-punch with any top line in the league, including Edmonton’s.

This makes the battle of the middle-six lines even more important — one the Oilers won handily Wednesday night.

Kailer Yamamoto scored the Oilers’ only five-on-five goal of the game and his line (Yamamoto-Leon Draisaitl-Dominik Kahun), along with the line of Devin Shore, Alex Chiasson and Josh Archibald didn’t allow a single shot on goal from the slot in their combined 17:55 of ice-time at five-on-five. That’s music to Tippett’s ears and nails on a chalkboard to Keefe.

If the top lines draw even, as they often do, the game will likely be decided by which team wins the depth battle. The Oilers may be getting a bump there if Neal does suit up and the Maple Leafs will be taking a hit as two-thirds of their top line will be missing, forcing line changes to their forward group.

For fans on both sides, here’s hoping Round 2 of this battle is a little less rope-a-dope and a bit more of a slugfest.

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