Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Frank Corrado – Our Lost Saviour

I don’t really get to play too much ice hockey. Truth be told, I don’t have a lot of time these days, and also I don’t own full gear and I’m really bad at skating. I basically only play when my buddies rent ice or there’s an outdoor rink. Anyway, we rented ice on Canada Day just before free agency started because it was cheap. It was a competitive game, in the sense that most of us were trying really hard to stay on our feet. We’re all beginners. But there was one person, one who had depth in his character and grace in his experience like none other. The one who really makes you think about how you want to play the game, as you play the game. You’ll do anything for that dude because he’s going to help you become a winner in life. Those bonds are what make you into a person that “played the game”, and it is when you play the game that you truly understand the game.

In this case, it was my good friend Alex. I’ve known Alex as long as I can remember; he was a more frequent presence in my life up until grade school, and he comes and goes at times, but when you need him to be around, he’s there. Oh, and he can play. Man, can he ever play. Skates like the wind, has a cannon of a shot, works hard in the corners. Plowhorse to the utmost degree. His one and only glaring flaw, which continues to hold him back to this day, is the fact that he’s a complete and total figment of my imagination; Alex is just my middle name, which I went by during the early years of my life because I’m a junior and my mom thought that two Jeffs in the house was confusing.

Even still, I respect Alex. Alex is aspirational; the inner monologue that steers me on the right path when I veer a little wrong. My friends at hockey probably didn’t know I was talking to Alex, given that he’s fictional, but there are times where Alex’s teachings spill over to them. So we were having this conversation while I was getting my gear on, since the rest of them were all talking about movies or television or something, and he said something that really shocked me, and is worth sharing with you.

“Jeff, the Frank Corrado trade cost the Leafs the Stanley Cup.”

Now, I was skeptical of this assertion, because it played exactly into what I wanted to hear. A statement so nonsensical on the surface but so dialled into my interests that it would sound like bliss to my ears, like the bells at the pearly gates of heaven. So I pressed further, in search of knowing the truth.

Alex’s perspective was pretty simple. Corrado held the organization together, even when he wasn’t playing, and even when he wasn’t in the locker room. You see, for the bulk of Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock’s time in the organization, Frank Corrado was there. More specifically, he was either in a press box or on a mystery conditioning stint in the minors to confirm to the National Hockey League that they hadn’t yet locked him up in a prison cell, or something to that effect. Every so often, he’d even get to play in the NHL, but never enough to build a rhythm or a sample size.

More importantly, his bouncing around created much debate within the city. Between the fans. Between the media. Between the blogs. Oh, the blog wars fought for this 20-something-year-old C+ prospect. But losing him was going to be of more consequence to the team than anybody knew, so the Leafs actively avoided re-waiving him for nearly two years. But eventually, the speculation and debates hit a fever pitch, Corrado began to get genuinely frustrated by his situation, and the team moved on by trading him to the Penguins, taking on Eric Fehr’s salary and gaining a fourth round pick for their troubles.

What exactly were the Leafs getting here? Was it freedom? Was it a draft asset? After all, the year before, they drafted Adam Brooks with a 4th round pick, and that Prarie Jesus kid kinda rules. Were they during Corrado into the next saviour? I’m sure that was their hope. But we don’t quite know that yet.

I’ve probably already lost you at this point because I’ve already written an article’s worth of content without saying anything of substance, but the point here is that the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup and the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t. Sure, I imagine that having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel all playing like machines in the postseason helps, as does having two starting goalies who effectively split the workload, with Matt Murray apparently allergic to losing. Maybe, just maybe, the reason the Leafs didn’t go further is that they were matched up against the best team in the regular season, and even if you believe that the Capitals are cursed in the second round, they definitely play the first one on merit.

