Time for Maple Leafs, Raptors to remember it’s all about playoffs

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Kyle Bukauskas to discuss the big news that Mitch Marner will be lost for a minimum 4 weeks, and to break down their 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

What a calamitous weekend. The Toronto Maple Leafs lose Mitch Marner for a minimum of four weeks with an ankle injury, the Toronto Raptors lose Kyle Lowry for more than two weeks with a fractured left thumb and Serge Ibaka for an indeterminate period with an ankle injury, and, of course, Toronto FC ran out of road magic in a 3-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup.

It’s a pretty decent time for all of us to fall back on an old, faithful, truism that for the Leafs and Raptors, at least, it was never going to be about November. Or, December. Or January. It’s all about the playoffs. For the Leafs, this post-season will be the ultimate referendum about head coach Mike Babcock; thinking he might be turfed before then is mostly just good, clean fun but things have to go really – really — pear-shaped for that to happen. With Marner’s absence, the Leafs and their management won’t have a chance to see this entire group together until, maybe, Christmas?

It’s going to be easy to come up with reasons – or, for those cynics among you, excuses – to keep things intact, if that’s what you’re pre-disposed to look for. In the meantime, a lot of us wanted to see something change on the power play, right? Here ya go! File it under “be careful what you wish for.”

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As for the Raptors? My god that was something else Sunday night; a whole lot of Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson breaking out all over. None of us expect them to run it back. Not really. Not this season. What we – or at least, I – am mostly interested in seeing is how the foundation gets set for the subsequent two seasons after this one. It would be great to see Pascal Siakam emerge as a stealth MVP candidate, but in some ways I’d be happier seeing OG Anunoby emerge as the most improved player in the NBA, because that would be the loudest statement possible that this team is capable of doing the business again, if not necessarily in 2019-2020. In the meantime, this forced load management for Lowry and Ibaka is going to tell us a great deal about the likes of Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Hollis-Jefferson and Norman Powell because head coach Nick Nurse has no choice but to trust them. They will get their minutes deserved or not and that, too, is all to the good because it feeds into the notion that this season is about sifting and sorting. Whatever happens in the playoffs is just more sifting and sorting, multiplied by 10.

(As an aside: turns out you don’t need Kawhi to beat LeBron, anyhow …)

Look: that a Toronto team – Toronto FC – was in position to win its second title in three years is really something. The Reds couldn’t pull it off despite an edge in possession because they lacked someone to finish off their graft … it was a game where, finally, not having a fully fit Jozy Altidore caught up to them. Three trips to the MLS Cup in four years is pretty cool; two titles in three years would have been astounding. There is still a sense that TFC is a little shy at the back and needs an insurance policy against injuries to Altidore, who by virtue of his size and playing style is always going to be hurt. But all told? Well, let’s be honest: could be worse, Toronto. Could be worse.

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AWARDS TIME

The Baseball Writers Association of America will hand out its awards this week. Here how I think they break down …
AL Rookie of the Year: Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros
NL Rookie of the Year: Peter Alonso, New York Mets
AL Manager of the Year: Aaron Boone, New York Yankees
NL Manager of the Year: Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers
AL Cy Young Award: Gerrit Cole, Astros
NL Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
AL MVP: Alex Bregman, Astros
NL MVP: Anthony Rendon, Nationals

A reminder: votes are cast before the start of the post-season.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Great scene Sunday night when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse hugged everybody – including a fan – near the bench after his first successful coaches challenge of the season. The coaches challenge is a one-year experiment and I’m with Raptors broadcaster Paul Jones on this: I think there’s a conspiracy to be overly forensic in judging calls that are challenged so that, ultimately, the concept will die …

• NBA commissioner Adam Silver wasn’t thinking about fans or even network broadcasters when he nailed Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers with a $50,000 fine for mixed messaging about Kawhi Leonard’s health as part of the fallout from the load management debate. The fact the league took the extraordinary step of “clarifying” what the injury was by releasing the exact nature of Leonard’s injury would raise my hackles as an NBA Players Association member, but that’s beside this point: it was a clear shot across the bow of NBA coaches and executives that with formal partnerships emerging with legalized gambling there will be a greater expectation of transparency. Just wait until that real world intrudes on baseball and hockey, too … the quid pro quo for legal gaming revenue will be more detailed and advanced information about injuries, lineups, etc.

