This is Walt McKechnie. When crusty old Punch Imlach arrived back in Toronto during the summer of 1979 McKechnie became something of a focal point. The problem involved the collective foot speed of the Leaf centermen.
Imlach said he had “5 or 6 good players” and he fretted all summer about center ice. Quoting Imlach in his book Heaven and Hell in the NHL: “We needed more depth everywhere but especially at center. There we had Jimmy Jones who could check but couldn’t score and wasn’t fast enough; Paul Gardner who could score but wasn’t fast enough; Walt McKechnie who could do a lot of things fairly well, except skate fast; and (Darryl) Sittler, who could score but wasn’t quite as fast as he had been, and had some bad habits, like giving away the puck too often and frequently being caught out of the play when he went in too deep.”
We haven’t discussed a few things about Pat Quinn. We’ve touched on “what if he doesn’t match lines and leaves the kids exposed?” and “how many crash and bang forwards will there be on the 3 and 4 lines?” but we haven’t (that I’ve seen) asked how many of these guys are going to be Walt McKechnie’s.
I think center is going to be for Pat Quinn much like it was for Punch Imlach. There are some issues here. He can count on Shawn Horcoff but #10 will no doubt be more help if there’s a veteran presence behind him to help out. Sam Gagner will no doubt improve and may even take some powerplay minutes away from Horcoff (Horc enjoyed 300 pp minutes, Gagner 232). Andrew Cogliano has blazing speed and raw talent, but there are aspects to his game that hurt the team even after two seasons. Marc Pouliot may be a hidden gem but the previous coach found him to be a conundrum. Gilbert Brule is the new Daniel Cleary, losing some of his youth to a bad hockey organization and attempting to find his way by spending a prolonged period in the minors after a long NHL stretch.
And that’s just center. Quinn has already discussed Hemsky (or at least I think he was talking about Hemsky) in a less than flattering light but the man has two eyes and part of his job is going to be squeezing offense out of these men so Hemsky will be a valuable man. Right? Let’s list off the 23-man roster currently and I’ll take a guess at Quinn’s opinion.
- Khabibulin: He’ll ride that nag until it drops.
- Deslauriers: Won’t last the season.
- Souray: Big, big minutes. Monster playing time.
- Visnovsky: Quinn’s new Kaberle will be relied upon.
- Gilbert: Valuable player Quinn should grow to trust.
- Grebeshkov: Has some chaos, Quinn will play him.
- Staios: He’ll get steady minutes.
- Smid: Quinn will want him to play uglier.
- Strudwick: He’ll be a reliable role player.
- Horcoff: Quinn will overuse him, he has no choice.
- Gagner: I think Gagner may face some early criticism.
- Cogliano: A big part of Quinn’s job is finding him a useful role.
- Pouliot: He should be a useful player, but MacT thought so too.
- Brule: The Oilers are giving him a push, but Quinn has enough question marks.
- Penner: I think Quinn gets something extra from him.
- O’Sullivan: Should be a quality player under Quinn.
- Moreau: Trusted warrior, he’ll get a lot of work.
- Jacques: Should be just what Quinn is looking for.
- MacIntyre: Likely to play much more this year.
- Hemsky: Some concern, but he’s the ignition.
- Nilsson: Man most likely to be traded. Now.
- Pisani: They’ll play him heavily when healthy.
- Stortini: Should play the same role as last time.
I think there are 3 players in quite a bit of danger: Deslauriers, Brule and Nilsson. Gagner and Cogliano need to show strength in clearly defined roles early and health is as always a major concern. Penner, Cogliano and Smid may already be gone. If you were born in the 1970′s, you’re on top of the world.