It may be May, and the Maple Leafs may have been out of action for three weeks now, but it sure seems the speculation about John Ferguson’s hockey club is heating up before the off-season really even has a chance to arrive.
From a media point of view, the competition between print, broadcast and online outlets covering the team has never been greater, which has produced some intriguing instances of "breaking news" over the past year.
Last year at this time, the Toronto Sun reported breathlessly that Mats Sundin wanted out of Toronto. The Star thought it was such an important story to our readers that reporter Paul Hunter was dispatched to Sweden to find if it was true.
Sundin wasn’t home, nor was he talking. But the story itself wasn’t true.
Several months ago, The National Post reported in the wake of the Cam Janssen hit on Tomas Kaberle that Kaberle would be lost for the season.
Again, obviously, not true.
Now comes word, again from The Sun, of a career-threatening injury to Sundin, which if true would certainly be a terrific scoop and congrats would be deserving to the news organization involved.
Now we just have to find out if it is true.
The story has come with clever provisos, suggesting that Sundin's hip problem may or may not be serious, which makes the story bulletproof. It’s right either way, in other words, an old newspaper strategy.
Its sort of like your basic trade rumour. If the trade doesn't come off, the original reporter can always say that the deal was talked about but didn't come to fruition. Right either way.
But whether Sundin's career is actually in jeopardy or not, the story does again bring into sharp focus the reasonableness of the Leafs' making an expensive, cap-eating commitment to a 37-year-old forward who couldn't score in the final quarter of the season when the team was trying to make the playoffs.
The Leafs want to sell Sundin on a lower contractual figure for next season on the basis they'll use the money saved to acquire better players to put around him.
His agent, J.P. Barry, will be wary of any such promises.
Now, if the Leafs can't get a contract done in the next month or so, it'll be a lot trickier to lure top-flight free agents if they don't know if Sundin will be a Leaf or not.
In other words you can convince Ryan Smyth to come to Toronto a lot more easily if he knows he'll be playing with Sundin rather than John Pohl.
Now for this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hey Damien, Why don't the Leafs sign Sundin to a 3 year descelerating contract. Paying him something like $6 million the first year, $3 million the next and then $1 million the third. Average salary (cap hit) $3.33 million. If they don't want him for the third season at that price they can buy him out. Do you think this could work?
Jesse Abrams, Toronto
A: Well, it would be a nice deal for the Leafs, not such a good deal for Sundin. The Leafs would have to convince Sundin that playing for much less would be advantageous to the team, and while a terrific concept in principle, it seems unlikely in practice that he’d be willing to take that much of a hit.
In terms of the buyout, because he would be signing as a player older than 35, they'd take the full cap hit for the entire contract, whether he plays, gets bought out or is sent to the minors. So whatever deal they sign him to from this point on, they’re on the hook for the full cap amount.
Q: Damien, I am curious to see what changes will take place with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the off season. Two players I would like to see moved if possible would be Alex Steen and Matt Stajan. Both seem to be content playing at 3rd line level and I have trouble seeing either progress beyond that. As you look at the remaining clubs playing you see very few players who are playing in similar roles who play a perimeter game as much as both players mentioned. If either/both remain with the club into the start of the 07-08 season, one would hope Paul Maurice would have both on shorter leashes.
Will Carson, Ont.
A: I agree that both play too much on the perimeter. I agree that neither would be untouchable, and I agree that at most both look like second liners.
But teams need depth players too, and young, inexpensive players are particularly valuable in the salary cap universe. So I guess if they were to be moved, I'd need to know what was coming back the other way. They remain promising players with upside, and the Leafs need more of those players, not fewer.
Q: I've been reading a lot of stories recently and over the years of how the NHL missed the boat with the US market. I also see how interest in European soccer has grown in North America and the availablity of a variety of league games on a weekly basis.
