One of Toronto’s favourite sons didn’t only help turn the page on the 2013 sports scene Monday. Fresh off the disappointment of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 74-win season, rap star Drake ripped out the page, crumpled it, then set it on fire.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will start the 2013-14 NHL season Tuesday in Montreal against the Canadiens. In the very least, they’re expected to earn a playoff berth – let’s just call them a comfortable sixth place in the Eastern Conference, okay? – and maybe win their first playoff round, which is entirely within the realm of possibility.
On paper, this is a better lineup than the 2012-13 version, if for no other reason than James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have clearly taken the tussle for the No. 1 goaltender’s spot to heart. If Reimer’s showing of spine during the preseason, after last season’s Game 7 playoff meltdown against the Boston Bruins, is a sign of club-wide short memory, that’s all to the good.
It’s almost enough to allay fears about an NHL team that still lacks an easily identifiable first-line centre, has seen new questions raised about blueliner Jake Gardiner after a preseason regression and has unnerving salary-cap issues and a looming contractual negotiation with sniper Phil Kessel.
“You want to have that first game, but just like life you have to look at the big picture, right?” Reimer said Monday, after the Leafs workout at the Air Canada Centre, when he was asked who should start in goal Tuesday. “It’s definitely not the end of the world, and you have to look over the full season. We want to win games.”
From this vantage point, there is plenty of steak behind the Maple Leafs’ sizzle – certainly, in comparison to the Toronto Raptors.
Head coach Dwayne Casey’s basketball team opens training camp Tuesday. And the failed promise of the Blue Jays’ Summer of Munenori has sensitized locals to the point where hip-hop star Aubrey Drake Graham’s appointment as “global ambassador” for the Raptors, announced with great fanfare Monday, along with the 2016 NBA all-star game coming to Toronto, will be seen in some quarters as something to divert attention from the Raptors’ on-court challenges.
Truth is, a percentage of the Raptors fan base wants the team to tank and get a shot at homegrown franchise player Andrew Wiggins, the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
That tanking is even on the agenda reinforces the different phases of the Maple Leafs’ and Raptors’ development.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said “from a coach’s perspective, this roster is better than last year’s,” and coupled with a style of play that can get an opponent’s attention in the flash of an elbow, there is a new-found respect for the Leafs around the league, not to mention an identity.
That isn’t the case with the Raptors, beyond all this talk of tanking; in the tilted world of NBA officiating they have been an afterthought, far too often victimized by questionable calls in a league run by reputation.
Casey wants a return to defence first – he didn’t even mention the word “playoffs” in a meeting with his team, instead throwing out some statistical goals defensively he will put in place – but he wants intelligent defence, cutting down on what he calls “those reaching and touching, cheap offensive fouls” by one or two a game.
Casey wants his team closer to 20th in the NBA in fouls, as opposed to 30th, and a case in point is second-year man Jonas Valanciunas.
“A lot of his weight is on his heels when he’s playing defence,” the coach said. “We need to get his upper body positioned so it’s like he’s in a chair, instead of bent over, because when you’re bent over, your first reaction is to reach out.”
One of the highlights of the Raptors announcements Monday was hearing Tim Leiweke, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. president and chief executive officer, talk about Drake’s new CD “dropping this week.”
It’s going to be a big deal, because Drake is a big deal. Hopefully, the product MLSE drops this week is as successful.