It’s also possible that you don’t care about my imaginary friends either. I get that. But this is an issue that simply needs to be addressed. I’m tired of the Corrado Wars as well, even as the most obnoxious general in the pro-Frankie Army, and I didn’t want to revisit them. But when people talk about how that trade didn’t make a difference and now hit was just a cap move, it really frustrates me, especially now that Alex has explained this to me. Yeah, whatever, they picked up that extra pick, and most (like 51%) of Fehr’s contract is buryable this year if they don’t find a place to trade him. But acting like Corrado didn’t have an impact? Are you shitting me? A depth defenceman was the most talked about controversy in the biggest hockey market on the planet this year, as a team of children somehow found a way to fly under the controversy radar and have one of the biggest turnaround seasons in modern NHL history. Corrado was the distraction, and if you look at how people kept bringing him up whenever a Penguins defenceman got hurt, you’d see that he was the distraction in Pittsburgh too. It was clear as day that they were using him as a decoy, something to toy with the continental media while they outskated and outplayed teams on the way to the first back-to-back Cup win in 20 years.

Honestly speaking, I obviously expected more from Corrado as a player. He didn’t get much of chance to prove himself this year, but when he got into the lineup, he was bad. That may have had to do with rust, it may have had to do with playing on the wrong side, it may have had to do with playing with Roman Polak. But it wasn’t great. He had good underlying numbers the year before and that made people certain that he could be at least a 5 or a 6, or on a hot streak, play right side during Jake Gardiner’s lighter assignments. But he didn’t do enough, and I’ll tell you why that was okay.

The Leafs defence wasn’t very good. Everybody has been talking about how the Leafs need to upgrade their defence, and if they need to upgrade it, that means that it wasn’t good enough last year. So that means that he was asked to succeed in an area that wasn’t properly shelled out yet. Maybe these weren’t the right guys to play with him. It didn’t work out with any of them in the eighteen minutes or so he got to play at 5-on-5 with the Leafs this year. But maybe it wasn’t the right situation for him.

The press box, though? That’s where he did his winning. He kept the flies off Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander’s backs. Matthews hit a wall? Twitter was too focused on Corrado. Marner’s injury? More like Corrado’s scratch. Morgan Rielly’s on a cold streak? Frank Corrado hasn’t even had the chance to warm up. He proved extremely effective in deflecting blame, criticism, and investigation. I won’t act as if that should earn him a Norris, but it definitely earns him something. Maybe the Mark Messier Award? It was stunning, unquantifiable leadership, to pull all the attention towards a selfless individual who might just have wanted to play a couple of games.

That’s what he brings. Was it enough to have kept him and signed him to a monster deal this summer? Probably not. I’d say this year meant something, though. Maybe they could’ve gone all in and had him go through an arbitration circus this summer to distract everybody from the Offseason LTIR controversy? He’d be earning his money off the ice in multiple senses of the word that way. How do you place a value on that? He’s worth millions in underlying value when you consider what he’s brought from a PR deflection standpoint.

You know, this makes me think about Ben Smith a bit. Smith played exactly 40 games with the Leafs this year, which qualified him to be exposed in the expansion draft should they need him to be. In every way, shape, and form, Smith was at least a step behind of all of the other Leafs forwards this year, to the point where it’s safe to argue that he likely cost the Leafs, a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs by a point, a couple of wins or points in the standings. Normally, the idea that the Leafs may have played a guy who will probably be on their AHL fourth line next year for half a season in order to meet a requirement that wasn’t actually necessary for them, and nearly knocked themselves out of the playoffs by doing so, would be a controversy in this city. But because Corrado’s debacle overlapped with Smith’s, it kept the heat off. Do you think management appreciated that? Who knows.

But let’s get to the point finally. The distraction thing. Does it matter? Do players care? I think it matters; imagine trying to sneak up on somebody in public. It’s very hard, especially if someone else notices you. But if you have a friend there to create a scene, nobody will be looking for you. Hopefully, you’re just doing this to prank another friend, but that’s none of my business. The point is it’s easier, and you’ll have fewer nerves knowing that there’s support around. I have to imagine that dealing with the media is the same way; knowing that everybody is so worried about a guy who doesn’t play while you can focus on scoring your 20 goals or 50 points or whatever else gives you immense peace of mind. So Corrado was making the job easier, and was valuable in the office, even if he may have been 8th or 9th in the internal depth chart.

