WINNING WITH STYLE
The run-and-gun Maple Leafs are not only fun to watch, but
they're successful as well
Were you lucky enough to see the Maple Leafs-Oilers barn burner
last Friday night? Neither the number of goals (the Leafs won 3-2
in overtime) nor shots (35 for Toronto, 32 for Edmonton) was
high, but the players on both sides skated relentlessly from end
to end. The puck whipped back and forth, and both goalies
sprawled repeatedly to make saves. Best of all, the match
engendered hope that it was a sign of things to come.
NHL teams are beginning to loosen the self-imposed restraints
that in recent years have turned many games into plodding,
neutral-zone battles. The Leafs, Oilers, Penguins and Predators,
among others, have shown a willingness to open up. No club seems
more a bellwether of change than Toronto, the winningest of the
freewheelers. "An unbiased fan wants to see the Leafs do well,"
says Coyotes coach Bob Francis. "It's great hockey to watch."
For much of the mid-1990s Toronto was just another dull, trapping
club. Then Pat Quinn took over as coach before last season and
transformed the Maple Leafs into a band of net crashers. With
mobile backliners, swift forwards and one of the league's top
goalies, Curtis Joseph, Toronto now clearly thinks offense first.
The Leafs pass often and crisply, and when they don't have the
puck, they love to jar it free on the forecheck and immediately
resume the attack. "I like the way the Leafs play," says
Hurricanes defenseman Paul Coffey. "People aren't dumb. They want
to be entertained."
They also want to see their team win, and the Maple Leafs, who
through Sunday were 26-16-4-3 and in first place in the Northeast
Division, have built a strong case that success can come to those
who wheel. Toronto went 45-30-7 last season and then flouted
critics of its style by advancing to the Eastern Conference
The Maple Leafs' defensive indifference would be costly without
Joseph, who this season had faced more shots (1,012) than any
other NHL goalie except one and was third in the league in save
percentage (.922). Even more noteworthy is that apart from
Joseph, star center Mats Sundin and a couple of good finesse
forwards such as Sergei Berezin, Toronto thrives with only
slightly-above-average talent. At a time when the NHL's skill
level has diminished because of expansion, the Leafs are
providing welcome proof that even ordinary players can put on a
WHO'S IN LINE FOR A TOP SPOT?
Three of the Western Conference's nine leading teams through
Sunday are coached by men who recently ascended from the NHL's
assistant ranks and had no previous head coaching experience in
the league. Bob Francis took over the Coyotes this season after
two years as an aide to Bruins coach Pat Burns; Kevin Lowe was
promoted from Oilers assistant to head man last spring; and the
highly regarded Joel Quenneville is in his third full year of
coaching the Blues after three seasons as an assistant with the
Avalanche. Here's a look at the assistants most likely to get NHL
top jobs in the near future.
1) Dave Tippett, 38, Kings. He captained Canada's 1984 Olympic
team and then played 11 years in the NHL as a forward hailed for
his grit and savvy. Last year, as general manager and coach of
the Houston Aeros, he won the International Hockey League
2) Craig MacTavish, 40, Oilers. Exacting of himself and of those
around him, he won four Stanley Cups in his 18-year playing
career. He spent two seasons as a Rangers assistant before moving
to Edmonton this season. The former teammates and coaches of
MacTavish, the NHL's last helmetless player, respect his head for
hockey. "He knows the game," says Flyers captain Eric Lindros,
who played two seasons with MacTavish. "He knows the balance
between having fun and getting down to business."
3a) Barry Smith, 48; and 3b) Dave Lewis, 45, Red Wings. They
shared interim coaching duties when Scotty Bowman missed the
first five games of last season following knee surgery, and one
of the two is likely to take over when the 66-year-old Bowman
retires. Smith instituted Detroit's successful left-wing lock
system, and Lewis has devised excellent tactics for Wings
defensemen. Whoever doesn't succeed Bowman may get a top job
5) Alpo Suhonen, 51, Maple Leafs. He's intelligent and one of the
game's most original thinkers, and could become the NHL's first
European head coach. He also has a fan in the Blackhawks' de
facto general manager, Mike Smith, under whom Suhonen worked in
Toronto and Winnipeg. Smith is expected to name a replacement for
interim coach Bob Pulford after this season.
Linguist Georges Laraque
DA, THE BLACK RUSSIAN SPEAKS
Hang around the Oilers' dressing room and it won't be long before
you see Edmonton enforcer Georges Laraque puff out his chest and
gaily exclaim to his teammates, "Ya chorney Russky!" That
translates to "I'm a black Russian!" and it's one of Laraque's
favorite expressions, because, he says, "there aren't any other
guys like me speaking Russian in this league."
The son of Haitian parents, Laraque, 23, grew up in Montreal and
spoke French, English and Creole as a child. Last season he asked
roommate Andrei Kovalenko (since traded to the Hurricanes) to
teach him some Russian so that they could talk more easily. Now
Laraque chats with Russian teammate Alex Selivanov. "Georges
learns fast," Selivanov says. "He knows all the really bad
Laraque won't use those profanities against Russian opponents,
but he often gives Selivanov a good-natured earful. "Once we were
in an airport, and I was calling Alex the worst Russian swear
words," says Laraque. "All of a sudden I saw people staring at
me. You could tell they knew what I was saying. At least I knew
how to apologize in Russian."
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Berezin (94) and the Leafs can concentrate on scoring because Joseph is so tough in net.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS (2)
JONSSON & JOHNSSON
Rookie defensemen Hans Jonsson of the Penguins and Kim Johnsson
of the Rangers have emerged as important players for their teams.
Though they claim to know each other from playing on the Swedish
National team, we're wondering whether they've ever been seen in
the same place.
286th, dead last, in 1993
Reaction to being taken last
"I was really happy to be drafted at all."
Swedish Elite League team
Plus-minus rating through Sunday
What he thinks of the U.S.
"It's much bigger here."
What he thinks of his doppelganger
"Kim's a good guy; we won the '98 world championships together."
Who's better looking?
"I don't know."
286th, dead last, in 1994
[Reaction to being taken last]
"I was just glad to be drafted."
[Swedish Elite League team]
[Plus-minus rating through Sunday
[What he thinks of the U.S].
"There's so much space here."
[What he thinks of his doppelganger]
"Hans is a good guy; we went to a nightclub together after we
won the world championships."
[Who's better looking?]