• There’s no reason for the New Orleans Saints to panic, but it’s at least interesting that they have now played three games this season in which they haven’t scored a touchdown, something they did just two times between 2006-2018.

• Alphonso Davies has been freed. The firing of Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac and his replacement by Hansi Flick has seen the Edmonton native and national men’s star play regularly as a left back in back to back games this week: playing 90 minutes in a 2-0 Champions League win over Greek side Olympiacos and 90 minutes in Saturday’s 4-0 Bundesliga win over arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund. Uli Hoeness, the Bayern president a former German international, said this weekend that Davies will be “world class some day.”

• With 5 p.m. ET Thursday being the deadline for 10 free-agent players to accept or reject the $17.8-millon qualifying offers from their teams, a reminder that of the 80 players who previously received qualifying offers since the 2012 CBA, only six have accepted and eschewed free agency: Matt Wieters, Brett Anderson, Neil Walker, Colby Rasmus, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jeremy Hellickson. This year’s class is Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, Jose Abreu, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner, Jake Odorizzi, Marcell Ozuna, Will Smith, Zack Wheeler and Stephen Strasburg. Indications are that the Blue Jays won’t balk this winter at the loss of a draft pick that comes from pursuing and signing one of the free agents. A bigger question is whether the three they are said to fancy: Ozuna, Odorizzi and, to a certain degree, Abreu accept the qualifying offer and stay out of free agency. Wheeler has their interest, too; but no way he accepts the New York Mets’ offer.

• I said this last winter and, God love them, the Chicago White Sox tried to make me look good by making a run at Manny Machado that ultimately failed. So here I go again: no team is as well-positioned to surprise this off-season, both financially, competitively and intellectually, than the White Sox, whose window will be aided by the fact that the Cleveland Indians no longer run the AL Central and are in fact going to have to make a tough call within the next 12 months on Francisco Lindor.

• The Toronto Wolfpack will cite logistics as the reason they are announcing the signing of New Zealand All-Blacks Sonny Bill Williams on Thursday at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, since the vast majority of Rugby League media are based in the U.K. Williams, who has starred in both rugby league and rugby union, has agreed to a reported two-year, $10-million deal with the Wolfpack that is by far the richest in rugby league history and is a clear statement of intention ahead of their first season in Super League, the top tier of league rugby. According to England’s The Sun newspaper, the signing has also grabbed the attention of Mal Meninga, the coach of Australia’s national team, who wants the Kangaroos to play Toronto in 2020 as part of their warm-up for a test series in England. Dare we say … it’s a bloody, big deal.

THE ENDGAME

Now that the MLS Cup is finished, focus will shift to Friday’s CONCACAF Nations League matchup between John Herdman’s Canadian men and the U.S., and it’s hard to remember a match between these two where the stakes have been as high for the U.S. The U.S. soccer program is in a mess, most recently failing to advance past the group stage of the under-17 men’s World Cup and run off the pitch at BMO Field in a 2-0 loss to Canada on Oct. 15. U.S starlet Christian Pulisic left the field in tears that night, allegedly suffering from flu-like symptoms but more likely dealing with a bad case of Laryea-gitis – as in Canadian flyer Richie Laryea. Strangely, Pulisic’s season then seemed to have turned a corner, as he became a regular in Frank Lampard’s in-form Chelsea. Pulisic scored Saturday in a 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, but he was also subbed out after sustaining a hip injury. That will make his status a topic of conversation ahead of Friday, when Canada needs only a draw to win the Group and move on to the final of the tournament: a huge step in international rankings that will factor into their qualification chances for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. As we’ve already mentioned, Alphonso Davies is in prime form at Bayern Munich. This will be cracking good stuff …

Jeff Blair hosts The Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and Sportsnet 360

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