Maybe that’s what Babcock means when he talks about “keeping the flies off”; in a league where fighting and aggressive hitting is freefalling, maybe the flies and mind games come from away from the ice, and squeak into the player’s lives. Now, when someone gets fairly criticized, Hockey Twitter makes “what about Corrado” jokes, but that’s fine. The idea is to deflect from the useless stuff; streaks, line shuffling, questionable clothing choices. Think about the time that William Nylander was seen getting Ice Cream at the mall. Don’t know it? Exactly. The writers knew they could squeeze a bunch more juice out of the Frankie story.

Now, thanks to the recent scratch-story of Josh Leivo scoring more points in 13 games than the other candidate for next year’s fourth line Left Wing spot picked up in 82, Corrado is becoming a distant memory. But he hasn’t spoken up yet, so there’s no compassion arc from the major media yet, leading to it being topical but not unavoidable in the same way. It’s human nature to care more when the human element comes through. But maybe if he talks, we’ll have another umbrella story to shield us from the storm.

Not that every team needs a controversy; maybe teams should just be focused on dressing the best 20 players. After all, the Cup Champions in every year seem to be whichever elite team got the luckiest in the post season, but to get to that tier of elite you need to be filled top to bottom with good players. But hey, those last two Penguins teams managed to pull away Toronto players who fell into a lot of media and social media headlines, and both times, they ended up winning it all. Maybe there’s something to it, something to giving them as much room as possible. A new element, if you will. Yeah, they gave up a lot for Kessel and a pick for Corrado, but there are only so many megamarkets and so many players that can distract them, so you’ll be stuck paying a premium at times. The more I think about how they pulled those guys in, the more I wonder if their controversies were assets that shielded their teammates rather than liabilities that soiled the crest.

Hey, maybe I’m incorrect in my analysis here. It’s possible that I’m overthinking the value of a couple of newspaper articles and a player who definitely wouldn’t make it into this upcoming season’s lineup, and engaging myself in heavy confirmation bias. But again, it worked well elsewhere, and the Leafs fell flat on their face at the end of the year. Sure, they went 12-6-2 to close out the regular season after the trade, but they lost 66% of their playoff games. 12-6-2 is 20 games, which is Corrado’s jersey number. 66 is Josh Ho-Sang’s Mario Lemieux’s jersey number, and Lemieux owns the Pittsburgh Penguins, who Corrado won his cup with. That’s the thing; you can argue about how intangibles don’t show up in the stats, but it seems pretty clear to me that this situation left its receipts. But besides that, you can’t put a price tag on the motivation that Corrado’s benching probably put on these other kids. If a supposed quality player, a hometown boy, is working hard to get himself back into the lineup, and is making his frustrations known, you know you have to have that extra gear to stay ahead of him. It kept the players honest when they needed it. Especially the ones who actually played his position, though I bet even the forwards and goalies kept vigilant just in case. That level of friendly, but serious competition is what makes a team great, and I see a lot of value in that.

There may be a time where we have to stop talking about Corrado. It was probably four and a half months ago when they traded him, but that’s beside the point. I’m fine with the memes dying, I swear. But we should at least acknowledge that moving him at that time was the wrong decision because his situation could’ve kept everybody off the core’s back for even longer. Maybe they aren’t so worried about the Caps. Maybe there’s a big debate about whether he should or shouldn’t play the game against Columbus, the players find an extra gear out of spite, win it, and take the same path as Ottawa. Now, think about it, who wouldn’t want Corrado fighting for a spot lineup, as the team pushes towards Stanley Cup? I’d venture that all of them would (please ignore the others competing for the roster spot) and that matters.

It’ll matter a lot this year, as the players get talked about more and they start questioning themselves more and more. They’re going to have to get used to that, and so will you. Because now Corrado won’t save them, though he might be able to prevent Penguins fans from remembering that they gave up a first round pick for Ryan Reaves because they’re too busy debating if Frankie should play tomorrow instead of Brian Dumoulin.

So that’s that. Maybe Alex was onto something. Maybe my imagination just wasted your time on 3000ish words that literally say nothing. But anyway, no matter what happens, the Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup soon, and at that point, no decision they make one way or another will actually matter. Or something like that.