A couple of days ago, Ken Campbell noted in The Star that the Leafs have fared better without Mats Sundin than with him.
The numbers are interesting, but apart from a few voices out there posting to message boards, or TSN last week during one of their more halfhearted intermission yakfests, I didn't hear anyone arguing that the Leafs might be better off without him. Sports are full of instances where teams perform well short-term without their best players, but in the long run does it ever really work that way? At least I don't think so.
This morning, Damien Cox is making the case for Sundin, with the captain due back this weekend, as Paul Hunter notes.
Sundin's absence has had one beneficial effect -- it's shown the Leafs, perhaps even hardheaded coach Pat Quinn, that the youngsters Stajan, Steen and Wellwood belong at this level, and not just as bit players. Each night out, they look a little better -- last night they were the three best players in blue and white on the ice, although Stajan's giveaway leading to the late winning goal blew his game up -- and the rest of the team sans Sundin, including a power play that went 0-for-6 last night, looks a little worse:
"With three losses in four nights, the Leafs are a team giving up more goals than they are scoring and a team relying more and more on young forwards Stajan and Steen for important offence and even game-saving defence rather than its cast of experienced veteran forwards."
The only thing I'd add is Wellwood's play (again. I know. I like the way this guy plays, have since back in September, and it'd be a real rotten shame and a dumb, dumb move if he's sent back to Marlies). He tracked back last night to save a goal, covering off Brind'Amour in front of an open net and preventing a sure goal (I think it was him -- my notes don't show it, so correct me if I'm wrong). If you go all the way back to that training camp, the one thing he's added to his game besides confidence is backchecking -- I even saw him throw a bodycheck last night.
Oh yes, about last night: a 4-3 loss to Eric Staal, Erik Cole and the Hurricanes in which the Leafs blew a third-period lead. Those guys are good, Staal looking like -- well, like an Olympian, actually, even if he may well end up as this year's Joe Thornton. He had two goals, would've had a third were it not for a weird late penalty call that denied him an empty-netter (and read on for more on that). But I'll let someone else read the entrails, including Paul Hunter, who lists the no-shows:
Notable amongst those absentees, even more so because it was his return to Raleigh after seven seasons here, was Jeff O'Neill who managed only one shot on net, a harmless blast from a bad angle in the third. Eric Lindros and Darcy Tucker, also among the top scorers on the team, generated little.
What struck me, though, had little to do with the Leafs, the Canes, or what was a fast, flowing game with plenty of thunder -- everything this postmodern NHL is supposed to be: Hands up everyone who thinks this week's memo from the NHL police headquarters mentioned what they call in soccer "embellishment", what's known here as "diving" and what amounts everywhere to "cheating".
Only a referee who'd been reminded recently would've called that last-minute trip on Erik Cole a case of diving. It cost Staal his third goal, and it was a terrible call from Kerry Fraser. But in the big picture -- the same one that shows the Leafs in crying need of their leader Sundin -- if this means the zebras are looking for dives, it's not such a bad thing at all.
Too bad for me. I missed the game last night -- but it's really gotten to the point where you just pick up the paper and go, "yup, three more points for Staal, no surprises there."
And what's all this about diving? Wish the players would show some guts and stop it already. Gotta feel for the referees so far. Lots of criticism, and so much of this "new" game falls on them. So...
Today's referee rant comes to us from lovely Phoenix, where it's a pleasant 27C today. The Great One says the stripes are doing a good job:
"I really, truly believe that the finesse and the smarts and the intelligence of hockey players now, both offensively and defensively, is a factor," Gretzky tells the Arizona Republic. "If you're not a good skater and you can't handle the puck or you're not a smart defenseman, you no longer can play in the National Hockey League and you'll be an American Hockey League player. And that's the way it should be."
Mr. Berg, Ya heard.
Sticking with the desert dogs, much was written on Gretzky becoming a coach. After a slow start, Coyotes are showing signs of bite (Cujo with the shutout last night). Here's how Gretzky's influence is paying off.
To follow up on the kissing of Havlat's butt yesterday, he scored again last night but the Sens only managed four in a win. Off night, I guess. But they were playing Tampa Bay. Here's how coach Bryan Murray has been taking advantage of one of the new rules to get his matchups.
"You can get your matchups, especially with the new icing rule," he tells the Ottawa Sun.
When your opponent ices the puck, they can't change players. So that's how Murray gets Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson on the ice against some of Tampa's more lead-footed players. Ottawa had a couple goals last night thanks to some simple but clever coaching.
Ray Bourque's officially back in Boston, chipping in to help their young defence.
Marty Turco took a few days off to get his game back on track. Stars hope it worked.
The Red Wings, 12-1-1, have the most points in the NHL right now. Their secret? Fresh legs.
Hey look, the Predators are falling, falling, falling, falling back to earth.
Did the St. Louis Blues trade Chris Pronger to make themselves a better, younger hockey team? Or did they trade their franchise player to make the team more attractive to a prospective buyer? Discuss.
Leafs play Saturday and Sunday. Giddy up. (SW)