Well, well, well. Game one of 82 sure got the debate going, wouldn’t you say? While it hard to argue the Raycroft vs. Toskala issue every day, it’s also going to be very tough to avoid. Can’t help but think Leaf management and the coaching staff may not be exactly on the same page when it comes to the goaltending, so keep your eye on that one.
Anyways, on to this week’s mailbag:
Q: I enjoy your columns and I'm thankful for the Internet that even in the UK I can still follow the hockey world. I have a question for you. There's an old saying that it’s easier to teach someone to play good defence than it is to teach good offence. So why is it that the Leafs, at least since the Quinn era (my memories of the Mike Murphy and Nick Beverley eras are hazy) haven't been able to play coherent team defence on a consistent basis?
I think the main reason they didn't make the playoffs last year was due to porous defensive play (look at all the drubbings at the hands of higher skilled teams like Ottawa and Pittsburgh), so why is it so hard to teach a fairly veteran team to play a coherent defensive style? Is it a reflection on the players or on the coaching staff?
Phil Rutland, Birmingham, UK
A: That’s a terrific question, one that many people ask. Really, the last strong defensive team the Leafs had was when Pat Burns coached, and keeping the goals-against down was his strength as a bench boss. Quinn preferred an open, flowing style, and quite frankly, he talked defence from time to time but didn’t practice very hard at it, nor did he choose to bench or otherwise punish players who made the same defensive errors over and over. As well, he had outstanding goalies that allowed the Leafs to play a certain way, and the fact they weren’t very disciplined at either end of the rink made them a tricky, unpredictable opponent.
Under Maurice, the team has improved defensively. Look at the shots and the chances, both down. Goaltending has been a major issue, and when players have doubts about the guy in the net, they tend not to be as efficient or confident in simply doing their jobs.
So under Quinn, there wasn’t a cohesive defensive approach, but there was great goaltending. Under Maurice, the defensive approach is solid, and goaltending is mediocre.
So it’s a question of personnel and philosophy, and because the Leafs tend to shuffle managers and coaches, both personnel and philosophy change frequently.
Q: Hi Damien. I'm wondering about Kyle Wellwood's "sports hernia." I'm a young guy, very physically active, though of course not an NHLer. I had a hernia repaired at a certain hospital in Thornhill about 6 months ago. They have a world-class reputation and a success rate well over 90%.
So why keep shipping Wellwood south of the border for surgeries that don't seem to be working? At what point do you just say "the guy is too fragile" and move on?
David Connally, Toronto
A: Well, certainly not at this point. I make it rule never to question a player’s injury. When he’s healthy, he’ll play. The sports hernia/abdominal/groin issue is an ongoing problem in the league right now, and nobody seems to have an answer. Wellwood’s problem appears to be more serious than the average, and taking a conservative approach, if that’s what he and the Leafs are doing, makes sense. But I wouldn’t write him off yet.
Q: Hi Damien,
Love your columns & the blog. How do the Leafs replace Mat Sundin? I think the team will face its real challenges a year or 2 down the road, when the all of the young players they didn't draft over the last few years because they gave away the picks are not there to support all of the 30-something players they have.
Mike Milner, Orillia, Ont.
A: Well, in theory, they could try to replace him next summer by laying down a nasty offer sheet for Jason Spezza. But let’s face it – the acquisition of franchise players is a very difficult process best accomplished by the draft or, in many cases, by smart trades. That’s how San Jose got Joe Thornton, Calgary got Jarome Iginla, Ottawa landed Dany Heatley, Anaheim acquired Chris Pronger, Vancouver acquired Roberto Luongo and, oh yes, how the Leafs got Sundin.
I agree with you on this point; if the Leafs continue on their current path and don’t divest themselves of some of their veterans in exchange for younger players and draft picks, they could well be facing a major crisis in just a few years.
Q: I have been impressed by some of the young players on the Leafs this pre-season and was wondering which players might make an impact during the season as injury call-ups or in the long term future? And what specifically do you think players like Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman will be able to provide is they get called up?
Joseph Ierfino, Gormley, Ont.
A: Well, both Tlusty and Stralman had a chance to knock ‘em dead in training camp, and neither did. In fact, one of the surprising elements of the Leaf pre-season was how few serious challenges there were from players outside the main group to crack the roster, a sign of a lack of internal competition.
Right now, there’s no evidence to suggest any of the Marlies could “make an impact” this season. That’s not to say it won’t happen – there’s just no evidence to say it will.
Q: Given the Leafs poor performance and record in OT and shootouts last year, would they consider keeping someone as a shootout specialist? Do they have anyone who could fit the bill?
Brent Achtymichuk, Toronto
A: No, they don’t have anyone like that. St. Louis tried to employ an American blueliner named Andy Roach in that way a couple of years ago, Viktor Kozlov was seen in that way by New Jersey before being lost to the Islanders and Jussi Jokinen has forged an excellent rep as a shootout ace in Dallas. As far as the Leafs, there seems to be little indication they intend to approach shootouts with any particular strategy or unique personnel.
Q: Dear Damien,
While having a goalie tandem of Raycroft and Toskala (and Clemmensen) makes for interesting debate and benefits the Leafs in terms of depth, it is probably a good idea not to have a back-up making upwards of $2 million. Assuming Toskala can grab the No. 1 spot, Raycroft becomes the odd man out. If the Leafs were to deal Raycroft now, what sort of player do you believe we could get in return and what teams, presently, would be interested? We would like to think someone like Zigomanis from Phoenix could be had. Your insight/speculation is always appreciated. Thanks.
Jonathan Yeh and Kevin Ebata, Montreal
A: I think you’re swinging in the right ballpark with a name like Mike Zigomanis, a talented youngster who has yet to prove himself in the NHL. When the Leafs moved Mikael Tellqvist last year, it was to Phoenix for Tyson Nash, a fringe pro. At this point, however, given that Toskala has yet to prove himself superior to Raycroft, such a move seems unlikely.
Q: Damien, why aren't the Leafs taking Simon Gamache seriously? I haven't watched enough of him to see his defensive game, but he seems to have pretty decent offensive skill. I bet if he was on the top line he'd score twice as many goals as Antropov. Why send him to the Marlies? He wouldn't be the first scrappy, undersized goalscorer with a bad plus/minus (cough cough, Darcy Tucker, cough cough). And, are there any free agent defensemen still worth picking up, if the Leafs could unload McCabe for draft picks or future considerations, heck, even a box of skate laces and stick tape?
Zac Kurylyk, Saint John, NB
A: If Gamache can play, he’ll light it up with the Marlies and will be back, so I wouldn’t worry about that one. Danny Markov is a defenceman still on the open market, but he’s demanding $2.5-3 million and the Leafs can’t fit him under the cap. Re McCabe, they seem committed to him, not inclined to send him packing. It’s turning out to be arguably the worst decision of the JFJ era.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com.
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