Is the NHL doing anything to promote itself in Europe where there are undoubtedly as many or more fans of hockey than the US? Things like satellite or cable TV packages similar to what's available here. Maybe it's time to focus on other markets and by growing them make the US take notice that they may be missing something.
Bohdan Buczko, Toronto
A: I know that at the Turin Olympics, several NHL players were struck by the absence of NHL merchandise available in local stores considering the hype of the hockey competition. The NHL has done things over the years, including sending teams to play in exhibition games, and NHL games are available in Europe depending on the country. The league dreams of a future in Europe, but thus far it remains a very distant dream.
Q: Goaltending is of course and issue, a major one, but there is something else something so sensible it might even have escaped the ever apathetic teachers pension plan and their do nothing and count the money roll in lackeys at MLSE.
That one sensible little thing is defence. Why is it that everybody seems to think here in the GTA that games are won on goaltending alone, even Patrick Roy or Hasek, in their respective hey days wouldn't have been able to put together a decent string of wins let alone playoff runs if they were the only thing between the opposing team and the back of the net.
It seems to me, and I've been watching closely since I watched Potvin get worked out of a career in this town, a back-up goalie is crucial, but it doesn't matter how good your goalie(s) are if your defensemen are slow offensive minded defensemen who fail to win battles it the corners and tend to allow a goalie to get peppered with shots instead of doing everything they can to cause turnovers, not just jump on rebounds. I’ve seen every offence in the league skate circles around Toronto's defence, isn't it about time someone looked at that? You can blame goalies all you want but it's a team game.
Kris Pittman, Brampton
A: Good points, but really, the two work hand-in-hand. Better defence allows a goalie to work less and face fewer shots, while better goaltending allows defencemen to do their job with more confidence and not worry that every error will result in a goal.
Re this year's Leafs, the defence was actually slightly improved and shots against were down compared to a year ago. I think Andrew Raycroft's inconsistency contributed to the inconsistency of the defence, not the other way around. That said, the Leafs still lack a shut down pair along the lines of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, and have lacked that for a long time. Neither Bryan McCabe nor Tomas Kaberle can be regarded as a strong defender, and they're the guys getting all the ice time.
In sum, the Leafs need to get better in goal, and they probably need to sacrifice some blueline offense to produce a better defensive shield in front of their goaltenders.
Q: Hi Damien,
Two questions. One, There has been a lot of discussion about the number of free agents the Leafs' may be interested in in the off season - there always is. I'd like your take on the available GM's/executive's that the Leafs may pursue if John Ferguson is let go this year or after his contract expires next year. Why not pursue a proven and established executive? Seems to me the Raptors got it right.
John Sanderson, Toronto
A: Bryan Colangelo has certainly planted that seed in Toronto, hasn’t he?
The truth is the only time the Leafs went out and got a truly top hockey man to run the joint was back in ’91 when Cliff Fletcher came from Calgary. Pat Quinn was certainly a big name, but initially he came to coach.
I don’t think JFJ is going anywhere. But if he quit today, my list would start with Lou Lamoriello, include Ken Holland and Darcy Regier and probably involve at least a call to Brian Burke. That said, none of these top execs may be available, which is why the opportunity to grab a Colangelo or a Fletcher comes along so rarely.
In retrospect – actually, I said it at the time – the Leafs’ best chance to get such a person was when Ken Dryden tried to hire Bob Gainey and Quinn blocked it.
Now, the chance has been given to Ferguson to learn on the job, and he’ll probably continue doing that for at least another two or three seasons.
Q: Hi Damien,
With all the fines that were handed out in the Calgary-Detroit series it made me wonder about something: Where does the money go that teams have to pay for these fines?
Varun Chakravorty, Brampton
A: Wasn't sure so I double checked with the always helpful NHL deputy commish, Bill Daly.
Player fines go to the league's Emergency Assistance Fund for retired players. Club and coach fines go to the NHL Foundation, a charitable arm that administers funds and makes charitable donations on behalf of the league.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.