There’s a saying in journalism: you don’t pull for the team, you pull for the story.
Sometimes, more often than you think, you pull for the guy.
So it is with former Leaf John Mitchell, whose faceoff win led to the Rangers game-winning goal in Game 5 of their playoff with Washington.
You’d have to go a long way to find a kinder guy than John Mitchell, a kid from Oakville so universally liked that anyone who so much as walked by him would wish him well.
You might however find one in the kind-hearted Alexei Ponikarovsky, traded by the Leafs for Luca Caputi who turned into Nicolas Deschamps, currently starring for the Marlies in the playoffs.
A funny thing happens when you don’t make the playoffs. Actually, nothing is funny when you miss the playoffs but a sort of wistful optimism worms its way toward sunlight like fresh grass pushing through a blanket of mulch.
What if the Leafs had kept Mitchell and Ponikarovsky?
What if the Leafs had managed to make the playoffs?
After all, three teams that were hit or miss to make the second season, Phoenix, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Kings have advanced to the third round. Maybe if the Leafs had won a few more games or pulled out of their February swoon they would be trending on Twitter right now.
This year’s playoff story seems to run opposite to Brian Burke’s assertion that making the post-season would invariably lead to an ass-kicking. After all, you could have said the same thing about the three teams that have moved on.
The Maple Leafs didn’t make the playoffs because they weren’t good enough at keeping the puck out of their net. That would not have miraculously changed had they been re-incarnated in the post-season. Did you see any indication the Leafs could deliver the kind of lock-down, shot-blocking defence that’s defined the playoffs?
Obviously, John Mitchell or Alexei Ponikarovsky would have made no significant difference to the Leafs’ fortunes. The Penguins acquired Ponikarovsky from the Leafs and then took a pass on him. The Kings signed him for $3.2 million and he gave them five goals in 61 games. His price dropped for $1.5 million the next season. The Hurricanes got seven goals in 49 games for their money before moving him along to New Jersey.
The Devils have put Ponikarovsky’s big body to good use but one goal in 12-post season games is unlikely to generate much demand for a 32-year-old winger. Just sayin’.
Mitchell caught on with the Rangers as a situational player and contributed five goals and 16 points during 63 regular season games.
Good on him. Good on both of them.
Look, if your goal is to evaluate the Leafs, my advice is to look forward.
Matt Frattin has scored 21 goals in 30 Marlie regular season and playoff games.
Defenceman Korbinian Holzer has been a monster and he is ready to jump. Twenty-five-year-old Ben Scrivens had the lowest goals against average and save percentage in the American League during the regular season (2.04, .926). Same thing with the post-season (1.58, .945). He’s a restricted free agent. The Leafs are going to have to fish or cut bait with him. Jerry D’Amigo, Nazem Kadri, Greg Scott, Deschamps and Mark Fraser are putting up strong cases for promotion. The team’s minor league system is in the best shape it’s been in years, maybe ever.
So raise your glass to the good ones… not for getting away but for doing well. My advice is not to mourn a playoff that would have reinforced the Leafs shortcomings even more spectacularly than the regular season did.
Instead, you might want to take a look at the players who, by staying or going, will impact the club dramatically next season.